My Trip To Film Mecca: The Alamo Drafthouse

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater first came to my attention when they replayed a woman’s outraged, profanity-filled voicemail where she was pissy over getting kicked out for texting in their theater.  She said she was telling all her friends what a rip-off this place was, and is never coming back.  And their reaction was, “Thanks for not coming back, texter!”
That’s when I fell in love.
But I continued to hear about the Alamo Drafthouse as being a Mecca for movie lovers – classic movies played alongside the latest SFX extravaganzas, good food, a culture that loved movies – and when I found out one was opening up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I wanted to go.  It was five hours away.  Fortunately, my friend Angie a) lives in Michigan and b) is every bit as crazy as I am, so we planned a weekend to go to their soft opening.
I was impressed days before I even got to the theater.  We wanted to see The Shining on the big screen, and tried to order through their web site, but their website was acting wonky (which isn’t helped by the fact that, unlike most theaters, the Alamo has reserved seats).  The Shining, we eventually discovered, was sold out – as was Singin’ in the Rain, our next choice.  But thanks to the web site glitches, we weren’t sure whether both shows were genuinely sold out or just some error.  So I called, and the guy at the box office told me that indeed, both shows were sold out.
“But,” he said. “If you liked Singin’ in the Rain, we’re showing a great indie documentary: A Band Called Death.  It’s about a black punk band in the 1970s, and it is awesome.”
Think about that.  How often does a clerk try to sell you tickets to another movie?  That’s a straight-up record store move: “Yeah, we’re out of Led Zeppelin, but have you heard this band?”
And what a ballsy goddamned move!  “You liked a 1940s musical – so clearly, you’ll love a documentary about a black punk band!” It was so goddamned audacious, I went for it.  So I’d drive five hours to see a movie I’d never heard of on the recommendation of a total stranger!  Why the hell not?
So we got there, and the theater was imposingly big. I love the sign, which is colorful and art deco and looming:
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The interior of the lobby is nice and roomy and well-lit. There are a lot of theaters that are big on the inside, but the spaces in between the theaters feel like rats’ mazes. The Alamo Drafthouse has a wide space, making it feel comfortable, like you’re all gathering together for something pleasant instead of being jammed into an airport:
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There were also funny posters, touting their food:
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And a weirdly out-of-place-but-perfectly-fitting tribute to Barbarella, complete with Jane Fonda mannequin – which isn’t a great film but I was oddly glad to see it here:
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As for the theater, it was really quite cozy. The seats aren’t as comfortable as some of the recliners in the local AMC theaters here, but they do feature a long shelf in front of you, complete with a slot for a menu, and a pad and paper. You can scribble your menu order on the paper, and tuck it in the railing, and waitresses will sneak along like ninjas – seriously, they crouch and pad – to snatch up the papers and take your order. Halfway through the film, your food arrives.
The food was really, really good. Like, objectively good. I would have ordered their chicken-and-pesto sandwich at any diner. Plus, they had adult milkshakes (I had one with Kahlua and chili powder), and warm cookies. And though I’ve eaten in other theater-and-eater combos before, it’s always kind of a thrill to have a bowl of popcorn brought to you in the middle of a show.
(I have long wanted to see the twelve-hour “You eat when they do!” Lord of the Rings movie marathon, where they feed you exactly what the people on-screen are eating at any given time. I hear you are totally full by the end of Fellowship, but Return of the King gets a bit tummy-growly.)
(Angie also yelled at me because, after the movie was over, I stole a handful of popcorn from the bowl of some people who’d left it behind. Hey, I wanted to see what their popcorn tasted like! It was pretty good.)
And of course, the menu has this Pulp Fiction beauty, which made me realize I was in the right place:
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The film itself was pretty amazing. It was A Band Called Death, which I will point out is available on Netflix Streaming.  The elevator pitch is that in 1973, in Detroit, three black brothers created punk music about four years before the rest of the world did.  And nobody knew about them, because a) they were in a town where black guys were expected to do Motown, b) the sound was so psychotic that it was hard to find an audience for it, and c) they called themselves “Death,” which did not go over well in the 1970s.
Like any good documentary, the less I tell you about this, the more impact it’ll have.  But you don’t even have to like punk music all that much to get blown away by this; it’s not just one of my favorite documentaries of all time, ranking up there with The King of Kong and Spellbound, but it’s one of my favorite films of the year.  So check it out.
Good work, box office suggesting guy.
After the show was over, I was a total drooling convert.  I’m actually really sad we don’t have one in Cleveland, because I’d probably be going at least twice a month, if not more.  I tracked down the manager and asked him, “What do we have to do to get one in my home town?” – as Cleveland has a hell of a lot of film festivals, and its locals are rabid movie lovers – but he didn’t really give me an answer.  A shame.  I would honestly pull all of the funds out of my 401ks and become a backer for this if it would help, but obviously making a theater this big costs millions of dollars.
And I don’t know what demographics they’re shooting for.  I know Borders Books, back in the day when they were smart, pinpointed towns with a) no large-scale bookstores that b) had large segments of college-educated people.  Which got them phenomenally successful stores.  One suspects Alamo Drafthouse is expanding slowly, to avoid straining the finances, and are choosing each theater’s locale very carefully in order to ensure that each one is a titan.  It may be that Cleveland has too much competition, which would explain why they opened up in Kalamazoo instead of Ann Arbor, which is a bigger college town that also has a couple of really notable indie theaters.
But if there is a way to make it happen, Alamo, you email me.  I’ll do what I can.  Because I am totally in love with you.

3 Comments

  1. Marchbanks
    Nov 22, 2013

    (Cross-post comment)
    You wanna know about an Alamo franchise? Ask ’em.
    The Alamo is one of the many cool things Austin has created and then been able to share with the world. They started in a hole-in-the-wall ex-commercial building in a then-unfashionable part of downtown, and now … well, they’re the Alamo. They have had to pull in their horns a little; the dream of an Alamo in Manhattan will remain a dream for now. But hey, Cleveland … it’s not ipso facto impossible.
    Yes, their LOTR feast is supposed to be incredible. Ask tsarina–he’s been to it more than once and says it’s just killer.
    And yeah, Death is definitely good. They came through Austin at the end of the summer and played live on NPR affiliate KUTX; video of it here and here.

    • TheFerrett
      Dec 3, 2013

      Alas, the “ask ’em” link requires a base net work of $2,000,000.
      I meant to bring that up the other day, and then forgot, because I have the memory of a hummingbird.

  2. Anna
    Nov 25, 2013

    I live in San Antonio and my boyfriend absolutely adores Alamo Drafthouse, so we end up seeing many of our in theater choices there (the exceptions are usually for IMAX experiences; maybe someday the two will collide for the ULTIMATE experience!).
    I have to say the cookies are the best I’ve ever had and are evilly decadent and indulgent, and the food is definitely good, too. These people definitely found a new market and made it great. The Lord of the Rings feast sounds interesting; I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
    I’m glad to hear you love the franchise, too; they deserve to be enjoyed!

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