For those watching the first presidential debate, that 50-inch TV in the family room may not be enough. Among the estimated 100 million watching Hillary v. Donald, Round One, many will watch at a handful of movie theaters nationwide that are hosting debate viewing parties.
Penn Cinema 14 in Lititz, Penn. has a history of airing community events, including debates, World Series games when the Phillies were involved, and President Obama’s inauguration. The price of admission for the Monday debate is zero, says owner Penn Ketchum.
“It’s not something we do very often,” he says. “But movie theaters are increasingly playing a more diverse role in their community, and representing a place for people to share a common experience.”
Independently owned Penn Cinema will simulcast the local NBC affiliate’s feed. When CNN hosts the next debate in October, the theater will simulcast that feed.
No campaign materials, other than the shirts on attendees’ backs, are permitted. Ketchum said Lancaster County, where the theater is located, skews Republican, but the local Democratic party has been working to get a strong turnout. “We expect a pretty diverse group,” he says.
Out in Los Angeles, the Ace Hotel’s theater is cohosting the debate with the Los Angeles Times. “The Debate Watch Spectacular” will feature a pre-debate clip reel from Alamo Drafthouse featuring movie presidents and SNL presidential spoofs over the years, a DJ set in the lobby featuring singer Mayer Hawthorne, and analysis from Times reporters.
In the past, the Theatre at Ace Hotel, an ornate 1927 venue that was once the United Artists movie house, has hosted debates with comedians providing live commentary, and live TV events such as the Academy Awards telecast. General Manager Susan Garbett is expecting in excess of a thousand visitors to the downtown theater. “We were surprised,” she says. “But we’re hearing a lot of things about this being a World Series-type, Super Bowl-watching party level of interest.”
Thirteen bucks gets one in the door at the Ace theater. Adult drinks will flow.
Speaking of Alamo Drafthouse -- and adult drinks, for that matter -- is airing the debate systemwide. Theater locales include Austin, San Antonio and Yonkers, New York. “Join us for the upcoming presidential debates on the big screen!”
Alamo theaters offer a food and beverage menu, and service at one’s seat. The chain describes admission as free, with guests purchasing a $5 food and beverage voucher.
Other theaters hosting viewing parties include New York’s famed Apollo Theater, which has a panel discussion and a DJ; Grand Rapids’ Wealthy Street Theater and Premiere Cinema 16+IMAX in Lubbock, Texas.
Ketchum, for one, never considered charging. “We’re all about making money,” he says. “But sometimes you set that aside and do the right thing.”
He will dedicate one Penn Cinema screen to the debate. With 110 out of 200 tickets claimed as of 3:15 ET Monday, he and his colleagues are prepping an overflow theater space as well.
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.
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