Brooklyn Breakthrough: Alamo Drafthouse readies its New York City debut

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Many industry observers consider Alamo Drafthouse to be one of the more creative, outside-the-box theatrical exhibition circuits. In the words of founder and CEO Tim League, “We come at this from a movie lover’s perspective and are very serious about presentation quality on our screens—including projection and sound systems.”

Alamo operates with a somewhat unconventional franchise ownership structure, extremely rare for the exhibition industry. This strategy is clearly working, reflecting a nearly 20-year track record of success. According to League, their operating philosophy has helped swiftly expand Alamo’s appeal and fostered a growing reputation for driving customer satisfaction and loyalty across its regional locations. The actual look and feel of individual theatres is defined by local teams running day-to-day operations, as long as certain corporate standards are upheld.

The premise is that local management and on-site associates are better at understanding the ins and outs of their area and competitive landscape better than a centralized corporate team with a cookie-cutter approach. The company encourages hiring local personnel including chefs, beverage managers and curators of the onscreen content.

Visitors to the upcoming Brooklyn, New York location will be greeted by a large, colorful collection of Turkish movie posters throughout the complex, beautiful tin ceilings in the lobby bar area, and a NYC-themed King Kong/top of the Empire State Building 3D photo-op display ideal for snapping selfies and group shots designed to be shared via social media (instructions provided).

Perhaps most unique is the historic 1870s German “House of Wax” museum collection that has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. League anticipates that this bar will become a unique destination—both for pre- and post-movie attendance as well as other folks seeking a cool downtown neighborhood bar staffed by drink-serving employees that will also double as museum personnel.

NYC or Bust

Drafthouse’s long-awaited New York City debut was originally planned for Manhattan’s Upper West Side back in 2012. Ultimately, those plans got waylaid due to rising construction costs (in part due to Hurricane Sandy’s devastating aftermath), which delayed that project and unfortunately made it economically unfeasible.

Although Alamo already has a Yonkers location in Westchester that is technically not all that far geographically from the northern border of Manhattan, if you don’t have your own set of wheels, which is true of many native New Yorkers, that theatre might as well be located in another galaxy.

As such, news of Alamo’s imminent plans to enter one of New York City’s five boroughs has many Brooklynites and area film fans with access to the myriad of transportation options, including direct access to the Atlantic Terminal hub, buzzing with anticipation. Its brand new Gold Street location is slated to open its doors to the public quite soon.

How soon is a bit of an uncertain moving target. But a recent on-site conversation with Tim League, accompanied by a behind-the-scenes tour of the under-construction site (hardhats required and provided) led by Alamo’s New York programmer Cristina Cacioppo, clearly demonstrated that the requisite furniture, fixtures and digital equipment are already in place. In other words, they are ready to entertain what League, Cacioppo and their eager staff hope will be hordes of adoring hipsters.

Drafthouse’s 25th location is based in the newly constructed City Point, billed as Downtown Brooklyn’s largest food, shopping and entertainment destination. Retail neighbors include an eclectic mix, expected to drive traffic to this urban mall. Department stores Century 21 and Target, Trader Joe’s supermarket, and dining establishments Fortina, which will be serving Italian fare, and DeKalb Market Hall comprise Alamo’s co-anchor tenants.

DeKalb has lined up nine food vendors—ranging from a Vietnamese street food purveyor called Bun-Ker to an outpost of the famed Lower East Side delicatessen Katz’s. Alamo will of course also be dishing up a full menu of food prepared fresh from scratch including its signature flatbreads and chopped salads, accompanied by cocktail selections from a fully stocked lobby bar featuring an astounding choice of 48 New York-based local craft beers on tap.  

Founding Alamo Drafthouse... a Happy Accident

With its newest location soon to be unveiled, it is worth noting the chain’s somewhat random yet fortuitous beginnings. In retrospect, League pulled off a pretty dramatic and ultimately successful early career pivot in his early 20s. He quickly exited what could have been a promising engineering career at Shell Oil in favor of the world of cinematic exhibition ownership, and hasn’t looked back.

Reflecting on those early days, he states, “That was sort of a happy accident. I decided early on that I was not going to retire from an oil industry job so I started thinking about maybe pursuing other fields or perhaps opening a business. One day on my way to work I spotted an abandoned theatre in Bakersfield, California that had a ‘For Lease’ sign posted. I always loved movies and I immediately thought that this was a career where I could actually enjoy myself.” 

By his own admission, however, he didn’t know what he was doing early on and that first location was “a bit of a failure.” Rather than throwing in the towel and abandoning his dream of becoming a successful exhibitor, he took a couple of years off to retool, figure it out and then jumped right back into the deep end a few years later. In 1997, he opened his first Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Today, Austin remains Alamo’s hometown headquarters with 20 percent of their footprint based there, the circuit’s largest geographic cluster.

Not Your Typical Theatrical Exhibitor

With nearly two decades under its belt, the growing chain today boasts a well-deserved reputation for its prowess in curating an eclectic blend of cinematic content. According to League, “About ten percent of our ticket sales come from presenting non-Hollywood product that varies from classics to movies that are ‘outside the norm’ of what a typical theatrical exhibitor would present.”

A prime example is Fantastic Fest, where you are likely to encounter a wide array of movies that in all likelihood will not be coming soon to a non-Alamo affiliated multiplex anywhere near you. Specialties include horror, fantasy, sci-fi and action-oriented product. Several recognizable movies that celebrated world premieres at Fantastic Fest include There Will Be Blood and Frankenweenie.

League has a passion for unique film presentations and offbeat promotions, in addition to his interest in preserving 35mm projection equipment and VHS tapes. One cool promotion he enthusiastically shared involves one of his top all-time movie choices, Buster Keaton’s The General, from cinema’s silent era.

Under League’s direction, Alamo once rented a steam train and transported a group of film-going passengers out to a beautiful pasture in the middle of Texas. The film was staged at the railroad’s turnaround point. Blues musicians provided live accompaniment and the train conductor provided actual train whistles as part of the movie soundtrack, when signaled by the bandleader.

Other creative endeavors include Drafthouse Films, the organization’s movie distribution arm that specializes in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world.”

According to Cacioppo, their City Point location will proudly be presenting some of the popular Alamo staple programs such as “Terror Tuesday” and “Weird Wednesday.” Other things to look forward to include interactive programming with audience members supplied with props, “Girlie Night” promotions and fun programming that will appeal to families.

No Talk/No Text/No Ads

In addition to the chain’s reputation for curating unique content in a creative way, Alamo also has some day-to-day in-theatre policies that distinguish it from most of its competition. Its no talk/no text policy is strictly enforced at all locations and, according to League, this dates back to Drafthouse’s early days.

Only a few weeks into its inaugural operations, they screened David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, accompanied by a very cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon beer special. Needless to say, the audience got into a bit of a rowdy, overly inebriated mood and League immediately decided that this was not what he wanted or envisioned for their brand. Soon thereafter, League self-produced an onscreen PSA message to Alamo theatregoers and it has become part of the brand’s ethos ever since.

Shortly after Alamo guests are seated pre-movie, a member of the wait staff will greet them and mention the no/no policy before taking food and drink orders, well before the show starts. According to League, 90% of the process is setting rules ahead of time and making it clear that you will enforce this policy.

In-theatre staff proactively monitor patron behavior, which is relatively easy because they are constantly on-call in each auditorium to provide speedy food and drink service. If a guest continues to disturb fellow patrons after an initial stern warning, team members are not averse to asking the unruly individual(s) to kindly leave the premises.

Another Alamo differentiator is a policy against subjecting audiences to onscreen advertising. The vast majority of U.S.-based exhibitors participate in revenue-share advertising pre-shows as members of National CineMedia’s or Screenvision’s network, which present both local and national spots during the time before movie trailers commence.

League sums it up by adding, “There are little things about going to the movies that aren’t great (such as talking and texting). We focus on providing our guests with great picture, great presentations, great sound and we don’t show ads. That is part of the Alamo brand. I feel we’ve been able to get that (lack of ad revenue) back by customer loyalty.”

Brooklyn awaits…

Editor's note: The Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse has now set an opening date of Oct. 28, 2016.