By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 29, 2011 at 12:39PM
"The Alamo is heaven on Earth," tweeted Canadian director Panos Cosmatos while in Austin, Texas this week for Fantastic Fest to screen his science-fiction movie "Beyond the Black Rainbow." That sort of excitement is a typical reaction among those making their first trips to any of the three Alamo Drafthouse locations in town.
Since it was launched in 1997 by Tim League and his wife Karrie, the popular venue -- known for rambunctious events like Fantastic Fest as well as its extensive food and drink menus -- has swelled to a dozen locations throughout Texas in addition to a 10-screen theater in Kernstown, Virginia.
And if League has his way, the Drafthouse appeal will extend even further. Heaven on Earth has plans to open in New York and Los Angeles in the very near future.
League, who took back the reins as CEO of franchise operations last year, has spoken for years about opening Drafthouse venues in these metropolitan areas. However, with the hiring of Tim Reed as the Drafthouse's senior VP of real estate last October, the dream of bicoastal Drafthouses picked up traction. And the recent overturning of an old cabaret law prohibiting the serving of alcohol in New York movie theaters caused further speculation.
This year's Fantastic Fest attendees have been entertained with whispers of an impending announcement. League has remained fairly tight-lipped, although he (tellingly?) dropped out of town mid-festival for a quick business meeting in L.A. before circling back to Austin within a 12-hour period.
Still, the CEO conceded in a conversation with indieWIRE over the weekend that he feels closer than ever to making an announcement about Drafthouse's plans in both cities, possibly within the next several weeks.
"We're working on it," he said. "We need a big facility for the Alamo, so it's complicated. This will take a lot of money, especially in New York."
However, he expressed optimism about the prospects of taking his business venture further north. "I think there's a lot of potential in the New York area," he said. "It's a seemingly infinite population with great transportation." Although he wouldn't comment on which neighborhood the Drafthouse might land, he did rule out one possibility. "This isn't going to happen, but if we went to the Upper West Side, it's not going to be the same model we would put in Williamsburg, Brooklyn," he said.
That neighborhood, a nexus for the kind of hip urban crowd that could find the addition of a Drafthouse attractive, recently made headlines in the exhibition world for the introduction of another independent theater with upscale food and drink options. The Nitehawk Cinema, a three-screen art house founded by former Austin resident Matthew Viragh, opened in June to enthusiastic response. Viragh took the initiative of hiring lawyers who managed to overturn the law barring drinking in theaters, making Nitehawk the first New York theater to apply for an in-theater liquor license (originally, the theater only served alcohol at its café).
Since then, there has already been discussion of New York-based AMC theaters as well as the Angelika Theater including alcohol on their menus. Viragh says the transition makes sense, "given the economic climate and that countless states do this kind of thing." As a self-described "loyal patron" of the Alamo Drafthouse during his Austin days, Virgah (who moved to New York in 2001) said, "I always lamented the fact that there wasn't anything like that here."
League insists that Nitehawk's emerging popularity doesn't faze him. "That's a small facility," he said in regards to the theater, which has 92 seats in its largest screening room. "In terms of having space for our model, there's no problem."
Instead, League emphasized the need to allow the Drafthouse's southern-fried reputation to evolve into the New York scene. "Curatorially, we have to prepare a mix of things we do here, but we also want to have New Yorkers who are part of the programming," he said. "Some things that work here may not work in New York. We always think of ourselves as a neighborhood theater and we want to cater to the neighborhood, but we want to influence it as well."
The rumor mill (and common sense) suggests the Drafthouse may indeed land in Brooklyn. However, Viragh showed no concern over the imminent announcement of the Drafthouse plans. "New York is such a big place," he said. "Maybe if they moved the next door down, it could be a problem. But it's more than welcome. If there are more places to see movies and eat great food, go for it. I don't feel threatened at all by it."
Meanwhile, the prospects of opening a Drafthouse in Los Angeles present a new set of difficulties. Independent theaters in that city like Cinefamily and the Downtown Independent fight to attract customers from across a large geographical area, most of whom drive instead of using public transportation.
For James Kirst, executive director of the 222-seat Downtown Independent, one of the biggest hurdles for their business involves reaching out to moviegoers outside of their neighborhood. "It's definitely more of a challenge to get audiences from the west side and Santa Monica," he said. "It comes down to having something that's compelling enough [to bring people out]."
Kirst pointed out the area where the Downtown Independent is located used to be a haven for upscale movie theaters during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. "We're basically the last theater left on Main Street," he said."There's definitely room for a resurgence." He put a positive spin on the possibility of a Drafthouse entering the scene. "I think having the Drafthouse in the mix would be a really great thing, whether they're across the street or across town," he said. "Having another theater entity in town would make the moviegoing experience in L.A. much richer."
Of course, it could also make the experience much wilder. No matter how the Drafthouse tailors its brand for the new locations, League said the underlying appeal would remain the same. "Our sensibilities are what they are," he said. "We enjoy fun movies. That's our core identity."