Pickford Film Center moviegoer J.J. Janssen was ecstatic to be one of the first people walking into the theater’s screening of “The Big Lebowski”, beer in hand.
Janssen, along with other Pickford members and film enthusiasts, have long wanted the opportunity to drink responsibly while enjoying a movie in the independent film center.
Pickford’s directors have heard their calls.
“We’re not trying to be a bar, and we aren’t trying to contribute to the world’s alcohol problems,” Michael Falter, the theater’s program director, said. “We are trying to get people out to spend an evening with the community.”
The Pickford Film Center received approval from the Washington State Liquor Control Board to allow consumption of beer and wine in one of their two screening rooms in its downtown Bellingham theater, located at 1318 Bay St. The offerings debuted Feb. 17.
Small movie theaters across the nation are competing with major corporations to offer movie buffs the best viewing experience.
Serving alcohol is one way independent theater operators are trying to keep people out of
the commercial multiplexes and off their couches, Pickford executive director Alice Clark said.
“We are trying to create a better movie-going experience,” Clark said. “It’s a novelty, it’s different, it’s fun.”
Patrons have been asking the center to allow alcohol inside the theater, she said. The Pickford previously served beer and wine in the lobby only.
Small theaters have faced competition ever since video rental stores began to open, Clark said. Being able to serve alcohol and now to be able to allow it into the viewing room is beneficial to smaller theaters, she said.
“When you’re not a corporation you depend on people coming through the door,” Clark said. “For us to be able to offer this to our patrons is another revenue stream, a way to bring in a few extra bucks each day, which helps. It all helps.”
Janssen said he thought the community would fully support the idea. He doesn’t see negative repercussions considering the type of crowd that attends the theater, he said.
“If you have a few bad apples, the community will shut it down,“ Janssen said. “Bellingham is easy and responsible. It adds to the maturity level of the community.”
When the Pickford started planning its new facility, which opened in 2010, the nonprofit asked its members and other moviegoers what they would like to see in terms of improvements, Clark said. More comfortable seating and making alcohol available were the two main responses, she said.
Under current law the Pickford had to designate one of its two showing rooms at this location as an age 21 and over theater at all times of the day. The theater group tried to do that, but only after 9 p.m.
Because so many patrons were asking to be able to drink alcohol while watching films, the Film Center decided to move forward with the plan.
Now, a new bill proposed by Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver) may cause the Pickford to have to apply for new licenses, but the theater group is excited.
Under the new bill, people over 21 and minors will be able to watch the same movie in the same theater room where alcohol is permitted, Moeller said. However, a minor control plan must be developed before this can happen, he said.
Rep. Moeller was approached by the owners of a historic movie theater in his district, Kiggins Theatre, who wanted to be able to hold family events and still serve beer and wine to adults. Moeller said he took this as an opportunity to help small theaters stay viable in the downtown core of many Washington communities.
“These theaters are gorgeous,” Moeller said. It would be a shame to lose them. This is one way to keep these buildings from being knocked down.”
If the bill passes, Washington multiplexes will be able to designate one of their screening rooms as an alcohol-allowed theater. This includes major theater chains such as Regal Cinemas, Moeller said. But, it won’t really draw more attention to them if the bigger theaters do decide to participate in the program, he said.
Regal Cinemas is currently building a 16-screen multiplex in the Barkley area. They also own theaters in Bellingham at Bellis Fair, Sehome Village and Sunset Square. It is not known if the company would offer alcohol in its theaters if the law changes.
Falter said he is looking forward to the new Regal theater because of the quality of video equipment they can afford to show movies. And he doesn’t mind if they do decide to serve beverages.
“On the record, I am really excited about Regal,” Falter said. “It would be nice to see high quality, mainstream movies and have a drink. I wish them luck.”
Falter, who also represents the Pickford at Art House Convergence, a conference based theater owners group which meets the week prior to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, said alcohol has become a part of the means for many small theaters fighting to stay open across the nation.
At the 2012 annual conference more than 200 theaters were represented and alcohol was discussed in terms of best practice, as it has been in past years, Falter said. It is talked about in the manner of how it can better patrons’ time at the theater.
In the Art House world, theaters are generally serving an older, college-educated crowd, not people who are looking to just get drunk at the movies, Falter said. The Pickford is just trying to create a world-class experience, he said.
With the new bill the Pickford will be able to cater to everyone at all times, not just those over 21, Falter said. That is an important aspect of the bill, he said, as the Pickford group did not like the idea of excluding anyone.
The issue of pushing alcohol into the public domain was brought up in response to the new bill, but Moeller said that argument is null in our society.
“Alcohol is in the public domain,” Moeller said. “We let that genie out of the bottle long ago.”
Patron “Downtown” Gary Brown of Sedro Woolley does not drink alcohol, but he is still glad the Pickford has the chance to make the theater more fun and draw more people to it, he said.
He also noted the tidiness of the Pickford crowd and said his only concerns are the alcoholic beverages may induce too much talking in the theater and the possibility of a sticky floor.
Serving alcohol is one way the theater can give community members a better movie-going experience, he said.
The competition between corporate options such as multiplexes or rental terminals and these small theaters is heavy and the chance to keep the Pickford doors open is important to Bellingham. The Pickford is run by people who love movies, he said.
In a city full of small and large businesses alike, the Pickford has found a way to compete. The idea of serving alcohol to movie-goers is not a new one, Clark said. Both the theater and the patrons benefit from this service, she said.
“Larger cities that are doing this come off more sophisticated and evolved,” Clark said. “Bellingham can do this like other cities.”
PHOTOS BY BRIAN COREY