Indie theater hopes booze and brisket will pack in patrons

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  The Lower East Side’s top indie movie theater is planning a million-dollar makeover that will depend on the success of its forthcoming liquor license application.

Sunshine Cinema, located in a historic 1898 building at 143 East Houston St., expects to renegotiate its lease in the coming years, and sees an expanded dining and drinking experience as a vital step forward in creating and sustaining new sources of revenue.

“It’s a new business model, one that will allow us to be more competitive with other modern theaters as well as other entertainment or dining establishments,” said Michael Fant, senior vice president of real estate for Landmark Theatres, which owns Sunshine Cinema and 51 other movie houses nationwide. “It’s going to provide patrons with the services they want, and the additional revenue streams will ensure that we can remain in that location.”

Fant explained that the proposed renovations include a bar on the second floor of the five-screen cinema, dining tables on all three floors and an expanded food menu that will include more “gourmet” choices. Currently, the place serves pizza and burgers, but the expanded menu would include chicken, brisket and quesadillas.

The cinema would also reduce its auditorium seating — currently totaling around 950 seats — by 10 to 15 percent in order to make the seats larger more comfortable. In addition, the new business model would also force Sunshine Cinema to double its staff, which currently totals around 50. Fant added that the cinema has always focused on hiring locally.

But he said the plans will not be executed until the movie house gains a full liquor license — and it has become increasingly difficult to gain a Community Board 3 recommendation for such a license as the area has become increasingly saturated with noisy bars and nightclubs.

Fant represented Sunshine Cinema in its request for a recommendation at the last C.B. 3 State Liquor Authority Committee meeting in December, but he had to withdraw it due to an incomplete application. Since the cinema lacked a petition signed by community members that would have shown widespread support, Fant agreed to come back to the committee in January with a full petition.

Although it was reported by some local media that S.L.A. Committee members were very concerned and somewhat hostile toward the cinema’s request, Fant said that he didn’t get any impressions of overt resistance, and added that the committee members spoke supportively to him after the December meeting.

“I’m sure they will be very happy with our proposal at the next meeting,” he said.

S.L.A. Chairperson Alexandra Militano and C.B. 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer both declined to comment on the Sunshine Cinema proposal or on what took place at the December meeting.

Although C.B. 3 would give an advisory recommendation on the liquor license proposal, all requests are ultimately granted or denied by the New York State Liquor Authority.

Fourteen other cinemas owned by Landmark have already undertaken similar food, drink and seating renovations, and Fant said they have all been successful so far.

And although there have been reports that the East Houston St. cinema is struggling financially — that the new business model is, in fact, its only hope for continued existence — Fant denied those assertions, while declining to elaborate further.

“We don’t have any financial problems at Sunshine Cinema or Landmark,” he said. “It’s just that patrons are asking for new amenities, and we need to keep up with other companies.”