Movie Theater Chains Imitate Mom and Pops

They’re trying to get more butts in seats by letting patrons watch, say, The Big Short with a Blue Moon in hand. Whether it’s working is another question altogether.


Moviegoers have alcohol options at many theaters these days.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Experiencing The Revenant with a pack of Skittles and a Diet Coke is pretty darn good. But imagine watching Leonardo DiCaprio getting attacked by bears as you nibble buttermilk-fried chicken and sip a Cucumber Gimlet.

Although guzzling a beer while watching a movie is nothing new at some Bay Area theaters, meals and adult beverages have become ever more ubiquitous at the movies as exhibitors hope to lure a Netflix-obsessed nation back to their curtained cinemas.

Michelle Bilensky of Oakland enjoys a movie with a cold Blue Moon in hand. She is a fan of the New Parkway Theater on 24th Street in Oakland, just as she was a fan of the old Parkway before it.

“It’s just got the whole ambience thing,” Bilensky said. “The furniture is like home, and you’re out with a bunch of best friends. It’s better than staying at home. There’s better food, and of course the beer or wine makes you feel more relaxed.” Whether she’s watching action or comedy, Bilenksy said, a touch of alcohol just “takes the edge off” the already enjoyable experience.

And that’s what movie theaters, including the big ones, like Landmark and AMC theaters, are now offering, too. In the East Bay, there’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, the Emeryville theater on Bay Street, the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex, and the theater at NewPark Mall in Newark, which all boast the chance to sip a margarita or Heineken while watching Apollo Creed sweat it out in the ring with Rocky Balboa.

AMC director of alcoholic operations Frank Lewis said the chain began offering such drinkable delicacies such as the El Patrone Margarita about 15 years ago in New Orleans. The entire food-and-drink movement starting peaking five years ago, Lewis said, and the Emeryville MacGuffins Bar and Lounge opened at the Bay Street movie theater in 2015.

Lewis said the chain hasn’t necessarily seen an uptick in movie sales, and he wouldn’t divulge specifics. But overall, he said, AMC has seen an “incremental increase in food and beverage revenue.”

He also downplayed any type of patron rowdiness because there’s booze nearby. “Nowhere can you find any increased criminal activity because of it,” Lewis said. That’s because, he said, people behave differently in a movie theater compared to a bar, where drinking is the main attraction, and not stargazing at Leo. “The movie is always the experience,” Lewis said, “and we never offer drink specials or happy hours.”

Lewis said it’s not about the big chains trying to target little theaters like the New Parkway, which has been offering such services for a long time. “We don’t want to put the mom-and-pops out of business,” he said. “Our biggest competition is America’s couch. And our compelling motivation is about getting people off the couch and into the movie theater.”

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