Alamo Drafthouse Aims to Please the Picturegoer and the Palate

For our latest round of “Dinner at the Movies,” we propose a ride on The Darjeeling Limited to Austin, Texas. Wild mushroom spinach poori and lamb masala are among the savory items offered during what Alamo Drafthouse founder and chief executive officer Tim League calls “very intimate, boutique food and film events for small groups of people.” League and his 210-strong team of programmers, award-winning chefs and service staff are determined to “always refine the experience for our customers.”

“At its core, the Alamo is a lot like other ‘dinner and a movie’ concepts,” League admits, while emphasizing two big differences. “First, my wife [and chief financial officer] Karrie and I are completely movie-obsessed, and we have tried to cultivate a community of similarly obsessed Austinites who respond to movies the same way we do. Also, we always view our business as a cinema first, an eatery second. Not that we don’t pay attention to the food. I am very proud of our food, but we know that the moviegoing experience today is often marred by noise and distractions and we actively try to eliminate or at least minimize those.”

In practical terms, that means “no seat-only options” at all three Alamo Drafthouses, but full-service to custom-designed tables until about 30 minutes before the end of the show. “We try to get service mostly done before the movie starts, but if people want something else during the movie, they write it down and raise an order card.” Flagged that way, the waiters “slink in, pick up the card silently and return with your food or drink. This is surprisingly unobtrusive.”

Counting a single-day record of 3,102 guests and regular weekends at the Lamar theatre of close to 8,000 people, “we try to get as many showtimes a day and, yes, we definitely stagger showtimes,” League confirms. When serving 1,600 dinners in about 45 minutes, “a miscalculation can really devastate the kitchen/service,” he cautions. “We spend a great deal of time on our schedules.” And ordering, one might add. With close to 50,000 burgers served in any given year between all locations, the “Royale with Cheese” remains the number-one item on the menu, followed by beer to the flow of 17,125 gallons poured at a single location between May and August alone. The best-selling food special was the “Krusty Burger meal” during the opening of The Simpsons Movie, which also saw over 1,200 donuts being devoured.

Called “the cathedral of camp, Quentin and queso” by devotees such as the American Statesman, to name but one accolade, the Original Alamo Drafthouse location in downtown Austin’s warehouse district recently closed after ten years. The tradition, which has since seen the launch of a separate franchise unit as well (introduced in FJI in June 2004), continued with the Nov. 1 opening of the new Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz.

“They are all similar,” League contends, “but each has its own flavor. The Village is home to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we do a lot of sporting events and TV programming there. The Lamar theatre is the ‘family-friendly’ location, where we show the all-ages new release films. It’s also home to the ‘Saturday Morning Film Club,’ a free monthly retro kids series sponsored by Ain’t It Cool News. Lamar also has the biggest screens and the beefiest sound of the company. The Ritz will cater to a large young adult crowd, given its location in the heart of the 6th Street entertainment district. The Ritz will take over the legacy of the original downtown location.”

In terms of food, drink and technology, the Ritz is “starting out with a very similar selection to the other Alamo locations,” he continues, “but we change up the menu a bit every six months and offer themed food specials almost every week. All of this is crafted by the Ritz executive chef, Trish Eichelberger.” The mix of quirky films and programs will “absolutely” go on, too. “With two screens,” League predicts, “we’ll mix up our repertory and oddball programming from the Downtown—which covers a very wide, eclectic swath of live comedy shows, documentaries, sing-alongs, cult movies, celebrity guests, etc.—along with first-run content. I am now one voice in a group of five programmers. We are constantly on the prowl for new, interesting and fresh content for the cinema. I am definitely a fan of alternative programs delivered digitally. We dabble a bit in this now and, weighing our options for big d-cinema, I see us offering more and more in the years to come.”

About the years past, League recalls his first venture in Bakersfield, California at the Tejon Theatre in 1994. “I’m just a movie geek at heart, that’s my number-one qualification to be doing what I am doing now. After college…I didn’t really enjoy my job as an engineer at Shell Oil and was looking for an exit strategy. On my way to work there was an abandoned movie theatre that, one day, had a ‘for lease’ sign on the marquee. A week later I had rented the theatre and, within two months, after a rigorous renovation process, we were open for business and I had quit engineering for good.”

Although “some of what would become our core Alamo signature events started there,” the single-screen art house “was something of a financial disaster,” he admits. “Karrie and I were just 24 when we opened the Tejon, with no experience in the industry, and after two years of hard at work, we felt we better understood how the business should work.” Their honeymoon in Portland, Oregon also proved influential. “We went up to check out the McMenamins theatre chain, about which we had heard great things. Seeing McMenamins in operation really inspired us to embrace the cinema/eatery concept, although our execution of it is different.” (For more information about McMenamins, see our August issue.)

How they came up with the name is another story. “There are actually four reasons,” League recounts. “First, being in Texas, we wanted to go with an iconic Texas name. Next, we bought a vintage neon sign that had room for five to six letters on the face. The top of the original building was reminiscent of the shape of the Alamo mission, and lastly, we realized that Alamo would put us first in the phone book.” Talk about lessons learned.

As a co-designer and general contractor to boot, “I have personally been involved in building almost all of the Alamo Drafthouse locations,” League says. “Each time we build one, we realize a few things that we can tweak and make better. The Ritz is replacing the original Alamo location. We loved that old spot dearly, but it was also built with almost no money and a lot less experience. We are taking a lot of care in the design of the Ritz and righting many of the issues that were problematic with the first location.

“We kept the historic façade of the building and the vintage neon and signage, plus we are fabricating from scratch a replica of the signage that was taken down in the ’70s,” he continues, detailing the six-month, $1.5 million project. “On the inside, however, we started from scratch, taking it down to four walls and dirt… After it was a family theatre from 1929 to the late 1960s, the Ritz was a porno theatre, then turned into subsequent venues for rock, punk and heavy metal and, finally, a bar for almost 20 years. There were layers and layers of bad finish-out and grime.”

Although it was decided that “nothing could really be salvaged,” Alamo at the Ritz pays homage to its storied history as the first Austin movie house designed for the talkies. “The theatre spaces themselves are similar to our other auditoria, with the exception of some more vintage-style upholstery on the seats,” League confirms. “The lobby is going to be more ornate with vintage choices in the details, the tile, finish and artwork. We have also assembled a good deal of memorabilia from the various phases of the Ritz that will all be on display in various parts of the theatre.”

Creating this kind of atmosphere is certainly another part of keeping “the movie experience exciting and fun.” Tim League believes if we all do that—along with a few other key activities discussed in our sidebar—then “we’ll have no trouble keeping the customers coming for years to come.”

Questions for Tim League
“If I have a couple Dos XX and a bowl of carne guidasa stew, even Norbit comes off not half bad,” Tim League opines. Nonetheless, “I’m still a sucker for a large popcorn with real butter and salt.” But Film Journal International also wanted to hear his take on some other facts of life, including the current state of the exhibition industry. “Despite a lot of doom and gloom that has been forecasted for the industry in general, I still remain optimistic. Home theatres are better, people are watching more movies on their laptops and iPods, but I remain convinced that despite all this, the cinema industry will continue to exist.”

What is the biggest challenge that theatrical exhibition is currently facing?
To continue to make a trip to the movies a compelling option for a night out on the town.

What is the biggest challenge for Alamo the company?
After selling off the “expanding/expansion” Alamo Drafthouse company, we now only own the three central Austin locations. As we aren't expanding, I need to find opportunities to keep the work interesting and rewarding for my core employees. We do this by crafting signature programming and expanding the scope of our offerings. Examples of this are the Rolling Roadshow Tour, a nationwide outdoor tour of famous movies in famous places, and Fantastic Fest, now the largest genre film festival in the United States.

What motivated the Roadshow?
We came up with the idea for the Roadshow as an extension of some of the specialty programming we did at the cinema. One of the principles behind our programming is to immerse people in the movie experience. We were listening to the radio and some bluegrass banjo music came on. It made us start talking about Deliverance. We started talking about what the ultimate Deliverance event would be and came up with our first Rolling Roadshow screening: a canoe trip followed by a screening of the film on the banks of the river with a meal of whole roasted pig. Since then, we’ve shown The Descent at the bottom of a cave, The Searchers in Monument Valley, Jaws on the open water with audience members in inner tubes and about 150 more titles and events. The Rolling Roadshow is our ultimate expression of movie immersion and we take it on the road each summer as a nationwide touring series called The Rolling Roadshow Tour.

If you could change one thing about the way this industry works, what would it be?
Stop releasing crap. There’s a whole other side of the business of making movies now: promotional advertising partners and product placement that can shape the content of film. Demographic surveys that determine script content, and the recklessly out-of-control budgets for blockbusters that end up creating fair to middling stories and an overabundance of milquetoast sequels. We just had a record-breaking summer this year; but the vast majority of the blockbusters this year, in my opinion, were lousy. The films that really got people excited in our theatres this summer were Knocked Up and Superbad, two very smart and very fresh comedies. These were the only big studio films we played that had real legs. The others opened big and were dead in a couple of weeks. When a film doesn’t have legs, that means to me that people either aren’t talking about it, or they are not saying positive things about their trip to the cinema. To me, that's a big problem and, other than punk-ass kids talking on their cell-phones in the movie, is the biggest problem with the industry today.

Ten years from now, are we still going to the movies?
You bet. Nearly all of my most favorite lifetime movie experiences have been at a theatre watching with a group of like-minded folks. I see lots of movies on my laptop and DVD player at home, but there is an electric charge of reacting together with a crowd, all experiencing a great movie together that just can't be duplicated. Damn the naysayers! Cinema is here to stay.

Fancy Feast
“One of our signature items has become the ‘Feast,’ where we take a movie and do a five-course meal with exclusive wine pairings,” says Alamo’s chief operating officer, Mike Sherrill, citing The Darjeeling Limited. “Since the movie is only 91 minutes and we served 85 people, this means we had to serve and prepare an item every 5.3 seconds in order to finish on time.”
First Course: Wild mushroom spinach poori, Yukon gold and long bean paratha, Pappadam with date chutney
Second Course: Pumpkin Madras Soup with pumpkin seed crusted seared scallop and Darjeeling tea crème fraiche
Third Course: Fresh Saag Paneer and baby spinach salad with fennel raita
Fourth Course: Lamb Masala Kebab with saffron basmati rice and spicy cauliflower and leek
Dessert: Coconut ice cream, cashew milk and jalebi

Fast Facts
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
South Lamar
Austin, TX
Business: (512) 912-0529
Fax: 630-839-7663
E-mail: tim@originalalamo.com
Web Page: www.originalalamo.com
Year Founded: 1997
Total Theatres: 3
Total Screens: 12

Tim League, founder and CEO
Karrie League, founder, CFO
Mike Sherrill, COO
Andrew McEathron, Chief Technical Officer
Henri Mazza, Creative Director
John Bullington, Executive Chef

Preferred Vendors
Strong, Century and Simplex projectors; Kelmar automation systems, Isco lenses, Crown amplifiers, JBL speakers, DTS and Dolby Digital sound formats, Hurley screens, Mobiliario chairs, Tempo aisle lighting.
Soft drinks and beverages: Coca-Cola products, plus Maine Root Beer on tap, fresh-squeezed lemonade and orange juice, fresh-brewed iced tea, and Red Bull.