Alamo theaters take last stand against mediocre film-going experience

Hesher,” a dark comedy that opened Friday , arrived at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March with a dilemma. Fourteen months had passed since its 2010 Sundance premiere — how to renew buzz for a film that wouldn’t open nationwide until May? Fortunately, producers had something most fest entries didn’t: Tim League loved the film.

To celebrate the heavy-metal-themed movie, League’s Alamo Drafthouse team invaded a historic Austin mansion for a post-screening party that was a headbanger’s fantasy, with metal bands, flaming lawn furniture and an exploding swimming pool. Or, as League describes the scene: “mayhem, hijinks, ballyhoo.”

  • ( Courtesy Alamo Drafthouse ) - Alamo Audience in full Steve Zissou costume watch Wes Anderson's ‘The Life Aquatic.’
  • ( Courtesy Alamo Drafthouse ) - ‘Robosaurus’ claims its latest victim outside the Alamo Drafthouse as part of a ‘Transformers’ promotion.
  • ( Annie Ray ) - Tim League/CEO-Founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas outside Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Tex.

( Courtesy Alamo Drafthouse ) - Alamo Audience in full Steve Zissou costume watch Wes Anderson's ‘The Life Aquatic.’

That’s to be expected from the Alamo, a cinema/restaurant/performance space that has taken movie lovers on canoe trips to deep-woods “Deliverance” screenings, led spelunking expeditions to watch “The Goonies” underground, and shown “Jaws” to fans who floated in inner tubes while scuba divers grabbed their feet from below. If William Castle (the ’50s showman famous for rigging theater seats to vibrate during “The Tingler”) has an heir, it’s League — a movie-smitten exhibitor who’ll do anything to get others as excited as he is.

The Alamo has become famous among film fanatics — Entertainment Weekly called it “the best theater in America,” and it was name-dropped on “Heroes.” But League, who founded the theater with his wife, Karrie, in 1997 and built it into a Texas chain, isn’t content simply to (as the local slogan goes) “Keep Austin Weird.” He wants all of America to get the Alamo experience, which consists of a simple but tremendous pleasure: Watching movies in the best possible projection environment while ninja-silent waitstaff bring you dinner and drinks.

The first out-of-state Drafthouse opened a year and a half ago in Winchester, Va. Stephen Nerangis, a partner in that eight-screen outpost, says that when he visited the original, “we felt like we had walked into the coolest theater in the world, and we wanted to bring that atmosphere back with us.” Now, he says, the Winchester franchise draws viewers “from all over the East Coast.”

For their home theater in Austin, the Leagues recruited chefs from serious restaurants and put microbrew beers on the menu — flat soda and stale popcorn don’t exist here. But the Alamo has happily given away 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor when showing blaxploitation flicks, dished up all-you-can-eat pasta for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and pretended to serve human flesh during cannibal movies.

The Alamo recruits stars to introduce films — not just ordinary celebs, such as Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson, but quirky guests: the 60-foot-tall fire-breathing “Robosaurus” that welcomed ticket holders to “Transformers.” (Yes, the Alamo’s gimmicks are often more satisfying than the movies they promote.)

Nationwide expansion of the 11-theater chain has become Tim League’s main focus. He is not a reticent man (he once entered the boxing ring with “Girlfight” star Michelle Rodriguez to debate the merits of “Avatar”), but he’s mum about which city will get the next Alamo. For a year he has hinted about New York and Los Angeles branches, but complications — New York liquor regulations, for instance — have pushed them back.

He says he expects Nerangis’s team to expand before too long, probably getting closer to Washington. Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs are putting their own spin on the film-plus-food concept, including Brooklyn’s tiny “gastropub theater” reRun and L.A.’s hoity-toity ArcLight.

League welcomes any competitor making moviegoing more fun. “I didn’t invent this concept,” he says. “We ripped it off and made it our own. That’s what a lot of people have done.”

But running projectors and serving concessions is only one corner of the film-buff ecosystem, and League has designs on others. He entered the distribution business last year, launching Drafthouse Films to distribute the button-pushing terrorism comedy “Four Lions.”

And last week at Cannes, he announced he would co-produce “The ABCs of Death,” an anthology film whose 26 chapters will be directed by such edgy filmmakers as Ben Wheatley (“Down Terrace”) and Nacho Vigalondo (“Timecrimes”).

The Alamo has expanded its influence in other ways, including cross-country “Rolling Roadshow” tours and co-founding Fantastic Fest in 2005 to showcase the kind of genre movies — horror, sci-fi, uncategorizable Japanese weirdness — that League and his pals love most. Exposure at the fest has been crucial for some filmmakers — none more so than Gareth Edwards, an unknown who premiered his debut “Monsters” at Fantastic Fest’s South by Southwest spinoff and was soon hired to direct a mega-budget “Godzilla” film, planned for 2014 release by Legendary Pictures, producers of the recent “Dark Knight” movies.

“Monsters” was essentially a rough draft when League selected it, but League smelled something good.

“Tim League was the only person from any of the festivals that had confidence in our movie,” Edwards says, adding that for the premiere, the Alamo team dressed as knights to make the British filmmaker feel at home and primed the audience with drinking games. “Showing your film at the Alamo,” he says, “is like joining some crazy film fraternity.”

Next up: a fanboy-centric promotional arm. The pyrotechnic “Hesher” party was the latest in a string of PR efforts that began as simple expressions of fandom (homemade T-shirts and the like) but grew into a moneymaking side business. Alamo graphic artists promote movies with everything from limited-edition posters to, in the case of the new flick “Hobo With a Shotgun,” a retro-style video game available in the iTunes app store.

But don’t expect League’s team to produce “Gnomeo & Juliet” Happy Meals; a movie has to win League’s heart to be worth the Alamo’s time. “We get approached by a lot of folks to do posters and marketing,” he says, “but we’re only going to do it on things we think are cool.”

DeFore is a freelance writer.

 
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