Alamo Drafthouse Cinema brings its air of Austin cool to DFW

Posted Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Alamo Drafthouse Cinema • 100 S. Central Expressway, Richardson • www.drafthouse.com/dfw/richardson Upcoming events • Free outdoor summer series: Dazed and Confused (Saturday), The Lost Boys (July 20) and The Goonies (July 27). Gates open at 6:30 p.m. Screening at dusk. • The World’s End advance screening: July 25 • Grand opening: Aug. 9

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When Wooderson, the iconic stoner played by Matthew McConaughey in the 1993 coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused, strides across the giant screen set up in a parking lot at Central Expressway and Belt Line Road on Saturday, he’ll be doing more than reviving teenage memories.

He’ll be bringing with him the first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to North Texas, an event that for some cinephiles is as momentous as the arrivals of Trader Joe’s and In-N-Out were for foodies and burger fans.

With its blend of mainstream and quirky programming, like free outdoor screenings over the next three Saturdays, zero tolerance for talking/texting and a strict no-commercials policy, the Austin dine-in movie theater chain has built a ferociously loyal following. Time, Entertainment Weekly, CNN and the ticket-buying site Fandango have all rated the flagship Austin theater as one of the best in the U.S.

While the chain has expanded into every major market in Texas — Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Lubbock — and even begun branching out into New York, California, Virginia, Colorado and Missouri, it has been slow to enter North Texas.

However, with this seven-screen complex in Richardson, Alamo has launched what it says is just an opening salvo in this area.

It officially opens Aug. 9, though there is an advance screening of The World’s End, the latest sci-fi comedy from British filmmaker Edgar Wright ( Shaun of the Dead), on July 25.

It’s the highest-profile incursion of Austin pop culture into the DFW market recently — Hopdoddy burgers and Torchy’s Tacos have also made the trek up Interstate 35 — and plans call for several theaters in the Metroplex over the next few years.

The chain is “going to double in size in the next 18 months,” said Bill DiGaetano, chief operating officer for the DFW area. “We’re on track to be one of the 10 largest exhibitors in the United States in the next five years.”

DiGaetano, who has the franchise for this region, understands the theater’s distinct brand of cool. He was an Alamo devotee from his days as a student at Austin’s St. Edward’s University.

“Alamo is very particular about who gets their franchise,” he said. “They wanted someone who understands the brand. This [was] my theater of choice for over 10 years.”

As for the location, DiGaetano said that Alamo hunted all over the Metroplex, including in Tarrant County, but that everything fell into place in Richardson. It’s at a busy intersection, in a mall that had been in foreclosure and that the new owner wants to resuscitate (trendy burger joint Haystack is also a new tenant), and the neighbors wanted it.

“There were 150 people from the neighborhood at the City Council meeting. When you see that, as an operator, you think, ‘Oh, man, this is going south quick.’ Usually only people who are in opposition show up,” he said. “But they all spoke on behalf of Alamo.”

A free outdoor showing of the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy The ’Burbs in November attracted 1,200 people and cemented the love affair.

“Richardson is a very eclectic area,” said DiGaetano, pointing to the nearby University of Texas at Dallas and large-scale events like the Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival and Cottonwood Art Festival. “They have a focus on the arts.”

Stiff competition

DiGaetano hopes that Alamo will pull patrons from all over the Metroplex. The chain, founded in 1997 by CEO Tim League, an engineer turned film buff, is known for its customer service and respect for movie viewing.

“They are serious about movies and about creature comforts,” Michael Barnes, a cultural columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, said in an email.

He also notes the theaters’ sense of fun. “This goes back to the full-pleasure movie palaces of the 1920s and ’30s and even further back to vaudeville and variety theaters,” he said. “You are there as much for the atmosphere, social interaction, games, contests and shorts as much as the main attraction.”

Their reputation now extends far outside Texas. Hollywood-based Jeff Bock, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations, which tracks nationwide box-office activity, said, “An Alamo Drafthouse would do huge business here” in Los Angeles.

Some of the events staged by Alamo include the somewhat annual Rolling Roadshow, where classic films are shown in famous locations nationwide ( Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devils Tower, Wyo.); Fantastic Fest, an Austin film festival celebrating horror, science fiction and action movies (it’s been called a “geek Telluride”); and less-elaborate festivities like offering free burgers at a showing of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

That loyalty may be tested in North Texas, which is already a dine-in-movie stronghold. The Studio Movie Grill and Movie Tavern chains have multiple locations in the market.

There are two Studio Movie Grills within a few miles of Alamo on Central Expressway. And the recently opened Look Cinemas — where Nick & Sam’s restaurateur Joseph Palladino is one of the partners — is about 5 miles to the west near the Dallas North Tollway.

DiGaetano is not too worried. “We are so different from our competitors that I’ll steal a quote from Wayne’s World where they had Led Zeppelin and the Bee Gees,” he said. “Both were musical groups that had guys in them, but I don’t think anyone would say Led Zeppelin and the Bee Gees were the same thing.”

Similarly, Look Cinemas co-founder Tom Stephenson, a former CEO of the Rave theater chain, isn’t sweating Alamo’s arrival.

“It’s a different demographic, a different audience,” he said. “They’re really selling that Austin experience. That’s a different experience [from us].”

In addition to its sense of fun, Alamo is known for enforcing rules long ago abandoned by some other theaters.

Commercials aren’t allowed before movies — the chain comes up with its own entertainment. And texters/talkers are not tolerated. In fact, an angry phone call that the theater received from an ejected texter is now used as part of a “Don’t Talk” promo. The promo went viral (more than 3 million views on YouTube) and prompted New York magazine film critic David Edelstein to dub Alamo Drafthouse “my heroes.”

Growing too fast?

While longtime fans can take comfort in these practices, they might be a little alarmed at the rapid growth of Alamo Drafthouse. Besides adding theaters, the company has branched out into distribution ( Drafthouse Films), a pop culture website and a site for cinema-related poster art.

Could Alamo Drafthouse be getting too big for its own good?

“There were worries the first time the Alamo brand expanded years ago and, back then, the new theaters in Houston and in the Austin suburbs felt like pale versions of the first ones,” said Barnes, of the American-Statesman.

After a failed attempt at franchising in 2003, Alamo’s League said, he has a better handle on the company’s expansion plans.

“We are trying to be fairly measured in our growth. We have a great team and a solid training program, so I am optimistic about our ability to open multiple theaters over the next several years,” League said. “That said, I always worry. You get into big trouble if you stop worrying.

“I wasn’t ready for [franchising] at the time and stepped away from expansion for a while. I decided to focus on making the brand strong and only worked on the Austin theaters for five years. When I returned to the role of CEO three years ago to oversee expansion, the company infrastructure was ready for growth, and I had a clear idea of what I wanted the company to become.”

For DiGaetano, expansion doesn’t mean losing sight of what makes Alamo different.

“Our biggest focus right now is not growth but remaining true to our brand identity that we had in Austin,” he said. “And by getting bigger, we can do these great initiatives, like how do we get youth more excited about film? Or how do we preserve 35 mm, because it’s going away?”

Of course, for those on the western side of the Metroplex, there’s only one real question: When is Alamo going to set up shop in Tarrant County?

“Our Facebook and Web page say ‘Alamo DFW’ and people in Fort Worth don’t like that we called it ‘DFW.’ We’ve gotten some really angry emails,” DiGaetano said. “It’s OK, guys. We’re looking.”

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