By Ahsika Sanders
In 1997, Austin welcomed a new and innovative theater idea that Entertainment Weekly would later name “the best theater in the world.” Alamo Drafthouse theaters are quaint and unconventional in almost every way. From the eccentric local staff to the bizarre movie line-ups and cult classic themed nights, the Drafthouse promises a unique movie experience that Austinites and tourists alike have bought into. From its humble beginnings in Austin, Texas, the Drafthouse caught the world’s attention with events like the “Butt-Numb-Athon” — a 24-hour film marathon for Harry Knowles’ birthday — and “Terror Tuesdays” where viewers can catch eclectic monster movie showings every week for a dollar.
Alamo Drafthouse began as just an idea by an inspired Tim and Karrie League in 1994. Tim saw an empty theater in Bakersfield, Calif., and his love for movies pushed him toward the theater business, without any prior experience. The Bakersfield theater, which League called “an unmitigated financial disaster” in his homepage bio, went under in 1995. “He was trying to spend his time doing what he loved — the movies — and it worked for him,” says former creative programmer Daniel Metz. “The first theater may have been gone but when he was there he learned what he needed to know to start in Austin, and that’s how the Drafthouse was born.”
League knew he wanted a unique movie experience that made viewers feel at home, but the Drafthouse took years to develop into the highly praised spectacle it is today. League had the idea to incorporate food and drink into his cinema. He coupled that with his desire to create a theater that was a sanctuary for film lovers, but the current theater’s unique edge was one unlike any other.
The Drafthouse has been a local fan favorite for years, and last year, the theater got national attention by taking a stand against improper cinema etiquette and turning an angry customer’s complaint call into a PSA to ward off in-theater text/tweeters.
With a title like “best theater in America,” it’s no surprise that the Drafthouse wouldn’t remain unique to Austin forever. They are franchising and intend to expand. The five theaters in Austin, three in San Antonio and two in Houston will soon be joined by one in Dallas. The “coming soon” list also includes single locations in Colorado, Northern Virginia, New York and California.
In late 2013, San Francisco will welcome the Drafthouse’s newest edition to the rapidly developing chain. Alamo CEO and founder Tim League is particularly excited about the West Coast move saying, “with the possible exception of Austin, San Francisco is my favorite city in the world…it is no accident that the first theater outside of Austin that my wife and I pursued is in San Francisco.”
UT film student and life-long Austinite Rhea Fluker says there is no better place than the Drafthouse to see a movie. Fluker says she has been enjoying Drafthouse productions for over 12 years now. “I’ve gone to a Drafthouse in Houston and it’s still better than most, but nothing compares to the atmosphere in Austin,” she says. “I’d be sad to suddenly see dozens popping up across the nation but I guess you can’t really be mad at progress.”
Henri Mazzaa, head of the creative department at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, says there hasn’t really been any fan resistance to the approaching expansion, with many Austinites actually optimistic about the growth. “I think most of the locals I talk to are excited about the idea of their friends in other cities being able to have the same experience with going to the movies that they get to enjoy here,”Mazza says. “Yeah, it’s cool to be an Austin-only thing, but it’s sad when you call your friends back home and they still have to deal with people texting in their theater when they want to go see the next superhero movie.”
However, Mazza says people have expressed a little bit of concern that the theater could lose its eccentricity if it became a major chain — a concern Mazza says they considered long before making any moves.
“The bottom line is that we wouldn’t really be pursuing expansion if we weren’t going to make sure the new theaters we open are the coolest movie theaters in their cities.” Mazza says. “The Drafthouse has eccentricity engrained in our DNA, and one of the main reasons I’ve personally been wanting to see us expand for years is because I love the idea of bringing our unique brand of signature programming and exciting events to a larger audience.”
Each city will have their own team of programmers and creative managers to follow trends and select the best entertainment befitting their audiences. While events like the monthly Quote Along and Big Screen Classic are generally promoted across the board, each individual theater specially tailors their line-up of events and showing to their local audience. “We’ve got a great pool of programmers ready to take on each city that we’ve got a theater under construction in, and one of the things I’m most excited about is watching to see how that network of local programmers works together to influence what becomes a bigger player on the national stage,” he says.
“It’s a big dream, but so was the idea of opening up a movie theater that serves beer in a parking garage in the warehouse district of Austin 16 years ago,” Mazza says.