“My busi­ness is built around the idea that ev­ery once in a while peo­ple want to get out of the house”

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Movie the­ater chain Alamo Draft­house’s ex­pan­sion is fu­eled by beer, Buf­falo chicken pizza—and the hope that cinephiles will take a night off from Netflix By Felix Gil­lette

Film­maker Robert Ro­driguez first heard about the Alamo Draft­house Cinema at a party in Austin in the late 1990s when he met its founders, Tim and Kar­rie League. The young cou­ple had just ar­rived in Texas, fresh off their ini­tial foray into the movie the­ater busi­ness. A few years ear­lier, they’d quit their post-col­lege jobs and bought a sin­gle-screen art-house cinema in Bak­ers­field, Calif., which they swiftly and lov­ingly ran into the ground. Lessons learned, they were ready to try again. In 1997 the Leagues opened the orig­i­nal Draft­house in Austin in an erst­while park­ing garage. The hook: Cus­tomers could or­der food and drinks at their seats while watch­ing se­cond-run movies, for­eign films, and clas­sics.

In the years that fol­lowed, Ro­driguez watched as Draft­house ex­panded across town, open­ing four more venues, bulk­ing up its menu, and adding first-run re­leases. The city’s in­die film scene was boom­ing, stocked by a steady stream of grad­u­ates from the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin’s renowned film school and in­vig­o­rated by re­cent, lo­cally shot hits such as Richard Lin­klater’s Dazed and Con­fused. The Draft­house fast won fa­vor with the city’s fussy denizens. In be­tween the stan­dard ac­tion flicks and rom- coms, it let its in­ner film geek run wild. It staged all- day marathons of genre films hosted by di­rec­tors such as Quentin Tarantino. It paired movies with spe­cialty tast­ing menus, like Lawrence of Ara­bia with a Be­douin feast. It screened Jaws for an au­di­ence of peo­ple float­ing on in­ner tubes on a nearby lake.

Ro­driguez grew into a de­vout fan. To this day, he won’t see a movie in a the­ater any­where else. “They re­ally care about cinema,” says the El Mari­achi and Spy Kids di­rec­tor. “They know how to make a night of it. Once you start go­ing to the Draft­house, you get re­ally spoiled.”

Draft­house is now aim­ing for devo­tees far be­yond the realm of Austin’s film hounds. The com­pany has be­gun ex­pand­ing na­tion­ally, grant­ing fran­chises from Omaha to Kala­ma­zoo, Mich. In De­cem­ber a Draft­house opened in San Fran­cisco; later this year one will ar­rive in Brook­lyn, N.Y. The com­pany has 22 the­aters and wants to have 50 by 2018. “By the end of next year,” Tim League says, “we’ll have a mil­lion peo­ple a month com­ing to our the­aters, and they’re all cinephiles.”

He says the com­pany’s plan is to amass what he calls a “na­tional base” of movie­go­ers who are loyal to the brand and ea­ger to buy what­ever else Draft­house of­fers from its ex­pand­ing busi­ness port­fo­lio. In ad­di­tion to the the­aters, it op­er­ates Mondo, an on­line retail out­let that sells movie-in­spired art­work and ap­parel. (A Night­mare on Elm Street cardi­gan goes for $75.) It hosts Austin’s Fan­tas­tic Fest, an an­nual film fes­ti­val heavy on hor­ror and sci-fi. It pub­lishes Birth. movies. death, an on­line en­ter­tain­ment mag­a­zine. And it runs Draft­house Films, which buys and dis­trib­utes in­die movies.

The food-and-booze-and-movie con­cept is hardly new. About 20 years ago, the Leagues spent their hon­ey­moon in Port­land, Ore., scout­ing out Mc­me­namins, a the­ater chain that had the same ba­sic frame­work. (“Ranks among one of the least ro­man­tic hon­ey­moons ever,” League says.) But af­ter years of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and re­fine­ment, Draft­house has de­vel­oped what he be­lieves is a for­mula ca­pa­ble of re­li­ably jolt­ing swad­dled Amer­i­can movie lovers out of their home-en­ter­tain­ment stu­por.

It won’t be easy. Al­though movie rev­enue is grow­ing over­seas, the do­mes­tic mar­ket has shown signs of malaise. In 2014 the U.S. and Cana­dian box of­fice gen­er­ated $10.4 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, down 5 per­cent from 2013. Ev­ery­where you look, fu­tur­ists pre­dict that movie the­aters, like compact discs and news­pa­pers, will soon die off, buried by a grow­ing on­slaught of cheap, dig­i­tal home­en­ter­tain­ment op­tions. At the same time, Draft­house’s ad­vanc­ing land grab is be­ing closely watched by com­peti­tors who are in­creas­ingly des­per­ate for new strate­gies to get con­sumers to stop chill­ing with Netflix. If the ex­pan­sion suc­ceeds, im­i­ta­tors are likely to pop up. Al­ready, some jumbo chains have be­gun ex­per­i­ment­ing with in-seat al­co­hol ser­vice.

League says he’s aware of the risks but isn’t wor­ried: Hand-wring­ing about the im­mi­nent death of the movies is as old as Hol­ly­wood. He says Draft­house, which is pri­vately owned, is prof­itable and that at­ten­dance and rev­enue are grow­ing at a steady clip. An­nual sales topped $140 mil­lion in 2015. “My busi­ness is built around the idea that ev­ery once in a while peo­ple want to get out of the house,” League says. “That’s as alive and well as it’s ever been.”

The com­pany’s Austin head­quar­ters is lo­cated in a for­mer night­club in the city’s un­of­fi­cial tequila-shoot­ing district on East 6th Street. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, League

shows up wear­ing black jeans, a black hoodie, and a Birth. movies. death base­ball cap. He says Draft­house dif­fer­en­ti­ates it­self from other chains in part by re­fus­ing to air preshow ad­ver­tis­ing that’s un­re­lated to com­ing events. In­stead of a bom­bard­ment of com­mer­cials, pa­trons are greeted with a mix of ar­cane short­form videos culled from the dust­bin of mo­tion pic­ture his­tory and warn­ings about its strict no-talk­ing, no-tex­ting pol­icy. (In one, Night of the Liv­ing Dead di­rec­tor Ge­orge A. Romero tells ev­ery­body to keep quiet or he’ll zap them into zom­bies.) “One of the things I hated most be­fore I got into the the­ater busi­ness was pay­ing $10 and then be­ing served up some stupid ad,” League says.

As an un­der­grad­u­ate at Rice Univer­sity in Hous­ton in the early ’90s, League dou­ble-ma­jored in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing and art his­tory. Years later he ap­proaches moviego­ing much as a flight en­gi­neer might ap­proach air­line safety, break­ing down the ex­pe­ri­ence into con­stituent sub­com­po­nents and then as­sign­ing spe­cial­ists to op­ti­mize per­for­mance. “What the In­ter­net has done is make peo­ple re­ally im­pa­tient and nit-picky,” he says. “Be­cause of that, you bet­ter damn well make sure that ev­ery as­pect of your busi­ness is on point.”

Draft­house’s cor­po­rate staff is packed with con­nois­seurs. The job ti­tle of one full­time em­ployee is head of beer. In­side a win­dow­less room, a pack of video pro­duc­ers, who look like they could play var­sity for UT’S movie trivia night team, creates the mélange of preshow spec­ta­cles. Nearby, a pro­jec­tion­ist rhap­sodizes about the tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Draft­house the­aters, which can switch among dig­i­tal, 3D, and 35mm film. Many mul­ti­plexes have got­ten rid of hu­man pro­jec­tion­ists al­to­gether, but Draft­house still hires and trains them to put on the shows. Their at­ten­tion to light­ing and sound is monas­tic.

As the pre­film en­ter­tain­ment plays, black- clad waiters take meal or­ders. The stan­dard menu of­fers a range of snacks (bot­tom­less pop­corn, roasted gar­lic hum­mus), hot food (Buf­falo chicken pizza, triple pork burg­ers), sal­ads, beer, wine, and cock­tails (in­clud­ing “adult shakes” such as Maker’s Mark milk punch). Pa­trons can or­der more food or bev­er­ages mid­movie by scrib­bling down an or­der on a piece of pa­per and clip­ping it to the ta­ble in front of their seat. Draft­house rou­tinely rolls out spe­cialty food and cock­tail ideas con­ceived for par­tic­u­lar movies. League says the film-in­spired grub tends to stim­u­late food and al­co­hol sales and flash-dances across so­cial me­dia.

The na­tional col­o­niza­tion got off to a rocky start. In 2004 the Leagues sold Draft­house’s fran­chis­ing rights to a team of for­mer em­ploy­ees. (Kar­rie spends less time man­ag­ing dayto- day op­er­a­tions now.) Com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the cou­ple and the team soured, and the Leagues sued. Even­tu­ally, the dis­pute was re­solved over a pan­cake break­fast. “It took a fight for us all to start talk­ing again,” League says. Af­ter the suit was dropped, the com­pa­nies merged, League took over as chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, and plans for a na­tional roll­out be­gan anew.

Whether a brand such as Draft­house, weaned on the fer­vent de­vo­tion of a col­lege town, can ap­peal in the long term to more se­date au­di­ences in sub­ur­ban Amer­ica re­mains to be proved. In the hin­ter­lands, lo­cal chefs and bev­er­age di­rec­tors re­ceive video tu­to­ri­als from the mother ship de­tail­ing how to pre­pare new items. Man­agers in Austin keep tabs on their per­for­mance, fre­quently col­lect­ing feed­back from cus­tomers via on­line sur­veys of ticket buy­ers. If scores slip, qual­ity- con­trol ex­perts are dis­patched to in­ter­vene.

In 2013, An­thony Coco and his busi­ness part­ner, Joseph Ed­wards, opened a Draft­house in Ash­burn, Va., a Wash­ing­ton sub­urb. Coco, 32, grew up in Texas and worked for years at his fam­ily’s busi­ness, Ja­son’s Deli, a na­tional chain of sand­wich shops. When he heard Draft­house was form­ing fran­chises, he scram­bled to get on­board. Be­fore open­ing in Vir­ginia, the part­ners spent three months train­ing in Austin. “We did ev­ery­thing from mak­ing the salad dress­ing to run­ning man­age­ment shifts,” Coco says. “We all know we’re in a dif­fi­cult busi­ness— serv­ing food, beer, and hard liquor in a dark au­di­to­rium and try­ing to be quiet. There are al­ways chal­lenges, but they do a good job of work­ing with us.” (Fran­chisees get cre­ative lee­way. League asks that 20 per­cent of menu items orig­i­nate with lo­cal chefs to re­flect nu­ances in re­gional cui­sine. In Ash­burn the Draft­house serves crab­cakes and other mid-at­lantic del­i­ca­cies you won’t find in Texas.)

League says he’s still on the hunt for fran­chisees. No mat­ter how in­sight­ful their dis­ser­ta­tion on, say, the semi­otics of Paul Verho­even’s early Dutch work, though, pen­ni­less aes­thetes needn’t ap­ply: Would-be part­ners must in­vest a min­i­mum of $3 mil­lion. League ac­knowl­edges that if his younger self, who with his wife cob­bled to­gether the first the­ater on a shoe­string, walked in the door to­mor­row, he wouldn’t pass muster. “I’d prob­a­bly have to re­ject my­self,” he says. “Not enough money.” <BW>

Part of a seven-course meal that also in­cluded “lun­cheon,” din­ner, sup­per, and dessert “A wise choice, this is,” says Alamo’s web­site

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