All of NYC has been rejoicing this past week, having heard the news that the Alamo Drafthouse is coming to town. Many of my friends and acquaintances in the film industry, and outside of it, have been talking, tweeting and oohing and aahing about it, but I noticed several who kept focusing on the beer aspect - essentially saying that having beer was the most important part of the Alamo experience. But it isn’t, never has been and theaters shouldn’t think so, or they’re missing what matters.
I love beer, and it’s really nice that the Alamo Drafthouse let’s me drink beer while watching a movie, and it contributes to what makes Alamo great. On the other hand, if AMC or Regal (or even Landmark) offered beer, it would still be a bad experience to see a movie there. In fact, the entire experience of going to those cinemas sucks. If they had beer, they’d charge 20 bucks for it and the experience would still suck, so I might just puke during it. So it’s not the beer.
It’s also not the movies themselves. Alamo plays many mainstream films too, so that’s not what makes it special either. It’s the entire experience. When I’ve visited Alamo, whether during a SXSW screening or at another time, the experience has been top notch across the board. Here’s why:
The programming is great, and in addition to the usual Hollywood/IndieWood/LittleFilmThatCould screenings, they also add in fun, quirky programming (such as texting in the movie on purpose so it shows on the screen, but at designated screenings only).
No Ads. This is huge. I’ll put a bullet in my head before I’ll watch another “The Twenty” at Regal and then watch 20 previews, more ads and that stupid train shit intro-ing the film. Alamo’s quirky pre-feature show is fun and not as in your face - if I want to still chat with my friends, I can. And you know what - as Alamo says - I already paid for the film so I shouldn’t have to watch ads.
The food. I didn’t find it to be amazing, but I’ve always felt like it is at least somewhat fit for human consumption, and they actually have a chef who plans the menus, so they’re trying. Contrast that with the crap elsewhere, even most indie art houses.
The service. This might be the biggest one. From the person who sells me my tickets to the “waiter ninjas” who deliver my food, the people don’t seem to hate their lives and mine. This, I think, comes directly down from the top - Tim League is a nice guy. He instills niceness in his staff. Mr. Duane Reade is a dick. He hates his staff, they hate him and this translates to the customer service.
Employees, or Service 2. They actually seem to employ people. The right amount of them. When I go to AMC 25, there’s a 50 foot line not because it’s busy, but because they have one cashier and the machines are all broken. Same with the concession stand. This is true also of Landmark Sunshine and other arthouses usually. Short sighted managers/owners cut staff to the bare minimum. Well, guess what - sometimes having more people means making more money. Really.
No phones. I think everyone has now heard the story about them kicking someone out for using her phone in the movie. And then distributed the audio of her call complaining for being kicked out. Was hilarious, but this wouldn’t ever possibly happen at any of their competitors, as the management there would be hiding to avoid getting involved, instead of being proactive about making a good movie environment.
They care. Really, they do. I know this because I’ve talked with Tim and heard him talk - and he is passionate about the movies. He is passionate about having a good time. He started Fantastic Fest, and gets in the fight ring during it, because he cares. I’ve met many owners of other theaters, and I can only say this to be true about a dozen of them - most of them attend the Arthouse Convergence by the way - and that is sad.
So folks, just like in other arenas, the entire experience is what counts. This counts for your individual films too. And your transmedia project. And your Duane Reade. And your nonprofit. And your film festival. And your film website. And your film store. And…