Last night, representatives of the Landmark Theatre Company told members of Community Board 3 that their plan to sell alcoholic drinks at the Sunshine Cinema offers the only hope of keeping the art house theater at 143 East Houston Street. But citing an incomplete application and concerns about the scale of the proposed liquor permit, CB3’s SLA Committee sent them away with a tongue-lashing and the threat of rejection. Executives from the company withdrew their application for the time being.
Mike Fant, Landmark’s senior vice president for real estate, said the company will soon be renegotiating its lease in the historic 1898 building on East Houston Street that has served as a center of independent film downtown for more than a decade. He indicated that the property owner expected to have multiple offers from other theater companies. In anticipation of a big rent increase, Fant said, Landmark wants to invest $1 million to transform the Sunshine into an upscale venue for drinks, dinner and film.
The idea is to add bars and tables in all of Sunshine’s theaters, and to reconfigure all stadium seating to accommodate smaller side tables. Film-goers would be served food and alcoholic beverages in their seats. The concept is not unique to the Lower East Side; the “dinner and a movie” model has taken off nationwide. State legislation made it legal in New York last year. You may already be familiar with the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamburg (its owner pushed the legislation aggressively).
Fant said Landmark is not attempting to turn the Sunshine into a night club, but simply hoping to offer “additional amenities” to its existing customers, who are generally older and more sophisticated than typical movie-goers. Sunshine customers frequently bypass the concessions, meaning the business is heavily reliant on ticket sales.
Residents in attendance at last night’s meeting expressed serious concerns about the application in an area already teeming with nightlife activity. While most everyone treasures the Sunshine as a community resource, they said the idea of licensing a 700-person venue is more than a little scary. Both the Eldridge Street and East 1st Street block associations would prefer a wine-and-beer-only permit. Lori Greenberg, an Eldridge Street resident, asked what would happen if the Sunshine is sold to a new owner operating a mainstream theater showing action films and other blockbusters?
Another block association leader noted that a preliminary food menu appeared to offer snack food rather than real dinner options (in opposition to the new state law). CB3 members were displeased that the Sunshine did not collect signatures from local residents to show support for their proposal. Committee Chair Alex Militano was sharply critical of the Landmark application, which she said was incomplete. She also wanted to know the plan for making sure minors aren’t drinking alcohol in the theaters.
Fant said the Sunshine will be converting to a reserved seating system, meaning that theater staff will know where adult customers are sitting and who has ordered what. Alcohol will be served in bright-colored cups to differentiate the drinks from non-alcoholic beverages. He added that 14 Landmark theaters across the country are serving alcohol with no complications. Fant noted that Landmark owners Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner have decided to invest $30 million in their theaters across the country, after contemplating selling the company some time ago (they didn’t get their desired price). They remain committed to the independent film business, he said.
Fant argued that a beer-and-wine permit would not be a sufficient revenue producer, indicating that a full liquor license was the only realistic option. As for the concerns about the menu, Fant explained that it’s a “work in progress.” He said Alan Lake (link), a chef specializing in designing “innovative” menus for theaters and restaurants, had been hired to consult with the Sunshine team.
In the end, CB3 members made it clear they could not support the application until the concerns about community support, the menu, crowd control and other issues are addressed. Fant agreed to withdraw the application and to return to the community board in January.