If Wildwood Theatres Movies 16 can develop a plan that meets the approval of city officials, it could begin serving adult moviegoers more than popcorn, candy and soda.
Maybe it would be a beer. Or a mixed drink.
Sarah Lehr, general manager, said she and the theater’s ownership will seek permission from city officials to serve beer and liquor at the theater, but a city official said the theater wouldn’t be allowed to apply for or obtain a liquor license without changes to the city’s liquor license ordinances.
Ordinance changes would need city council approval before a liquor license application could be submitted, City Clerk-Treasurer David Godek said.
Lehr went public with the idea at a Janesville City Council meeting in May. She told council members during the public comment period that the theater wants to sell beer and alcohol at the theater at 3100 Deerfield Drive.
Lehr told The Gazette that Wildwood’s owners would pay the city’s $10,000 fee for a Class B Reserve liquor license, which she said would allow the theater to sell alcohol—mainly beer and some mixed drinks—for consumption in the theater by adult moviegoers.
Lehr said that in the last few years, alcohol sales at movie theaters have become as commonplace as “a dinner and cocktails” throughout southern Wisconsin. Some theaters, such as the Marcus-owned Point Theatre in Madison, have full bar and restaurant services and allow people to have alcoholic beverages inside the movie rooms.
“It’s just nobody here has ever approached the city about this. But it’s not new. In today’s economy and to us, people can go to Madison or they can just stay at their house and use a(n Amazon) Fire (TV) Stick or something. So we just have to keep looking for a way to keep our customers here,” Lehr said.
In Janesville, liquor licensing rules don’t specifically allow movie theaters to apply for or obtain liquor licenses, so Wildwood would have to seek and be granted an ordinance change before it could apply for a license, Godek said.
“If the city council so chooses, we can bring an ordinance amendment forward,” Godek told The Gazette.
But he said the city would need Wildwood to submit a “solid” plan before it would be clear which type of alcohol license might best suit a movie theater.
Janesville has a “separation” ordinance that requires most businesses that aren’t taverns or restaurants to sell alcohol in spaces separate from the rest of the business.
The city has made exceptions in the recent past to allow grocers to display and sell a limited amount of beer, wine or spirits without in-store separation, but those sellers are typically licensed for carryout purchases.
City liquor licenses are tailored mainly for bars and restaurants. Only a few types of non-bar and non-restaurant businesses that allow people to drink on site—bowling alleys being one of the few examples—are exempt from city separation rules.
Lehr said as she understands it, the city’s alcohol licensing rules are written in a way that allows venues that offer “live action” entertainment such as plays, musicals and concerts to serve alcohol under certain liquor licenses. But she said those rules don’t include venues that offer “canned” entertainment, such as movie theaters.
It’s that gap in the city’s rules, she said, that would be one of the main hurdles her theater would have to clear to be able to serve alcohol.
Lehr said under a few concepts, patrons 21 and older would be able to buy beer or mixed drinks after they scanned their driver’s licenses at a kiosk to prove their ages. She said the theater is looking into scanners with built-in facial recognition technology as one measure to curb underage drinking.
The theater also would use special cups to make it clear to staff which patrons were drinking alcohol. Staff would monitor the theater rooms before shows to make sure underage people weren’t drinking.
Lehr suggested the method of sale would be similar to other concessions sold at the theater. She said she is still leery of giving full details of the theater’s plans.
“Basically, I’m just waiting for some kind of verbal support at this point. There’s such a long list of things that need to go with it that we are fully aware of. I wouldn’t really want to move forward too far into it, even though I do have a lot of those things in mind,” Lehr said.
“Verbal support in the city council is really important,” she said, “because I would trust their judgment on this 100%.”