Should movie theaters be allowed to sell alcohol? The proposal originally garnered some statewide discussion in 2017 and is back on the table. The difference this time, though, is that movie theaters — smaller ones, in particular — are advocating for the change with a greater sense of urgency.

A few theaters across the state sell alcohol right now. They must have a “full kitchen” to do so, however, and most theater owners and operators say they don’t have the dollars to expand for those kinds of sales, which leads to the current situation.

The legislation to change that rule, though, and allow movie theaters to sell alcohol is gaining steam. It’s even possible we could see movement on it in the upcoming legislative session.

The bigger question, however, is this: Is this enough of a lifeline for movie theaters or is it simply too late? More on that later.

For my money, the legislation is a “no brainer” as long as the right controls are in place. For example, the condition in the proposed legislation that prevents ticket holders to movies rated G or PG from purchasing alcohol in the theater is sensible. Same goes for the caveat that those purchasing alcohol at the theater would be limited on an individual basis. So, ordering multiple beverages at once wouldn’t be an option.

Those details, and the rest, are all subject to debate — if the proposal gets to that point. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been a vocal supporter of such legislation, but it’s struggled to gain steam in the past in the Assembly.

The Finger Lakes is wine country and now more than ever also known for a variety of other craft beverages — beers, ciders, and spirits alike. Simply put, given the context New York has created — elevating itself as a global player in the alcohol scene — it would make sense to allow the sale of it in more places.

Last month the Department of Justice filed a motion to terminate what’s known as the Paramount Consent Decrees. In short, it was an antitrust judgment that regulated how certain movie studios distributed films to theaters. It has been in place for more than 70 years and served its original purpose, according to the DOJ.

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division even went so far as to say that the continuation could hurt consumers. “These decrees have served their purpose, and their continued existence may actually harm American consumers by standing in the way of innovative business models for the exhibition of America’s great creative films,” Delrahim said in a DOJ press release.

Opponents of lifting the decrees say that could spell disaster for small, rural theaters, which already are struggling. They have limited space, resources, and a shrinking audience given the trend toward “in-hand” digital consumption. They say the change will continue to erode the power small theater operators have, and therefore will create an unfair marketplace. One of the ways this could happen would be through a practice known as “block booking,” which was banned under the decrees but is once again fair game.

Essentially, when a studio is working with a theater on a license to show a movie, the studio could mandate through that license that other, less profitable movies be shown. For small theaters — not the mega-plexes most people think of when they hear the words “movie theater” — every screen counts. Big time. And tying up screen time on bad movies in order to get one blockbuster could hurt in the short- and long-term.

To be clear, that is only one concern. There are a pile of others. What cannot be denied, though, is that people’s entertainment consumption habits have changed. They are vastly different than even just 15 years ago. While this is “sensible” legislation, it’s hardly the kind of proposal that can be viewed as a savior to local, privately owned-and-operated theaters.

Josh Durso covers the Finger Lakes region as news director of FingerLakes1.com. He also hosts a podcast, “Inside the FLX,” that is available on iTunes. His “In Focus” column runs every other Tuesday in the Finger Lakes Times. Contact him at josh@fingerlakes1.com or www.twitter.com/FLXJosh.

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