By John DeFore
Film lovers in San Antonio are buzzing, or will be soon, about the best movie news since NetFlix made Blockheaded video store chains damn near irrelevant: The Alamo Drafthouse is coming to town.
Anyone who spends much time visiting SA's neighbor to the north knows that the Drafthouse - where good food and drink meet top-notch movie projection - is one of few things keeping that city livable during years of soaring cost of living and exponentially increasing traffic jams. The mom-and-pop cinema, which began with a single-screen location in Austin's downtown warehouse district, started expanding a couple of years ago and now, after trying the waters with a recent Houston franchise, is set to conquer the world, with the Alamo City as the next stop.
A movie house like no other
Founders Tim and Karrie League, who met at Rice University and got their feet wet running a short-lived arthouse theater in Bakersfield, opened Austin's Alamo Downtown in 1997. They quickly mastered the art of serving food discreetly while diners watched movies: Patrons who desire something mid-film simply write a note, stick it in a clip on the table in front of them, and a hunched-over waitperson swoops in to do the rest. Predictable popcorn and nacho chips are offered along with burgers, pizzas, and a few more sophisticated options (none of which taste like fast food). Beer and wine are also served.
Business reporters might credit the theater's instant popularity to its combination of food and flicks, but the real reason ticket sales took off was the Drafthouse's adventurous programming and its owners' unmistakable passion for the business.
One of my first encounters with the theater, for instance, was a midnight showing of the McKenzie Brothers' Strange Brew. For the price of admission, every audience member was entitled to one bottle of Elsinore Beer, the beverage brewed in the film. The Alamo's proprietors had spent untold hours soaking the labels off regular beer, then pasting on homemade Elsinore labels. In the following months, 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor were included in the ticket price for pimp saga The Mack, and during a Cannibal Film Festival, patrons were served human entrails that tasted suspiciously like pasta covered with tomato sauce.
The oddball booking policies of the Downtown location, which specializes in second-run, cult, and independent films, were augmented when the Leagues leased an abandoned arthouse theater north of town and started showing first-run Hollywood fare. Soon after, they took over a multiplex in the suburbs, where they now employ 100 people and run one of the city's largest kitchens.
What's with the name?
According to Tim League, there was nothing perverse about naming an Austin cinema after San Antonio's biggest attraction: "There were a couple of reasons. We bought an old sign that said 'Crosby Drugs' on it, so we wanted a name - something about Texas - that had five or six letters. We thought of the Bowie theater, the Texan theater."
"But we wanted something that started with an A," Karrie adds, "so we could be first in the listings."
Finally, Tim says, "If you look at the Downtown location, the top of the building is vaguely reminiscent of the Alamo arch. So that was kind of the deciding factor that tied all the elements together."
Bringing the Alamo back home
SA may not have been the first Drafthouse location, but it's about to be the biggest. Franchisee John Martin, a former film producer (he spent 11 years in L.A. working with Paramount, Orion, Sony, and his own Looking Glass films) who is one of the first people to license the Alamo name and game plan from the Leagues, has signed a lease on the Santikos-owned Westlakes theater on Loop 410; late this summer (Martin is shooting for July), the venue will reopen as a nine-screen Alamo multiplex. Martin, who currently lives in Austin, is also working on a built-from-scratch Drafthouse in San Marcos, and clearly has big plans for expansion. "My personal goal," he says, "is to get 10 up and running within the next three years "
To date, each Alamo location has found a flavor of its own. Austin's Downtown venue is the locus of weirdness - of zombie marathons, break-dancing exhibitions, and celebrity blasts from the past - with that activity spilling into other theaters to the extent that their neighborhoods will support it. Not knowing in advance how many San Antonio residents will show up for, say, Weird Wednesdays (a free weekly showcase for films so strange they've been forgotten by time), he can't predict exactly which non-mainstream programs will pop up most frequently at the Westlakes Drafthouse. But he will say this much: "Every screen will be first-run with one screen alternating with the specialty programming that has made the Alamo famous (eg. Foleyvision, Spaghetti Western Night, Weird Wednesdays). Tim League does orchestrate the special events and those will absolutely make their way to other locations. In addition, each location comes up with ideas for experimentation."
That experimentation can sometimes change the way things are done at home base. The Houston franchise, the Leagues say, has done well with adventurous daily menu specials that have since become a part of the Alamo's overall formula and will be part of the approach in San Antonio. In general, though, food at the Drafthouse consists of entrées that can be eaten without a fork and with a minimum of spillage: cheeseburgers and chicken pesto sandwiches, non-gooey fresh-baked pizzas, stuffed potato skins and focaccia. (Salad and pesto are available for daring diners.) Beverage-wise, the selection is wider than in many cafés. Even the smallest location offers 13 different wines (including two champagnes), two dozen beers ranging from Schlitz to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, sangria, and specialty coffee drinks.
As far as mainstream movies versus arthouse fare, an educated guess predicts not so much of the latter. The suburban Austin location books many more comedies and adventure films than subtitled experimental narratives. (And that's not necessarily a bad thing, even though SA could certainly use more arthouse screens; the more attention to nuance a film requires, the less apt you are to enjoy it while worrying about spilling a meatball sub on your shirt.) Martin is commited to listening to his patrons' needs: "In our seven years - and this is the second location outside of its hometown - the Alamo has been able to get its foothold and learn the nuances of its neighbors and community." In other words, if nobody on the West side comes to see the first three indie masterpieces programmed there, they have only themselves to blame if a fourth doesn't get a booking.
Whatever the market demands in terms of first-run bookings, though, rest assured that Tim League is working fiendishly to come up with movie events so compelling they'll draw cinephiles out of the woodwork. "Right now," Karrie says, "he does things on a one-day-at-a-time basis, where he thinks, 'That'll be fun, let's do it for Downtown.' Now he has to develop things that will work in other markets and on an ongoing basis." That means a small troupe of alchemists, shuttling from Austin to San Antonio to Houston to wherever's next, making jokes about Xanadu and The Terminator. Giving new voice to fiendish kung-fu masters and power-mad invaders from Mars. Plucking a banjo while Buster Keaton single-handedly saves the day.
And all, finally, coming soon to a theater near you. •
The Alamo's Greatest Hits
By John DeFore
Over the last seven years, Austin's Alamo Drafthouse has hosted an astonishing number of memorable movie events. Some are repeatable programs which can be expected to pop up in the new San Antonio location, some represent the cinemaniac spirit of Alamo founders Tim and Karrie League, and some are once-in-a-lifetime near-miracles. Here are a few highlights:
Silent movies plus live music: Classic silent films - like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Battleship Potemkin, or Buster Keaton's The General - get a whiff of fresh air when local musicians from Guy Forsyth to the Golden Arm Trio are commissioned to write original scores, which are then performed live while the movie unspools. You've never seen a more animated audience for a film that's 80 years old.
Foleyvision: Sonic wizard Buzz Moran, assisted by a small crew of actors and musicians, takes a forgotten foreign film - a kung-fu epic like Deadly Silver Ninja, a softcore stag movie, or the self-explanatory Santo Versus the Martian Invasion - then strips away the foreign-language soundtrack, replacing it with live dialogue, music, and sound effects. Instead of making up jokes, the actors read actual subtitle translations, walking a fine line between comedy and straight-faced interpretation.
Mister Sinus Theater: Forgetting that any fine line exists, this crew applies Mystery Science Theater 3000 techniques to deserving '80s trash like Top Gun, Flashdance, and The Lost Boys. Their smart-ass comments have attracted a huge fan base that routinely sells out shows. But the biggest draw with Mister Sinus is the moment in many performances where they stop the film, don homemade costumes, and do an "interpretive dance" that summarizes the plot for anyone who has lost the thread.
Celebrity appearances: At an all-night movie marathon last December, Peter Jackson showed up to screen Return of the King before it opened in theaters; later that night, Mel Gibson brought a working version of The Passion of the Christ, which was months away from release and had never before been shown to a "regular" audience. At other events, William Friedkin spun tales about his The French Connection, and D.A. Pennebaker presented his Bob Dylan documentary Dont `sic` Look Back. Cult actors such as Udo Kier and Enter the Dragon costar Jim Kelly did their thing, both living up to their onscreen reputations. The Leagues also have an endearing habit of digging up forgotten actors who stole scenes in one or two films and then vanished - putting them in front of an appreciative audience and giving them a decades-overdue dose of adulation.
Hong Kong Sunday: Once a month, the regular menu is bolstered with Asian options, and the screen is given over to weird cinematic concoctions from the east: God of Cookery, for instance - a martial arts film by way of Iron Chef, where a collander can save your life - or a swordfighting movie where the hero has only one arm.
All-you-can-eat Spaghetti Westerns: Sergio Leone on the screen, an endless heap of pasta on your plate.
Festivals, festivals, festivals: The Alamo quickly became known for its openness to film societies, DIY festivals, and pretty much anybody with a good idea for a screening series. The Austin Film Society has put on more series than you could count there, but everyone from the Spanish-language Cine Las Americas to the shorts-only CinemaTexas has relied upon the Alamo's skilled projectionists at some point.
Rolling Roadshows: Toting a giant inflatable screen into places movies have never been projected, the Leagues have shown Jaws to a crowd floating in inner tubes on Lake Travis, Deliverance to fearless canoers, and Freddy vs. Jason to the weirdest group of summer-campers you've ever seen. They've staged road rallies for Cannonball Run and co-sponsored free family-oriented screenings in city parks. Tim League intends to help get franchisees set up with portable rigs of their own - so don't be surprised if some day soon, the Alamo Drafthouse (Westlakes) presents The Alamo (1960, John Wayne) at the Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza, downtown San Antonio). •
By John DeFore
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