When I moved to Austin, Texas in 2008, it wasn’t for the promise of a cushy new job or to be closer to family; point of fact I was moving nearly a thousand miles from the reach of my closest family member. The reason I moved here was purely and simply to be closer to the Alamo Drafthouse and the incredible film community whose flourishing is largely due to this amazing theater chain. By now you know what sets this theater apart from your average multiplex: an eclectic mix of first-run, classic, and rare exploitation films, in-theater food and drink service, and a no tolerance policy toward those who would sully the largely extinct sensory utopia of seeing a film in a theater.
It was an honor for me to be standing in that parking lot on Slaughter Lane, on the far south side of Austin, on that afternoon last week to see christened the latest in a now booming and prestigious fleet of theaters. This was the first location in Austin to be constructed from the ground-up and it was also the first brand new Drafthouse to be conceived since my arrival in town. It was therefore a rather meaningful event for me.
The 8-screen Slaughter House, as it is affectionately known, is by far the brand’s most modern and luxurious theater to date. The lobby resembles a strange hybrid of swanky cocktail lounge and executive airport. Beautifully crafted monstrous plants loom over the patrons as they enter and their tentacle-like vines surround the massive lobby. Two enormous screens on either side of the foyer loop through different cinematic depictions of man versus plant, by now the evident theme of the theater. Digital poster frames adorn the walls and a friendly voice breaks the excited murmur every now and again to announce the seating of various films. The ticket counter doubles as a bar offering beer, wine, and liquor; only the second location to boast a full bar.
Off to your right as you enter is the gorgeous, inviting 400 Rabbits Lounge, named after the story of the Aztec goddess Mayahuel who represented the agave plant. According to legend, she produced an offspring of four hundred rabbits, which all fed on her fermented agave and became themselves the gods of intoxication. Given the slick, lavish design of the lounge, in both its indoor and outdoor facilities, as well as its dizzying selection of fine tequilas, it was hard to blame them for choosing such a lofty moniker.
On hand to assist with the christening on this day was Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez is himself a tremendous fan of the Alamo and has hosted several events at one of its sundry locations. But given that Tim League is far from the conventional executive, this ceremony was as far from hoity as it was from toity. In fact, it was hilariously dangerous. A tradition Tim has adopted over the years for special occasions, such as the opening of the Drafthouse’s yearly genre film festival Fantastic Fest, and one whose roots are nestled in Napoleonic military custom, Tim produced a bottle of champagne and a rather large sword as he marched to the podium. He then invited Rodriguez to slice the cork from the bottle to commemorate the event. It was a moment that both spoke to all the reasons people like myself love the Alamo Drafthouse and once again ended in a shocking lack of injury and destruction.
We had a chance to speak with Tim and Robert after this warrior-like christening to discuss the Slaughter House, the Alamo brand in general, and what bred their love affair with the cinematic experience.
So Tim, this is the fifth Alamo here in Austin. Was there anything specific you wanted to add to the brand or change up demographically with this location on this side of town?
Tim: Demographically, I look at each theater as a neighborhood theater. We’re serving the neighborhood so our programming is going to reflect the audience that is here. It’s not going to be the same stuff we do downtown at The Ritz, thought it will be some of that. We’ll probably get actively involved in the schools down here. We have this grand idea that we’ve been tossing around with Richard Linklater about trying to get young kids to be the movie nerds that we were. You can’t even really call it a charity, but getting young kids interested in classic film and the language of classic film is something we’re going to dive into at this location.
Robert, as a director who is identified with Texas, and of course here at a theater that is also identified with Texas, what does the Alamo Drafthouse mean to you as a filmmaker and just as a film fan?
Robert: As a filmmaker, the only reason you want to make films is to entertain an audience. There’s nothing worse than going and seeing your movie play in a crappy, overly dark theater where the audience doesn’t enjoy the experience because of the theater. And then you’ve got The Alamo Drafthouse. You know when you release a movie at the Drafthouse, people are going to get a really fantastic exhibition, and food! They’ll get an experience that they’ll remember beyond your movie, but one that complements the movie and enhances it. It’s a fantastic thing to look forward to. I only watch movies at the Drafthouse, because when I go see a movie I want the whole experience. I want to remember the movie and have a good time. You can ensure that here. Even if the movie is terrible, you’re going to have a good time at the Drafthouse. I wish all theaters were like that, because you put so much into making a movie, into something that’s going to last ninety minutes on the screen. For the exhibition to put that much work and that much attention into enhancing the experience, it’s good for both exhibition and for the filmmakers.
Tim, how is this new Drafthouse going to affect things like Fantastic Fest and SXSW in terms of screenings? Are you planning on doing screenings here for Fantastic Fest?
Tim: I don’t think so. I like what’s happened with Fantastic Fest where we’ve kept it self-contained at one venue. One of the most frustrating experiences of any festival, be it Sundance or SXSW, is having to traipse all over town to meet your schedule. Fantastic Fest is built around this really contained community. So you get to hang out with everybody after the movies and you don’t have to stress about driving across town and getting a parking spot. I mean we may start doing some off season programming, we’re trying to build that up now to do more programming throughout the year that’s more Fantastic Fest related, and we’ll certainly do more of that here.
Tim: With SXSW, we were a venue this year. I actually kind of liked it. SXSW is such a gigantic beast and the theaters are really congested downtown. If you live in this part of town, the last thing that you want to do is drive into downtown. This gives an opportunity for people who live in this neighborhood to experience a little bit of SXSW. So if they’ll have us, we’ll continue to be a venue down here for SXSW.
Obviously you both grew up being film fans, can you talk about your favorite in-theater film experience from your youth?
Robert: I always cite a double feature I saw at a revival house growing up in San Antonio; the Olmos Theater. It was a double feature of Spellbound and Rebecca. My mom’s name was Rebecca so she always loved that movie and took us to see it. I remember seeing the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound, I was like eight or nine, and for a long time I thought I had just dreamt that scene.
Robert: It is intense. And when you’re a kid, you just want to create images like that. That’s what made me want to be a filmmaker.
Tim: Mine are pretty cliché actually. One was when I was seven; my mom and my sister went to the opera. My dad was like, “hell no.” He took me to go see Jaws, which was PG, and it obliterated me. It freaked me out for years, but I still remember how much I loved the movie. And then the other was that I demanded to go to Star Wars on opening day, and my mom took me. Now I was pretty young, but way too old to have done this, it’s actually a pretty embarrassing story. I had to go to the bathroom so bad, I had had a big Coke, but it was the Death Star destruction scene, and there was no way I was leaving the theater. So I wet my pants at Star Wars. I don’t know why I’m telling you this story.
Well, it’s not like it’s on the record or anything…
Tim: My mom was furious and she took me into the bathroom. I wanted her to take me into the boys bathroom, but she was like, “hell no.” So she took me into the ladies room and I was humiliated. But it was totally worth it.
That’s right, you still saw the Death Star explode in the theater for the very first time; even trade for your dignity.
Robert: Jaws is another one for me as well. It was actually released on my birthday, June 20, 1975. That was my seventh birthday present was to go see that.
That’s an outstanding birthday gift. So Tim, how early on in the process was The 400 Rabbits conceived as part of the new Drafthouse? Or was that something that came in last minute?
Tim: It came in a bit last minute. This theater was actually designed four years ago, right before the banking crisis, so the development went on hold. Then when we picked it back up, we had to live with those four-year-old plans or at least the footprint. So what we decided to do was to cut what was this 86-seat theater in half. The front of it became The 400 Rabbits, and the other half became this little 32-seat microcinema. I love both of them. We’re definitely going with this model to have some kind of a themed bar. We got Bill Norris on staff who’s an exceptional bartender. In Colorado for example, it’s going to be this regional whiskey bar. We’re just going to play with it every time.
So the goal is to keep expanding? Do you see The Drafthouse being a nationwide theater or are there specific cities you want to stick to?
Tim: We have specific cities right now; we want to go into big markets. That’s largely in service of Drafthouse Films and what we’re trying to do in the distribution space. We have to have a spot in New York and in L.A. to make a serious impact in distribution.
Robert, how do you find the experience of this Slaughter Lane Drafthouse differs from the locations you’ve been to in the past?
Robert: What I’ve seen inside, I can already tell some of the design differences. The new tables in particular look great. I want to come try it out this weekend. They just keep improving and making things better.