Dinner and a movie. Rather than separating the two halves of a perfect night out, Alamo Drafthouse founders Tim and Karrie League decided to combine the experience at their single-screen Austin rep house, serving Italian food with spaghetti Westerns and Chinese with chopsocky pics. Adding beer and wine, they arrived at the formula for a successful new exhibition model — already seven locations strong in Texas and steadily expanding.
Where traditional firstrun theaters rely on concessions to make a few dollars’ profit from patrons, “Our per-caps are about $12 and north per person,” says John Martin, who (along with partner Dave Kennedy) bought the Alamo Drafthouse company from the Leagues in 2004, is CEO and oversees the brand’s franchising operations, corporate locations and expansion slate.
Originally, Tim League got into the exhibition business virtually by accident. “I was actually working as a mechanical engineer for Shell Oil, and I didn’t like my job at all,” he remembers. On impulse, he quit his job and leased an old art deco theater in Bakersfield, Calif. The operation didn’t last, but “it was an incubator of what we were going to do at the original Alamo.”
In 1997, the Leagues selected Austin as the ideal site for their next venture, adopting the Alamo name. “We bought this vintage neon sign from a buddy of ours who does a lot of the cool neon in town, and it only had space for five letters,” he explains. “Plus, the top of the building looked a little like the Alamo in San Antonio.”
Firstrun rentals proved too expensive, so they combined cult programming choices with high-concept ideas — such as a “Valley Girl” costume contest, “Sideways” wine tasting or guest appearances by Quentin Tarantino and others — effectively transforming every screening into the equivalent of a fledgling “Rocky Horror Picture Show” event.
The team’s unique editorial choices and filmmaker connections helped cement a loyal following for the Alamo brand among Texas residents. Although new locations licensed through Martin and Kennedy focus on firstrun programming, each franchisee inherits the creative rights to repeat anything that worked at another Alamo location.
“There’s not a day that goes by that an Alamo isn’t playing either a Japanese exploitation flick or some obscure Kazakhstani Western,” says Martin, who describes the managers as “people who bleed a love of film.”
But it’s the restaurant aspect that really defines the brand. The corporate offices help test everything from specific menu items — such as the “Royale With Cheese” burger or “Godfather” pizza — to optimized kitchen design.
“The movies are neat, but when you get down to it, the key component is a really, really high-volume restaurant,” says Chris Hoegemeyer, who runs the San Antonio location (the chain’s largest, totaling 1,100 seats) with partner Brandon Arceneaux. The theater has been so successful that the pair plan to open another location in McAllen, Texas, this May. “At one time, we might have up to 700 people we have to serve food to in their seats.”
Alamo screening rooms are designed with long, narrow tables running the length of each double-spaced aisle. Patrons jot their orders on scraps of paper, and the servers unobtrusively deliver food and drinks throughout the show.
The model was partially inspired by the McMenamins theater in Portland, Ore., Tim League says, and local competition has since developed in the form of the Movie Tavern and Studio Movie Grill chains in Texas.
“I’ve been to a lot of similar concepts around the country,” he says. “Wherever we travel, if there’s a Drafthouse-style concept, we go to compare notes. I have no qualms about stealing a good idea and modifying it for my own needs.”