Alamo Drafthouse Starts 2015 as Cultural Force

Tomorrow the “Boogie Nights” auteur will visit Denver’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to personally screen “Inherent Vice,” the latest sign of the theater chain’s clout.

When Sony briefly yanked “The Interview” from theaters, Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League led the charge to allow independent theaters to show the comedy.

The Austin-based corporation prides itself on its purist posture – no talking, no texting is the movie-going mantra. But the chain offers much more than that. Special events like the Anderson visit, throwback screenings for screen classics, live commentaries provided by the people behind the films in question and other cinema-based festivities inject new life into a night at the movies.

And let’s not forget the food and drink served in Alamo theaters, menus that get the occasional nip and tuck depending on the event in question. Think of it as a welcome expansion of the movie-going experience, but one that keeps the films front and center.

Alamo Cinema Drafthouse event

The Alamo Drafthouse model started from the most humble of origins. An old parking garage in Austin, Texas served as the first theater’s home back in 1997. Today, the chain can be found across Texas as well as other states including Colorado, California, Michigan and New York. More locations are promised in the months to come.

Denver-based film critic Walter Chaw joined Denver’s Alamo theater last year as its general manager. Chaw spoke to about his first months on the job and what makes the Alamo brand matter going into 2015.

HiT: As a relatively new member of the Alamo family — what strikes you the most about the way the theatrical chain operates that’s different from a traditional movie house beyond the obvious special events?

Walter Chaw: What drew me to the Alamo as a guy who deeply cares about film, its history and its future, is that it’s a movie house that’s genuinely passionate about how we watch movies, how we preserve them through things like Drafthouse Films and AGFA [the American Genre Film Archive], how we present them to our audiences. For years, I watched over 400 movies a year, attended film festivals, wrote, taught, spoke about them wherever I could find an audience. To find something like The Alamo Drafthouse that wants exactly the same things without distraction, with an absolute purity of vision, I felt very lucky.

HiT: Audiences rush out to see the latest blockbusters, but deep down they always come back to the classics. What do the most beloved films of the past say about the modern movie goer?

WC: I think that rather than make the distinction between blockbuster and classic, I’m more comfortable saying that movies will always speak to us in urgent ways. When you gather in a dark cave with others of your tribe before a flickering light to hear stories … that’s the essential way that we, as a species, learn, isn’t it? There’s something primal about going to the movies. Because it’s so essential to us, when certain movies catch us at the right time, the nostalgia hit that you get from revisiting them years, decades later is almost physical. I got to watch “Near Dark” on the big screen in 35mm a couple of months ago at the Alamo for the first time in over 25 years, I cried like a baby.

HiT: What can Alamo patrons expect in 2015?

WC: So many things. We have a new, young, brilliant creative director, Steve Bessette. We have programs that highlight genres like martial arts, horror, exploitation on tap as well as our usual roster of Action Packs, where the audience is allowed to be interactive with the film through quote-alongs or sing-alongs and props, Afternoon Teas and Girlie Nights. We’re planning a Craft Beer Dinner a week with our Executive Chef Seth Rexroad and various local breweries. And we plan on fostering multiple local bands and artists in various ways throughout the year. Every idea is on the table. Our mission is that our guests have an amazing time and we’ll explore every avenue to make sure that happens.

HiT: What event ended up surprising you in terms of audience reaction/participation?

WC: We did a “Princess Bride” quote-along that was so popular that we ended up having to do it four more times. It was the first “Action Pack” program that I’d ever attended, right when I was new to the Alamo, and the level of care and innovation that went into the presentation – and the amount of enthusiasm in the crowd – it was electric.

HiT: How often does Alamo’s famous ‘no texting’ pledge require enforcement?

WC: Thankfully, not all that often. Less and less, in fact, as our patrons begin to learn that we’re the “no talking, no texting” theater. We make live, in-house announcements before the start of sold-out shows, and we run multiple stingers before all of our films to be sure that our guests are aware that they’re in an all-considerate zone. We look at the act of watching film, any film, as sacred. Your ticket doesn’t buy you permission to intrude on someone else’s experience, and I believe that our audience chooses us because of that.

HiT: How do artists/directors/actors respond to the live events you schedule?

WC: [Director] Rian Johnson was recently in town for a few screenings of his films. He was able to introduce a pristine 35mm print of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” one of his favorite films and he shared afterwards that he’d never been able to see it like that before. We can, and will, and really want to do things that traditional movie houses don’t do. We believe that we have a responsibility to fulfill the entire potential of this venue.

HiT: Given the rise of tablets, VOD and streaming technology, do modern theaters have to work harder to maintain and build a customer base?

WC: I think that every technological advance in the last 100 years has been taken as a bellwether for the death of cinema. I welcome new ways to watch film. For me, as it is for most of our most ardent fans I think, see movies as vital things. If a small film can’t get traditional distribution, VOD and streaming can be an extraordinary boon. The mistake would be to turn our backs on innovation and technologies. I also think it’s a mistake to think that movie theaters are anywhere close to extinction.  What may be in danger is the movie-going experience and The Alamo is dedicated to reminding our guests of what it’s like to be in a place that genuinely treasures film in the company of others who feel the same way. I don’t know if it’s hard work if it’s the right work.


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