Calling All Film Geeks

Devil's Tower in Wyoming was the backdrop for a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Calling All Film Geeks
Dinner and a movie and something better coming to Casa Linda

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."

Braly promises the "grandest of grand openings yet" when the first Dallas Alamo Drafthouse opens at Casa Linda with four screens in late 2006.

"Dallas is the jewel in the crown," Braly says. "We'll have a week of what made the Alamo famous, like zombie movies with specialty foods. We are going all out." They hope to open three or four theaters in Dallas and then start on a multi-state expansion.

League thinks the concept will work well in Dallas, though Austin may have more "film geeks." But will it translate to smaller towns, like Waco? He's not sure.

The three Austin Alamos that League operates will continue to reflect his quirky interests, which this summer included the "Rolling Roadshow" tour, a 6,000-mile, 21-day journey across the west showing 11 famous movies on an outdoor screen at locations where they had been filmed. The tour careened from Archer City, Texas, (The Last Picture Show) to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Most of the cast and crew showed up for a screening of the punk classic Repo Man in Los Angeles, accompanied by a road rally celebrating the quest by Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) to repo a certain vehicle. The team that followed the clues and was the first to find keys to a '64 Chevy Malibu and drive it to the screening site got to keep it.

The road show was the ultimate in movie geekdom, but definitely not about selling lots of tickets. League was surprised when 250 people actually showed up for the screening at Devil's Tower. "People drove in from New York and L.A.," League says. Did they come for the movie or the mashed potato-sculpting contest? --Glenna Whitley

Dallas Floats
Though the ripples may be tiny, Hurricane Katrina's final imprint on Dallas may have some significance. At least two companies that have found refuge in Dallas--and perhaps more--plan to establish permanent tracks here after returning to New Orleans. "We just decided to locate the whole company here until we could move back," says Donald W. Doyle Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Blanchard & Co., the nation's largest retail dealer of rare coins and precious metals. Blanchard has operated in downtown New Orleans for more than 30 years. "We made some inquiries in Louisiana, and Baton Rouge was so crowded almost instantly," Doyle says.

His move to The Colonnade Center along the Tollway in Addison just two days after the hurricane was relatively easy because Blanchard already had computer backup systems set up in Dallas, and one of the companies with whom Blanchard does business, Dillon Gage Metals of Addison, helped Doyle find space and set up his offices. While Doyle says he fully intends to return to Blanchard's high-rise offices in the heart of New Orleans' business district once the city opens, he plans to establish permanent operations in the Dallas area.

How many companies may make similar moves? It's difficult to tease out, says Mike Rosa, vice president of economic development for the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. Rosa says his office received several offers from Dallas real estate brokers and developers for free or greatly reduced leases targeting hurricane-crippled businesses, but he has had a difficult time finding any takers. "There has not been a flood of inquiries. Absolutely not," he says. Rosa blames stalled communications links from inoperative New Orleans area codes and the fact that many New Orleans companies have been consumed with tracking down their employees.

"My employees are scattered in cities across the country," says Blaine Kern Jr., founder of Mardi Gras Productions. Starting out in the mid-1970s building Mardi Gras floats, Kern went on to establish a high-profile events production company in New Orleans staging the city's premier events. "Everything that comes to New Orleans, I pretty much got it," he boasts.

Now Kern has no revenue. His company, located within two blocks of the New Orleans Convention Center, has been looted. His trucks are gone. Kern says he watched his warehouse near the riverfront burn on the evening news.

But after joining forces with New Orleans natives Brandt and Brady Wood along with Whit Meyers of the Entertainment Collaborative (Green Room, Trees, Jeroboam), Kern has secured office space in Deep Ellum staffed with three MGP employees and has already begun pitching Dallas companies for event production services. He has scored two projects in the last several days. "Dallas is going to be good for us," Kern predicts.  

While Kern says he has no plans to abandon his New Orleans foothold, he intends to shift a good chunk of his operation to Dallas. "I never had any reason to get out of my box before," he says. "We like to think of ourselves as a big city. But in New Orleans, we're like a little banana republic. " --Mark Stuertz

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