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Theaters Battle Back as N.Y. Jumbo Soda Ban Nears Vote

Movie theaters are fighting back against upcoming vote that would impact a staple of the moviegoing experience

If New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way next week, the jumbo-sized colas that have become a staple of the moviegoing experience are about to get a tummy tuck.

But with one of their major sources of profits under attack, theaters across the five boroughs are fighting back, adding their voices to a massive marketing and canvassing counterattack on the part of city businesses. 

Chains like Regal and AMC are festooned with "Say No" banners and posters attacking the mayor's proposal to keep them from selling sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces and urging citizens to take action.

They also are running anti-ban commercials before their featured films. (See video below.)

And they are partnering with New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to lobby the public.

That group, which is backed by a non-alcoholic beverage lobbying group called the American Beverage Association, has taken to the street with iPads to gather signatures.

So far, more than 237,000 people have added their names to its petition. A spokesman for the group declined to say how much money was being spent on the campaign, which also involves cable TV and radio commercials, but told TheWrap that theaters were only making in-kind contributions in the form of advertising.

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The theaters have reason to be worried. If the city board of health endorses the mayor's plan at a Sept. 13 vote on the beverage rules, it becomes part of the city's health code.

And because members of the board of health are appointed by Bloomberg, even its detractors acknowledge that the new limits will likely pass.

"The big concern for the movie industry is that if this can happen here, it can happen anywhere," Matthew Greller, a lobbyist for the National Association of Theatre Owners, told TheWrap.

"If the board of health has the authority to do this, it sets a dangerous precedent," he said. "Will they be able to limit you to a 16-ounce steak or 16 french fries or 16 popcorn kernels? It's a slippery slope."

There's certainly a precedent for an administration that has shown a willingness to wage unpopular battles for what it views as the good of its citizens' health. Citing rising obesity rates, the mayor has targeted trough-like beverage containers in the same way he once zeroed in on smoking in restaurants and trans fats in prepared foods. 

All of this worries theater owners — which make as much as 30 percent of their profits from concessions — who fear that the assault won't stop at Cokes. 

“If a small place like ours lived on ticket prices alone, there would be no way to stay in business,” Kenn Lowy, who owns an independently run, two-screen theater called Brooklyn Heights Cinema, told TheWrap. “The soda thing is not as big a deal to me, but if they went after popcorn or peanut M&M’s, it would be catastrophic.”

There’s also a fear that if the new rules on soda sizes pass in New York City, other parts of the country may unveil similar plans. That’s something the mayor’s office acknowledges could take place — even though polling suggests that sugary beverages are a lot more popular than Marlboros.

“Previous bold health initiatives for New York City have been greeted with skepticism in the past,” Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said. “When we banned trans fats or when we posted calorie counts or prevented smoking in restaurants, people predicted it would be the end of the world. Now everyone has followed New York City’s lead on these issues.”

So far, the public seems to be on the side of Big Gulps, with 60 percent of New Yorkers as saying they’re opposed to the new restrictions.

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At the Regal Cinemas in Union Square recently, the overwhelming consensus among moviegoers was that the mayor’s latest gambit was an example of bureaucratic over-reach that threatened to make the city a veritable “nanny state.”

“I don’t think body weight is the business of government,” Johanna Goossens, a 22-year old New York resident, said as she waited for her showing of “Premium Rush.”

“It’s a good idea in concept, but not in practice,” 43-year-old Jacques Lardox said as he stood outside the theater. “People should be allowed to do what they want.”

Despite the opposition, Bloomberg’s team says it will push forward with its proposal.

“We do not make decisions based on polls,” Levine said. “Public health concerns are driving our decision making.”

Movie theaters and others impacted by the new restrictions say they are being unfairly targeted, noting that the new rules do not apply to supermarkets or bodegas, where consumers can continue to buy large bottles of soft drinks and other sugary beverages.

They also accuse Bloomberg of ruling by fiat, saying that his office has done no outreach to the businesses that will have to comply with the regulations.

“It is an arbitrary and unfair approach,” Greller told TheWrap. “Movie theaters are already moving toward offering healthier alternatives, but we want to make sure customers can make the choice about what to eat or drink for themselves.”

Greller notes that theaters in the city have complied with menu labeling rules that outline the number of calories in food products, so he argues customers are aware of health risks. Further, he notes that the average New York City resident only purchases concessions two to four times a year, meaning the restrictions would have little impact on obesity rates.

But supporters say that soda sizes have been increasing at a dangerous pace in recent years, contributing to diabetes and other weight-related health problems.

Also read: A Bleak Picture for Non-Digital Independent Theaters: Convert or Die

“I think its reasonable that there be a reasonable cap of soda sizes and 16 ounces strikes me as compromise between a gargantuan and a puny serving,” said Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which raised the issue of saturated fat in movie popcorn in the 1990s. “People consume so much more soda than they do any other source of calories.”

The only good news for theater owners at this point is that even if jumbo sodas go the way of restaurant smoking sections, the fight doesn’t end with this month’s vote.

New Yorkers for Beverage Choices says it is weighing other legislative and legal action if the ban goes into effect, and it is looking even farther ahead to a more receptive city hall when the next mayoral election occurs in November 2013.

“Bloomberg will not be here forever, so there is a future for us,” said Eliot Hoff, a spokesperson for New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. “The coalition does not end with the vote on Sept. 13.”