The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

French Fries Fly in Sunshine Cinema Food-Check Fight

By Serena Solomon | October 4, 2012 7:57am

LOWER EAST SIDE —  A popular East Houston Street theater's food policy has earned it a thumbs-down from moviegoers hoping to feast on snacks brought in from outside.

The Landmark Sunshine Cinema's staff have been called "Nazis," "women haters" and even more vulgar names when they explain their "food check" to patrons — holding grub in a refrigerator for collection after the film's over.

"They have tantrums," said the theater's box-office worker Caroline Cox, who had one movie-goer hurl French fries at her for denying the food.

The recent college grad defended the inspection system — labeled by some as "psychotic" — which uses tickets much like a coat check.

Concessions have long been the bread and butter of cinemas, which often deny outside food but don't go so far as to check bags for the offending fare.

"When you are the one picking chicken bones and olive pits off the floor, wiping up beer, it makes sense," Cox said.

This comes as the Sunshine looks to become even more lucrative in the future with a recent liquor license application to add three bar and restaurant areas to the busy theater.

The food-check policy has been in place since Cox started working 18 months ago at the theater, which is part of the nationwide Landmark Theaters chain that screens mostly independent films. 

"I get why people do it (sneak in food), but don’t be a psycho about it," Cox said, adding that Sunshine caters well to people’s needs, offering gluten-free cookies and popcorn with vegan butter.

Whole Foods bags are usually the most obvious targets for staff, as the supermarket and its array of tempting takeaway food is only a few blocks away.

Among reasons the food-check system was put in place was the stench of cooked food that filled the movie theater, the possibility that cleanups could delay screenings, and the loss of income from sales of the theater's own snacks.

"One guy brought in six whole pizzas. They were all gourmet," said another staff member, who did not give his name.

The cinema worker added that the movie-goer attempted to sneak the pies in by promising not to eat the pizza during the flick. Instead, they were kept in the refrigerator behind the counter for collection after the movie.

While some customers lie and throw tantrums, staff said, others like the system.

"She was very sweet about it. Her tone was apologetic," said Sunshine film-goer Nicole Lewis, of the theater worker who politely checked some pastries before a Wednesday afternoon film screening.

It was Lewis' 25 birthday, and the sweets were a celebratory purchase, she said.

"It is not a serious thing," Lewis said, "but they take it seriously."

Tim McDermott's espresso was also denied entry into a screening of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" on Wednesday.

"It was annoying, but you have to protect your business," the 28-year-old said, adding he decided to drink the coffee quickly in the lobby.

McDermott was enthusiastic when told of the Sunshine's application to Community Board 3 to obtain a license to serve beer, wine and liquor inside the theater

If approved, the space could add more than 100 seats for restaurant and bar-style service in three lobby areas outside theaters, according to CB3 documents. The application also requests to serve alcohol seven days a week until 2 a.m.

"It never hurts to have a glass of wine," said McDermott, who admitted to previously sneaking a bottle of wine into another theater.

"It's what I would do at home, so it's great I can come do it in the cinema."

Another patron, Joey Merlo, a writer from the East Village, championed the new venture's income potential.

"It's nice because it is hard to make money just on the films they show," he said.

But some Sunshine patrons would still prefer trying to sneak in their own refreshments, despite the stringent policy.

"A date to the movies is more expensive than dinner," said Bushwick student Andrea Prafet.