By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Dallas film buffs rejoiced to learn that the old Casa Linda Theater, which has been dark for six years, will become an Alamo Drafthouse, named in August the best movie theater in America by Entertainment Weekly.
Since 1997, when founder Tim League opened the first Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the movie-restaurant chain has offered quirky programming of first-run, second-run, exploitation, trashy, cult and just plain bad movies. One event might pair a Lord of the Rings marathon with a menu of the seven meals eaten daily by hobbits. Recently, one Alamo Drafthouse presented the new Dukes of Hazzard movie with a full-scale scavenger hunt that required all participants to enter their cars only through the windows.
But will the concept work in Dallas? It all depends on the per capita population of film geeks, League says.
League now operates three Austin Alamo Drafthouses, but the chain is owned by President John Martin and Chief Executive Officer Terrell Braly, who purchased the business in early 2002. They took League's food service and wacky ideas--he once showed the movie Jaws outside with audience members floating in a pool and "ushers" swimming underwater to grab them at crucial plot points--and refined the Alamo into an upscale business model that actually makes money. After a tepid summer season, theater owners all over America must be taking notes.
It started as a labor of love. In the mid-'90s, League, then a 24-year-old mechanical engineer for Shell Oil, was living in Bakersfield, California, with his wife, Karrie, a research microbiologist; they'd met at Rice University. Both movie buffs, the Leagues quit their jobs and started a theater showing art-house films, pairing with local restaurants to do special food-related events, such as showing Babette's Feast and recreating the meal.
"It was kind of a failure," League says. The theater was in a raunchy neighborhood, and they were never able to obtain a liquor license. And it was, of course, Bakersfield, possibly the dullest city in California.
After moving to Austin, League scraped together enough money to open a theater downtown in 1997. He bought a vintage neon sign that had space for five letters. Looking for a Texas-related name that would be first in the phone book, he hit on Alamo. And he made a dramatic leap by opening a full-service kitchen, with a twist. Call it Crouching Waiters, Hidden Busboys.
The Leagues had seen food-service in a movie theater before but thought the experience was too noisy and distracting. "A lot of the movie is sacrificed," he says. So he put order forms and pencils at the tables and trained the staff to squat while serving, never intruding on a climactic scene. In the second year of operation, League created a house ad that warned viewers to be quiet or "we'll throw your ass out."
"And we do," League says. Even more extreme: They banned children under age 6, except for family programming or baby day (Tuesdays).
Beyond the merciful quiet, film buffs appreciated the add-ons. Before each movie, League showed vintage trailers he's collected over the years, preceding an Austin Powers film with ads for old Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. Then there was the interactive stuff. Employees might dress up as characters from the movie and spritz the audience with water during a rain scene. For a screening of The Tingler, a 1959 movie by horror/sci-fi director William Castle, League wired the seats with zappers. "When anyone got a tingler shock in the movie, you got it," League says. Those screenings required "Herculean" effort and probably didn't make any money, League says, but they were fun and got a lot of press.
Some of their programming was "questionable," League admits. He offered free admission to screenings of Nude on the Moon, by director Doris Wishman (the most famous female exploitation director; think female Russ Meyer), to anyone who showed up naked. He didn't actually expect anyone to take him up on it.
"The Austin Nudist Club came out en masse," League says. "There were 120 nude people scattered in the audience." But the screening didn't sell out; no one wanted to sit next to the au naturel moviegoers.
Braly says that he and Martin saw the potential that League "didn't see or didn't want": viewers watching first-run movies in a fine-dining atmosphere with specialty films and events as icing on the cake.
The new owners wanted to take the concept and "ramp it up," bringing in celebrities, premieres, bigger and better events. "Without the growth, there are no economies of scale," Martin says. They bought the company and licensed the rights to League to operate three Alamos in Austin. For a while, League was a creative consultant; that arrangement ended last December. "We took it from a small town phenomenon to what it is today."
Their most successful event was the regional premiere of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, complete with vintage planes. They now have seven theaters with 40 screens. Chefs are upgrading the menu and wine list. "Studios like us," Braly says. "They know we'll go the extra mile to attract an audience."