The Alamo Drafthouse: More Than A Cinema

November 29, 2010

The Alamo Drafthouse’s self-slogan of “Bad-Ass Cinema” is a severe understatement.

The mecca for filmmakers, movie critics, and film fanatics from around the country is now one of the most popular places in town. In 2005, Entertainment Weekly called in the No. 1 theater in America and since then, Steve Rose with The Gaurdian has deemed it “Possibly the best cinemas in the world.” But how did this locally grown business transform into the multi-million dollar franchise that is currently changing the face of modern day cinema? The answer: one brilliant idea.

In 1994 recent graduates of Houston’s Rice University, Tim and Karrie League were young, in love, and unhappy with their careers. Tim, an engineer at Shell Oil, and Karrie, a microbiology researcher “got into the movie exhibition business accidentally.” League told MTV that neither he, nor his wife, liked where they were and “at the age of 24, decided to open up a movie theater.” The Leagues made their first attempt at their now iconic cinematic vision somewhere one might not expect for the conceptual birthplace of the Alamo Drafthouse: Bakersfield, California. And so the young couple started their path at the historic Tejon Theater, located on the east side of the city on Baker Street. The two worked hard to renovate and reopen the Tejon in hopes of finding a specific audience. They simultaneously realized that there had been a giant gaping hole in the industry for the movie-house patron who desired something more than first-run, mainstream movies paired with stale buttered popcorn and cherry flavored Icees. Following the design model of other independent theaters such as the Landmark chain, The Tejon specialized in screening various independent, classic, and cult films. This instantly set them apart and paved the way for their now famed, alternative programming. However, success did not find the Leagues in California. The combination of bad luck and poor geographical placement of the Tejon, both played in the downfall of their first theater. League told MTV, “That theater ended up being a huge mistake. It failed, really. It just didn’t work out.” The inability to obtain a liquor license by the local Alcohol Beverage Control ultimately lead to Leagues resulted in selling the theater in 1996. Since then, it has since been converted into an evangelical church. However, hope was not lost and the Leagues knew they could continue their dream elsewhere: back in Texas.

On June 1st 1996, the couple made the move from Bakersfield to Austin, where the Alamo Drafthouse would find its new embracing home. “We chose Austin for a number of reasons,” stated League to MTV. “It was a cool town, it had a big university, real estate at the time was relatively affordable and there wasn’t anything like it, but there was still a really receptive film audience. I had some family…in Austin, so it was easier to start there [than in] someplace like New York or LA, but it was still a pretty cool scene.” On December 1st, the Leagues signed a lease for a building downtown and construction finally began. While still under construction that following spring the Alamo, which did not have its permit at the time,  illegally opened its doors to the public for the 1997 South by Southwest Film Festival. It was Austin’s first taste of the theater and on May 24th 1997, the Alamo Drafthouse legally opened its doors to the world.

Since then, Tim and Karrie eventually evolved their original idea of a “different” movie theater into something completely unparalleled. “[We were] always trying to find an advantage that we could offer that other types of movie theaters couldn’t,” stated League. It is the combination of their novelty event-driven screenings and audience participation, which provides for the one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that the Alamo Drafthouse delivers.

People love food, and people love movies. The ability to capitalize on this is the first factor in the theater’s recipe for success. The Alamo has an efficient seating arrangement with rows of tables for every row of seats, which is also complimented with an open isle, used for quick and non-distracting transportation by both servers and audience members. The Alamo Drafthouse has a full menu with specialty dishes that correlate with current new-events and seasons. On top of that, the Alamo now has its liquor license and serves a wide array of wine, beer, and at the downtown location, liquor. Additionally, the Alamo also has specialty drink selections such as the serving of Butterbeer with the release of the Harry Potter films, and other favorites such as the “Grown-Up” milkshakes made with Makers Mark Whiskey and vanilla ice cream. The combination of dinner and a movie, actually AT the movies, has not only revolutionized the stereotypical date while making the Alamo extremely profitable, but has also expanded its audience demographics to nearly any movie goer who cannot say no to the comfort of being served quality food while relaxing during a film.

Aside from the element of food, there is also the element of fun in their programming. What makes the Alamo such a safe haven for film fans is the evidence that they love movies just as much as their audience. Through this, they utilize an audience’s involvement in a film and have specific events that have now become Alamo staples.

The Action Pack produces theatrical and interactive events which include: The monthly Alamo Drafthouse Sing-Along’s feature various hit songs from a specific artist to genre such as Michael Jackson or the upcoming, “Xmas Pops Sing-Along.” During this event, audience members are encouraged to participate as much as wanted by singing and dancing in their seats or in the isles. The Alamo’s Quote-Along’s are in the same nature by encouraging viewers to yell out the quotes to their favorite movies that rotate weekly. The latest and upcoming Quote-Along’s that are scheduled include movies such as “The Labyrinth”, “ELF”, “Zoolander”, and “Super Troopers.”

The Alamo’s various Feasts and Films offer multi-course meals paired with a specific movie. Upcoming events include a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pizza Party” with all-you-can-eat pizza, and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou Feast”: with an appetizer of Beef and gravy on toast points (prison food), pulled porkraised brisket (greasy horse) and gopher grits (gopher). A soup of Frog “you though it was a toad” Jambalaya. The entrée consisting of chicken fricassee with greens, spicy corn on the cob, and mashed potatoes and of course, a giant peach pie for dessert (served on newspaper).

The Big Screen Classics are sometimes rare movies that the Alamo has been able to get 35mm prints of to re-show on the big screen. December’s screenings include “The Holy Mountain”, “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”, and for Christmas, “Dark Side Of The Rainbow.”

Weekly, the Alamo hosts specialty genre nights which are respectively called Music Mondays, Terror Tuesdays, and Weird Wednesdays. With Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays only costing one dollar (Music Mondays cost two dollars), these late night screenings bring in fans of music documentaries, campy horror movies that are rarely shown on 35mm, and a wide array of cheesy 70’s exploitation films of all kind.

Aside from its usual programming, the Alamo Drafthouse also hosts many different events that are unique to it such as big movie screenings with directors and cast members in attendance. These screenings are followed by an audience Q &A session where any question may be asked. Musical events can also be found with certain film screenings and are paired with live musical acts or symphony members. Another main attraction over the years is their Master Pancake Theater, which is a comedy act in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Alamo Drafthouse also hosts film fests such as Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon and Fantastic Fest, which Tim League co-created with Knowles. Fantastic Fest is now one of the fastest growing film festivals in the country that still specializes in the genres that the Alamo usually represents such as sci-fi, action, fantasy, Asian, horror, and cult films.

The success of their identity has allowed the Alamo Drafthouse to branch out and expand outside of Austin. In the summer of 2004, Tim and Karrie sold their brand to build up a franchise model, but remained in control of the three main theaters in Austin, Texas. The expansion has gone so far as Winchester, Virginia and has currently totaled 10 different locations in Texas alone. In June 2010, Tim League was officially brought back as the CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse franchise.

Since then, League has even larger endeavors for his company.“Myself, I want to move into New York and LA and hopefully in relatively short order have Alamo Drafthouse locations open up in those major markets.” But much bigger plans are on the horizon for the patron CEO this time around. On September 9th 2010, the Alamo announced that is would be creating its own film distribution company, Drafthouse Films. An interview with MovieFone revealed that that League knew this could only happen with him at the front of his theaters, adding “All of this couldn’t come together until we merged the company and I came back on as CEO.” What this means for the company is that they do not have to wait to play a new title at their theaters, have the freedom and ability of now being able to bid for any film they wish to distribute. Drafthouse Film’s first picture under their name is Chris Morris’ “Four Lions”, a satirical comedy about Jihadist bombers-which had not been picked up by any other big distribution company due to its controversial material.

With the success of the Alamo Drafthouse and the recent start of Drafthouse Films, America will soon be infiltrated by the Drafthouse ideology. This will change the way that public consumers view film, and ultimately bring a revolution to the world of cinema, one Drafthouse at a time.

Additional information was provided by

A Dipity interactive timeline of the Alamo Drafthouse:

A short video blog about the Alamo Drafthouse:

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