An arms race has broken out among panicked movie theater chains in the state and across the nation, and the San Joaquin Valley hasn’t been spared.
Theaters serving – or seeking to serve – liquor have popped up in Bakersfield, Fresno, Tulare and Modesto. Statewide, the affluent coastal counties have been heavily targeted from San Diego to Marin.
Unable to make ends meet on $8 sodas and $12 popcorn, the theater companies now want your support in their quest to obtain liquor licenses. A few cities have said no; most say yes.
Regardless, the nature of movie-going is changing before our eyes. First, as they say in Hollywood, the backstory: Deep structural changes are afoot in the way Americans, particularly millennials, get their entertainment.
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Domestic ticket sales peaked in 2002 at 1.5 billion tickets, according to movie business data site The Numbers. The dollar value of domestic box-office sales peaked in 2009 at $10.6 billion. Today, it’s half that.
“The theater business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years,” media analyst Hal Vogel told Variety last year.
“There are concerns that box office attendance is declining, both as a result of weaker-than-expected performance of some releases but perhaps more importantly because of less interest in movie-going by consumers,” PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global entertainment and media analyst Christopher Vollmer told USA Today in early August.
AMC Entertainment, the nation’s largest movie theater chain, has seen its stock decline almost 50 percent over the past few months. Shares of other chains have also been clobbered by investors. Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark and IMAX are all down. Analysts are re-examining what Americans are doing with their time.
In an effort to get more patrons into theaters, the movie chains are gambling big on new offerings, such as plush recliner seats, bigger screens, improved sound, a wider selection of food – and liquor.
Of the chains betting the farm on booze is AMC Entertainment. The Kansas City-based chain, acquired by China’s Dalian Wanda Group in 2012, announced in June it had opened its 250th “Adult Beverage Concept Theater.” The chain, with a total of with 380 locations across the nation, had just 10 such theaters a decade earlier.
Regal Cinemas, based in Knoxville, Tenn., is reported to have 156 theaters that serve alcohol, with 75 more set to be completed this year. Cinemark, based in Plano, Texas, now has about 100 that serve alcohol.
The majors are being watched – and copied – by regional and independent theaters, whose owners tell city councils across America that they, too, must be able to serve alcohol in order to compete.
In recent years, the Regal Modesto Stadium 10, the Galaxy Theatres, the Brenden Theatres began selling beer and wine. Bag searches, under the guise of safety, help thwart those who want to bring their own bottles. Modesto’s State Theatre has sold beer, wine and cocktails for a number of years. The State expanded its liquor offerings in 2015.
Recently, AMC 6 became the second Bakersfield movie house to obtain permission to sell alcohol. The yet-to-open Studio Movie Grill in northwest Bakersfield was approved first.
In Clovis, patrons noticed some construction just inside the auditorium entrance at Sierra Vista Cinemas. Workers were building a bar in time for the anticipated release of “Wonder Woman.”
The Regal Manchester Stadium 16 in central Fresno’s Manchester Center and Edwards Fresno Stadium 22 & IMAX in northeast Fresno’s River Park were approved and liquor licenses were issued to the theaters’ parent company, Regal Entertainment Group, in May.
The race across the Valley started in 2014, when the Galaxy Tulare 10 in the Tulare Outlet Center became the first in the central San Joaquin Valley to offer alcohol. Still, they must get permission from city councils, plunking shaky fistfuls of loose change on the counter hoping officials will serve up another round of approvals so they can save their flagging movie houses.
But what’s the real cost?
According to Theatrical Market Statistics 2016, moviegoers ages 12 to 17, and those from 18 to 24 years of age, continue to be over-represented among frequent moviegoers. So the movie house booze is – and should be – a big issue. (At least one movie theater found the extra room it needed in its lobby by turning its arcade into a bar.)
Over time, kids will learn to associate cocktails, tap handles and brass foot rails with movie-going as they sit near drinkers in darkened auditoriums.
Jeremy Bagott is a former journalist who writes about finance, land-use and public policy issues. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.