In Another League: Austin-based movie-dining concept moves east to New York
Who wouldn’t like sitting in a quiet movie theatre without enduring cellphone chats, conversations among fellow patrons, or, worst of all, shrieking toddlers? Indeed, in this fantasy sequence no kids under six are allowed (unless they’re attending a children’s flick) and anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
And it gets even better. Texting is forbidden and a maximum of four film previews run no longer than 15 minutes altogether. Booze, gourmet snacks, and even full-course meals are served to theatregoers while they watch a film. (Admittedly, the latter may not be to all tastes.) Cabaret-style tables are set up at their seats and waiters are on hand throughout.
For Tim League, who founded Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 1997 and now serves as its CEO, it was a no-brainer and an idea whose time had come. He and his wife Karrie simply found the moviegoing experience disappointing, thanks to poor projection, bad sound, dull films and, most egregious, the pervasive rudeness of fellow theatregoers.
Determined to remedy the situation, he launched Drafthouse’s first theatre in Austin, Texas, where the company is based. Today the circuit boasts 11 houses throughout Texas and six other locations across the country, including Winchester, Virginia; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Littleton, Colorado, and as of last August, Yonkers, New York. Another New York theatre is slated to open in downtown Brooklyn, near the Barclays Center next year.
But League’s foray into New York has not been without its challenges. “Everything takes longer and costs more,” he says matter-of-factly. “The same permit that takes a few weeks in Texas takes months in New York.” Indeed, the first New York movie theatre he planned ultimately went belly-up because of construction costs. Thanks to Superstorm Sandy, contractors were overemployed and could charge 50 percent more for their services, he recalls. Still, refurbishing the long-abandoned and gutted Upper West Side Metro—a former art house whose 1932 art deco façade has landmark status—seemed like a natural in the gentrified neighborhood not far from Columbia University.
“There was nothing like our concept in Manhattan at all and we felt there was a lot of opportunity in that community,” League recalls. “I also have a soft spot for classic theatres. Of course, there are problems with a small theatre that only has room for 350 seats, and because there was nothing left in the building we’d have to build a three-level structure from scratch. I had invested a lot of money, but in the end I decided it was not worth it.” (See the article below on the history of the Metro.)
Fifty percent of League’s theatres are built from scratch, the rest are largely renovated old movie houses that have upped and died. Though it varies with locale, most theatres house six auditoriums that seat 50 to 200 and, needless to say, the technology is state-of-the-art. But central to the Drafthouse ethos is its attention to local sensibilities, says League, who always brings onboard community-based programmers, chefs and other employees to reflect homegrown tastes in films and culinary fare. For example, in his Yonkers theatre pizza is a staple, but then so is his Alamo burger (served with a range of toppings—from cheese and bacon to avocado and pesto to the most famous, “Royale with cheese,” borrowing its name from a John Travolta line in the iconic movie Pulp Fiction). Meals may also have some bearing on a film that is being shown, perhaps reflecting its regional setting or mirroring a dinner that the characters are enjoying.
Generally, programming runs the gamut from first-run movies to cult flicks to a host of independent films. A customized video preshow that may include live presentations and/or archival materials is thrown into the mix. All of it is designed to shed an entertaining light on a film. A tongue-in-cheek aesthetic is pervasive. The onscreen promo for Gravity included kitschy ’70s commercials about space travel and clips from an obscure and weird ’80s intergalactic flick.
Drafthouse is by no means the only or even the oldest company attempting to expand its appeal and brand itself, though it’s surely the most elaborate and far-reaching in its national scope. Consider this: League co-founded Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States and recently started a Drafthouse distribution label. While many American movie theatres are reporting lower attendance, Drafthouse is drawing in the crowds. Tickets cost no more—and often less—than those at most other movie houses, despite the enhanced amenities, League points out.
In an effort to compete against the wide variety of entertainment options viewers can enjoy in the comfort of their homes, theatres are increasingly pressured to come up with added attractions, including live performances, technological wizardry and whimsical décor. Drafthouse incorporates all of the above, while creating an environment that fuses the virtues of being at home with a fun communal experience. Drafthouse theatres have become for many theatregoers a destination point.
Still, each city presents its own learning curve. In New York, the notably rugged winter resulted in a snow-laden roof and frozen pipes at the Yonkers theatre. “You don’t have these issues in Texas,” League admits. “But other than the problems caused by the weather, the attendance has been great and it’s growing.”
So, who’s coming to the Westchester movie house? Not surprisingly, a 20s-30s demographic is gravitating towards its action flicks, such as 300: Rise of an Empire or Need for Speed, based on a hot videogame. But older audiences surfaced for Singin’ in the Rain when it was shown some months back and League has discovered that an untapped market for Hollywood classics exists in Westchester. So too do fans of horror flicks. But then consider Yonkers’ proximity to Sleepy Hollow, the home of Washington Irving and the Halloween rituals surrounding his iconic “Headless Horseman,” as well as Irving’s cemetery site.
Young children and their parents are not forgotten either. On weekends the theatre offers family and/or educational programming geared for youngsters who are served a wholesome breakfast or lunch. In one instance, Drafthouse collaborated with the Hudson River Museum to create a kid-friendly series.
Drafthouse etiquette is welcomed and observed, says Cristina Cacioppo, the New York-based creative manager for the company, who admits she initially had doubts that New Yorkers would remain silent, especially during an exciting movie. “It takes a little more educating,” she says. “But for a film like Roadhouse, cheering is part of the experience and we don’t try to stop it.”
Alcohol abuse is not an issue and the surrounding community has not complained about disorderly conduct or drunken drivers pouring out of the movie theatre, she says, adding that the house staff is attuned to drinkers who imbibe too much. At no time was the prospect of alcohol consumption in the theatre a source of contention among the theatre’s neighbors, though until September 2011 a ban on alcohol use in New York movie theatres was still in place.
Matthew Viragh, owner of Nitehawk Cinema, a dine-in and alcohol-serving movie house in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was instrumental in the antiquated law’s demise thanks to his hiring of a lobbyist. The change was long overdue and the lousy economy made it even more so, he insists. The state was looking for additional ways to generate revenue, and creating brand-new theatres or reviving single screen and/or smaller movie theatres—with the help of alcohol sales—was the perfect way to do it.
Nitehawk and Drafthouse are arguably competitors, once the latter opens its City Point doors in downtown Brooklyn. Operating out of a converted warehouse since the summer of 2011, Nitehawk boasts three small theatres that show first-run independent films, repertory, and special screenings in addition to preshow events. Like Alamo, Nitehawk is known for its creative pairings of food offerings with specific films.
Viragh says that he welcomes Alamo's arrival in Brooklyn, and that collectively the two theatres raise the bar and represent a new guard that matches the city’s creativity.
League puts it this way: “I’m not competitive with other theatres, Williamsburg is a whole different world from downtown Brooklyn and it isn't that easy to get between the two neighborhoods. I think there is plenty of room for all of us to do well.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article paraphrased some comments by Matthew Viragh about Alamo Drafthouse which Viragh tells FJI do not reflect his opinion of the Austin-based franchise.
The Little Theatre That Struggled: New York’s Metro
When the Metro marquee announced that Alamo Drafthouse Cinema would be reopening the landmarked movie house in 2014, the news generated community excitement. For a while it looked as if the boarded-up, decayed and abandoned theatre on New York’s Upper West Side might once again see the light of day.
But, as luck would have it, Drafthouse pulled out last fall thanks to inflated construction costs. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, contractors were in heavy demand and could charge whatever the market would bear. In the end, Drafthouse CEO Tim League just didn’t think it was worth it, even though it meant losing a substantial investment. The theatre’s limited space and wretched physical condition—requiring massive reconstruction—didn’t help.
Admittedly, a Drafthouse movie theatre on the Upper West Side would have been a curiosity—serving gourmet fare and adult beverages in the auditorium while audiences watched a film—but its novelty element was precisely part of its appeal, League reasoned. Its location on Broadway between 99th and 100th Street was further attraction to moviegoers, as no cinemas exist between 84th and 125th Streets.
If League’s plans had come to fruition, it certainly would have become an extraordinary coupling of the new and old. Consider the Metro’s history, most pointedly embodied in its iconic 1932 art deco façade that earned landmark status in 1989. Only a handful of those façades exist anywhere, points out Tony W. Robins, architectural historian and preservation consultant. Designed by architects Boak and Paris and inspired by Radio City, the Metro’s signature is its large glazed terracotta circle above the marquee featuring dancing figures flanked respectively by the comedy and tragedy masks.
The Metro has had a bumpy journey, but in some ways one similar to that of many smaller and/or single-screen theatres that have gone belly-up across the country, (e.g., the New Yorker and Regency on New York’s Upper West Side) or been transformed: Jackson Heights’ landmarked Earl, then The Eagle (a movie house specializing in Bollywood flicks), is now a South Asian food court, while Staten Island’s 1938 Lane, also landmarked, has become a church. The Metro’s owner Albert Bialek had tentative deals with Urban Outfitters and Wingspan (a nonprofit arts organization) to utilize the space, but both deals fell through.
For decades the Metro was a respected, well-attended art house showing first-run films before turning to porn in an effort to make ends meet. That didn’t last either and after several other flitting exercises in futility—two national chains came and went—the Metro shuttered in 2004. High rent for a dilapidated space coupled with thinning audiences who could enjoy a range of entertainment options in the comfort of their homes contributed to its demise.
So too did the surrounding neighborhood that had become in the ’70s and ’80s an increasingly seedy and dicey scene, awash in drug dealers, prostitutes and single-room occupancies, aka SROs. Even in better times the West Side, especially north of 96th Street, felt menacing to out-of-towners, the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, and many East Side residents.
“I remember a time when you could discuss the neighborhood block by block,” recalls Robins. “I had a childhood friend who said, ‘It is okay to go to 98th Street, but not 99th Street.’ Others said, ‘It was okay if you stayed on the west side of the street.’ Now you have a glass skyscraper next to the Metro and another one across the street.”
True to the spirit of the Upper West Side, these luxury residences exist in a community that also boasts renovated brownstones, low-end tenements and, yes, a handful of SROs that have survived (or returned). Still, the tone and demographics of the neighborhood have changed. At one time, it was the home of refugees, Holocaust survivors, intellectuals and artists. Mom-and-pop stores were the norm. Today, they have been replaced by chain pharmacies, banks, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Many of the residents, coming from points across the country, have careers in finance and law. One would think the gentrified neighborhood and upscale demographics are a perfect fit for a new neighborhood movie theatre. Not everyone is convinced.
“I would love to see a new movie theatre in the Metro, but I’m not sure the community today would sustain it,” says Bob Botfeld, who has served as Democratic District Leader for 18 years. “The residents have more options, second homes, and their interests are not necessarily related to the neighborhood. They’re more like the traditional East Siders. Still, I’m sorry Alamo did not come here. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened. An empty building is never good news for a neighborhood.”
Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the historical preservation program at Columbia University, feels if the right films were booked, audiences would surface, though he’s not convinced eating a meal while watching a film would have any traction on the Upper West Side. “I can’t imagine people here going to a movie that way.” Still, he believes there’s a market for art films—not revivals—and cites the Paris on West 58th Street and Film Forum in the West Village as perfect examples.
But competition exists closer to home in the Lincoln Center area that boasts Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Walter Reade Theater, both of which show independent art films. Craig Morrison, president of the Theatre Historical Society of America, acknowledges the challenges, but nonetheless also views Film Forum as a potential role model for the Metro, noting its 501C status as a starting point.
No one knows its future, but most sadly speculate that the Metro will be turned into a retail or restaurant space. Biakek insists he has a tenant and will be making an announcement shortly, though the marquee continues to hawk the theatre’s availability.