The Alamo Drafthouse Revolution
An independently owned theater chain based in Austin prides itself on preserving the magic of moviegoing; with 15 locations and counting, Drafthouse could be the answer to cinephiles' prayers
Chances are, even if you’ve never watched a movie at an Alamo Drafthouse theater, you know what will get you kicked out of one. The Austin-based chain, which currently has 15 theaters nationwide with plans to open nine new locations everywhere from San Francisco to Kalamazoo within the next two years, exploded into mass consciousness in 2011 when one of its prescreening No Talking PSAs went viral. The video, which has more than 3 million hits on YouTube, is a recording of a voicemail from a customer who was booted for texting during a movie. ”I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to text in your little crappy-ass theater,” she slurs. ”I’ve texted in all the other theaters in Austin, and no one ever gave a f —! Thanks for taking my money, a–hole!”
”You’re welcome,” replies management in the PSA. ”Thanks for not coming back to the Alamo, texter!”
”Within 36 hours it was on Anderson Cooper,” says Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League, 43. ”That was a milestone moment because it positioned us as a theater that is speaking out on the dismal state of going to the movies. And we’re not going to take it anymore.”
What makes the Alamo special is not just the zero-tolerance policy on texters and talkers. Or the polite and efficient waiters who bring you strangely high-quality booze and food during films. Or the terrifically curated old-school clips and trailers that run instead of commercials. Or that League values film so highly that he invested in a 70mm projector for one of his Austin locations solely to host a proper sneak-peek screening of The Master with director Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance.
League has managed to celebrate the act of going out to the movies as much as the movies themselves. When the Alamo held a special screening of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, the menu included eyeball soup and monkey brains. When Tim Burton world-premiered Frankenweenie there, the Alamo reserved an entire theater for dog owners and their pooches. And when League had the absurd idea of granting free admission to naked customers for a screening of Doris Wishman’s 1961 sexploitation flick, Nude on the Moon, he found himself waving in 120 nudists. ”That was pretty gross,” he admits with a laugh. ”Just a dumb, stupid stunt.”
”A lot of times,” says director and Austin resident Robert Rodriguez, ”if you go to a crappy theater you say, ‘Oh, my screen looks better at home, my experience is better at home, why am I going to the movie theater?’ Well, you go to the Alamo Drafthouse and you go, ‘Oh, okay, that’s why.’ I even enjoyed Transformers there. Before it started, we went out with my kids to the parking lot and they had this giant metal-eating machine dinosaur that chewed up a full-size car. That was better than the movie!”
League and his wife, Karrie, opened their first theater in Bakersfield, Calif., on a whim in 1994. He had driven past the Tejon, an old-fashioned movie house with a ”For Lease” sign in the window, on the way to his grim mechanical-engineering job at Shell Oil Company. ”I’d never even processed the idea that you could open a movie theater,” he says. The couple took over the 500-seat cinema, moved into the room behind the screen, and opened for business on a Friday night with Citizen Kane. They shuttered the theater a year later after a love triangle ended with a man getting shot in his car and crashing into the ticket booth. ”We knew we could not recover,” says League. So they moved to Austin, borrowed $150,000 from League’s in-laws, and opened the first Alamo Drafthouse in 1997 with a double feature of This Is Spinal Tap and Raising Arizona. Soon the place was selling out, with League serving as a kind of carny-showman host of special-event screenings ranging from ’70s blaxploitation movies to sing-alongs to classic silent films.
In 2005, League launched Fantastic Fest, an annual genre celebration of horror, sci-fi, foreign-language films, and all that is intensely weird. Fest regular Elijah Wood once got into a makeshift boxing ring where Dominic Monaghan beat the stuffing out of him. Wood’s favorite memory of that year’s Fest was singing karaoke to a Black Eyed Peas song with RZA, Bill Pullman, and League, who’d ripped his shirt open and poured a bottle of Tecate down his chest. ”I really envy Tim,” says Wood. ”He’s got one of the coolest jobs in the world. He started an incredible movie theater that is a love letter to film, and he started this amazing film festival, and it’s all just based out of passion and love.”
If you enjoy original Mondo posters — the Pop-art reimaginings of classic movie one-sheets — those too were born of League’s passion. If you read film commentary on the website Badass Digest, you can thank League, who wanted an arena to voice Alamo’s tastes. If you saw the Oscar-nominated movie Bullhead, a Belgian crime story set against the bovine-hormone mafia, it’s because League started a distribution wing in 2010 and brought the film to U.S. theaters. (Drafthouse Films has since acquired 23 films, largely foreign, always odd and tense.)
League first entered into a Drafthouse franchising deal in 2004. But dodgy episodes — as when a Houston location co-opted his long-running Spaghetti Western Feasts night, but programmed Young Guns rather than a Leone or Corbucci classic — left him increasingly frustrated. ”These were pure moves of inauthentic behavior,” he says. ”They were destroying the brand I devoted my life to.” Eventually, League sued to dismantle the franchising deal and made himself CEO.
It’s taken a while for League to risk expansion again, but the stakes are different now. Growth means more screens on which he can nurture audiences for Drafthouse movies. In the meantime, he will micromanage quality control while ensuring that his employees are ”hardcore obsessive movie nerds who are way more intense than I am. I hope that as we expand, people will realize our vision hasn’t changed, our mission hasn’t changed. We’re still going to be pissed off if anyone ever compares Young Guns to a spaghetti Western.”
”I can’t see a movie in a regular theater anymore,” says Rodriguez. ”I want Alamo Drafthouse to take over the world.”