NEW YORK – Anyone visiting the new, much talked-about Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Brooklyn will experience an educational workshop that includes short Public Service Announcements starring the likes of Kevin Bacon, Ethan Hawke, Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy in praise of the venue. In a press tour last month, ahead of the opening of the small chain’s first movie theater in New York, CEO and founder Tim League proudly screened one of the shorts.
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This is a low-budget, two-minute PSA, in which American actress, comedian and activist Janeane Garofalo looks straight into the camera and conducts an amusing inventory of dark moments in history, from the Spanish Inquisition and slavery to the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. From there, she segues smoothly onto the scourge of modern times: the use of cellphones in the cinema. “If you’re speaking into a cellphone in the cinema, you’re actually supporting racism, xenophobia, genocide and infanticide. So please keep your mouth shut!”
This humorous comparison may deter anyone who has never heard of Alamo Drafthouse or the philosophy of League. He’s a successful producer-distributor who’s trying to reinvent the movie theater and doesn’t hesitate to use nconventional (and not always legal) methods – such as screenings for smokers, or stoner movies that include a joint as part of the admission price.
League takes his vision seriously. The chain, which has been called “the best cinema in the United States” by Entertainment Weekly magazine, was founded in Austin, Texas, by League and his wife Karrie in 1997. It now comprises 25 theaters all over the United States, a distribution company and an annual film festival in Austin called Fantastic Fest, which is considered one of the most influential film festivals in the United States.
As with all the best legends, it began in glorious failure. In 1993, after a short and far-from-illustrious career with Shell Oil, a 23-year-old League tried to open his first movie theater, in Bakersfield, California. The initiative failed after two years and left him and his wife saddled with debts, projectors, screens and sound systems. The couple moved to the university city of Austin, where they came across an abandoned parking lot on Colorado Street. They purchased the lot and built a movie theater, which served food and alcohol, and specialized in special events and screening classics.
This time, success was not so elusive: Shortly after the Alamo Drafthouse opened, it became the unofficial home of local filmmakers like Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” the “Before Sunrise” trilogy) and, later, Quentin Tarantino, who began to host five-day viewing marathons of action and cult films from his private collection.
But not everything ran so smoothly. “We cut together our first PSA [public service announcement] back in 1997, five and a half weeks into operation,” recalls League. “We didn’t have a ‘No talking and texting policy’ back then, and one day we showed [David Lynch’s] ‘Blue Velvet’ with a really cheap cocktail special – and people had too much to drink. The audience became really rowdy and unruly, and it broke my heart. It was a traumatizing experience and one of the lowest points in the history of this establishment.
“I hated it, and so the next weekend I got a copy of Final Cut Pro and started editing PSAs to tell people to shut up,” he continues. “We reinforce that with a serious message where we tell people what our policy is: You have one warning, and if you continue texting or talking after that warning, we’ll throw you out without a refund. We mean it, we do it, we don’t joke about it. And what it does is makes the space safe for real movie fans.”
The amusing videos are part of League’s overall philosophy: He says there’s no reason why a filmgoer who’s bought a ticket should be forced to sit through ads before the screening. Therefore, he completely ruled out advertisements at Alamo, replacing them with about 30 minutes of film clips: favorite scenes, riddles and videos especially suited to "warm up" the audience for the main feature. For example, a showing of the lesbian thriller “The Handmaiden,” directed by Park Chan-wook, was accompanied by a collection of scenes from Korean arthouse films, British melodramas and viral videos of purring cats in bubble baths. (Why? Why not?)
Instead of ads and audience chatter, Alamo’s movie theaters offer a tempting combination of restaurant, bar (with more thant 50 types of boutique beers), films and museum space. The entrance to every theater features the carpet seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which has become the chain’s trademark. The theaters themselves have a unique design, with every two seats sharing a square wooden table.
Before and after the film, you can choose from a varied and ever-changing menu (the Alamo chain refused to serve soft drinks manufactured by Coca-Cola, instead offering soda and soft drinks that are meant to be healthier and less sugary).
The moment the film starts, filmgoers are invited to write their order on a slip of paper and insert it into a purposefully designed slot in the table. To enable them to write in the dark, the bottoms of the tables feature small reading lamps (that don’t interfere with the movie-viewing). Waiters who have undergone strenuous training and treat their work with Ninja-like seriousness show up occasionally, very quietly, in order to collect the slips of paper, serve the food and put the bill on the table.
You do everything possible in order to prevent interruptions while people watch the film, including a strict policy against latecomers. But the theater itself actually serves as a restaurant and there are waiters serving food in the middle of the film. How can you limit these interruptions?
“We came up with this model in 1997. Most of the ordering happens before the movie begins, and we encourage people to come early so they can catch the ‘pre-show’ screening we curated for them and order food. There’s no advertising in the theater, because I hate it. For me, going to the movies should be like a premium cable experience: you already paid for your ticket. We also utilize this free application called RunPee, which tells you when it’s safe to go urinate during the movie and not miss anything crucial.”
A number of new movie theaters opened in New York recently, including the Metrograph and Nitehawk. Does This competition concern you?
“Personally, I always think there’s room for more screens. I really respect anybody who’s doing good work, especially in terms of great presentation and great programing. We know the Metrograph people really well and I recently attended a screening there and loved it. It’s a pretty small community of people who are programmers. We’re all friends and it’s an all-ships-rise situation for us, so there’s no conflict or animosity. New York is a gigantic city and it is still underscreened – even with all these new theaters. There’s even room for more.”
The new Alamo in Brooklyn is the result of years of planning, and a significant investment of millions of dollars that can only pay off if the theater survives for years. Why do you think people will still be going to the movies in another 10, 15 or 20 years?
“Is the cinema over in 15 years? I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but let’s have a beer in 15 years and we’ll see. People have been predicting the demise of cinema before the advent of television or any other new technology: cable, Netflix, etc. Personally, I think it’s a red herring argument. As long as we can provide an experience that’s worth getting out of the house [for], we compete more with going out for dinner or going to see a band.”
When League uses the word “experience,” he’s deadly earnest. He’s probably the only distributor in the world crazy enough to spend $20,000 on a stuntman in a futuristic space suit, who hovered above the Alamo cinema in Austin before the opening of “Iron Man” (“He hovered in the air for about 42 seconds, so it’s doubtful if it was worth it”). Other original ideas included a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”), during which entry was limited to heavy smokers (“If you smoke less than a pack during the film, you have no reason to see it”), while one especially memorable event was the screening of stoner film “Up in Smoke” (1978), with Cheech and Chong, during which staff provided filmgoers with joints.
While a number of small movie theaters in the center of Tel Aviv have closed in recent years (including the Gat and Orlando cinemas), League’s model is picking up momentum in New York. Since 2010, several new movie theaters have opened in the area: the hipster Metrograph in Chinatown (with two theaters and a snack bar); the popular Nitehawk in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which copied the combination of a bar, restaurant and movie theater from Alamo); the prestigious iPic in Fulton Market, which also offers the combination of a restaurant-movie theater; the Quad in Greenwich Village, which is about to reopen after extensive renovations in recent months; and the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. These movie theaters join countless veteran screening venues, including the IFC (which will soon expand to 11 theaters), the movie theater at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and the Film Forum in the Village.
The two-story Alamo building in Brooklyn may surprise some visitors. On the ground floor you’ll find a strange combination of a designer bar and 19th-century wax museum called The House of Wax.
“The ‘House of Wax’ bar is a unique feature of this space,” League said during the press tour. “It includes a private collection of oddities called Castan’s Panopticum, which was a German museum in the 1880s. It was a museum of everything, including death masks and body parts. We have a lot of pathological pieces related to diseases. Castan’s Panopticum circumvented the obscenity laws and was able to show nudity under the guise of public health and safety. So there is a lot of syphilis, which was incurable at the time. These were cautionary tales. But this also predates popular photography and film. Aside from painting, this was one of the only times that these representations were available for the general public. This is almost like proto-cinema: a lot of the ideas about exploitation in film started here, with the idea of using public health and safety to show nudity. These wax museums and panopticons were popular up until the 1920s, when they all went out of business because the same price point as a museum admission could get you a movie ticket. So this collection was put out of business by the cinema, and that’s why we thought it would be interesting to showcase it and have it be a part of our complex.”
Despite the charming combination of a cocktail bar, chef’s restaurant, wax museum and movie theater, the main drawback of movie theaters like the Alamo or Nitehawk is that they make for a very expensive night out: A movie ticket at Alamo costs $14.50 (sometimes more for special screenings), while most of the main dishes on the menu cost between $15 and $20, while a cocktail will add another $11.
The Alamo model is trying to offer an alternative to the large U.S. chains, led by AMC and Regal cinemas, which are trying to tempt viewers with high-tech gimmicks like leather armchairs that convert into beds, advanced sound systems and gigantic IMAX screens. League, though, refuses to get excited about modern screening technologies, and thinks 3-D has become overused.
But he clearly has special affection and nostalgia for film. “We are deeply committed to film preservation and have 35-mm. projectors. We founded an archive around 10 years ago, and since then have acquired over 4,000 films and many collections – including one of the only remaining 35-mm. prints of the Turkish rip off of ‘Star Wars.’ We loan out more films than the Academy. We’re working with museums and film festivals across the globe. We recently opened and hosted a 35-mm certification program in Austin, because we’re dedicated to film projection and preservation.”
Next year, League will open the first Alamo cinema in Los Angeles and launch a New York version of Fantastic Fest. The Brooklyn movie theater was officially opened late last month, but many of its screenings have sold out in advance.
“We’re constantly expanding and trying to have a variety of programing,” says League. “We’re also doing a collaboration with the New York Asian Film Festival called ‘In the Mood for Gore,’ which includes 35-mm. presentations of Hong Kong horror movies from the 1980s and ’90s. We are trying to collaborate with as many great New York organizations as possible. We’re new in town, and open for suggestions.”