New Yorkers will soon be able to buy a beer or glass of wine and enjoy it at their seats while taking in a movie.
Movie theater owners unexpectedly received permission this week to apply for beer and wine licenses, which would clear the way for alcoholic beverages in the theaters themselves and not just in the lobby or an accompanying bar.
The three-member State Liquor Authority unanimously approved a request Wednesday by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) to allow movie theater operators to seek the licenses.
The decision appears to put an end to a years-long battle in Albany over alcohol in movie theaters, which former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had long supported but the state Legislature never approved.
NATO’s appeal document:
But theater owners took a different approach, going directly to the liquor authority and arguing a 1987 amendment to the state’s alcoholic beverage control law actually didn’t prevent movie theaters from seeking a license.
“It is imperative that theatres search for new ways to enhance the moviegoing experience, enabling them to offset rising costs, and retain employees,” NATO attorney Theresa Russo wrote to the authority. “Beer and wine sales would create a critical revenue stream to help offset these headwinds.”
Russo, however, did not provide an estimate on the amount of revenue such a change would bring to operators.
Operators still won’t be permitted to sell liquor or mixed drinks to those in the theaters themselves. That remains prohibited by state law.
It will still likely be several weeks or months before movie theaters get the green light to begin serving beer and wine.
Bar and tavern owners have long complained about long wait times for licenses. But under the SLA’s ruling Wednesday, movie theaters can begin the application process immediately.
The SLA’s ruling hinged on section 81 of the state law overseeing alcoholic beverages, which lays out when beer and wine licenses can be issued and to whom. For years, it has been interpreted to prevent such licenses from going to entities that don’t serve chef-prepared food, which ruled out movie theaters.
Under the previous interpretation, movie theaters were only permitted to serve alcohol if there was a table setting for each movie-goer and food prepared by a kitchen. Others had licenses to serve alcoholic beverages in their lobbies, but not the theaters themselves.
But NATO argued that the law as it’s written would allow the state to offer a beer and wine license to movie theaters so long as “food is prepared and served for consumption on the premises” in quantities that are large enough that beer and wine sales are “incidental to and not the prime source of revenue.”
Now, the theater owners will have to file an application for a beer or wine license in the theaters themselves that attests that alcohol is just an “incidental” part of their business model – not the main money driver.
“The only thing I’m going to ask for is in the application there’s a statement in affidavit form that […] you’re absolutely sure this is going to be incidental to the overall business, which is showing movies,” authority Chairman Vincent Bradley said before voting in favor of the request.