August 15, 2013 4 Comments
For most people, the multiplex is largely a generic, interchangable entity. Some theatres are technically more advanced or more comfortable than others, but the experience is generally very similar no matter where you are. One cinema chain has broken out from the general sense of sameness and established itself as THE theatre that film geeks aspire to visit. That chain is of course the Alamo Drafthouse.
Based in Austin (in spite its San Antonio inspired name), it was largely a Texas-only attraction until a recent expansion has added a handful of other cities to the mix. Still, for most people, going to the Drafthouse involves a trek. A few weeks back I had the occasion for such a trek while going back to Colorado to visit friends and family. It was a cruel bit of fate that the Drafthouse opened in the suburbs of Denver not long after I moved out of the state that I had spent most of my life (including a stint in Denver itself) but it did make it convenient for making my first trip there.
Pulling into the big, posh, suburban outdoor mall, miles away from the core of Denver but accessible by the city’s transit rail system, the Drafthouse stands as an imposing fortress that feels fitting of its namesake (though I’m not sure how imposing the Alamo actually is, having never been to San Antonio). I can’t say how buying a ticket from a human would go because I was distracted by the electronic kiosk as I stepped in the door that guided me painlessly through my film options and finally to reserving a specific seat in the theatre. Popular in Europe, reserved seating is virtually unheard of in the US, not that it mattered as my mid-day, mid-week screening was mostly empty.
The interior was lushly decorated with leather benches for waiting and red wallpaper, giving the appearance of somewhere both kind of fancy and also a bit retro. It certainly didn’t feel like a cookie-cutter multiplex, even if the movies on offer were the mainstream fare of any other. In this case, Only God Forgives was the only sign that this theatre caters to more refined film tastes, though the Drafthouse is known for their special event screenings as well, creating a real community. After having the seating for my film announced over PA, I went into my theatre and found my designated seat. In the case of this Drafthouse (though not apparently all of them), the seats were in pairs with little tables between that contained the menus and the little slips of paper for ordering food and drink. I opted for one of the food specials (poutine…had to try it, though I don’t think it was probably good as poutine goes nor the best the menu had to offer) and got one of the many local (Colorado that is, one of the best beer states in the country) beers and settled back.
I had picked The Heat to watch partly because I had already seen everything I had a burning passion to see. One enjoyable element was the pre-show clips. Instead of cheesy behind-the-scenes promos of movies or television, or repetitive trivia questions, each film has a customized pre-show reel of random youtube-like clips that are in some way tied to the film, whether they involve one of the actors of the film or fit into the genre. In this case there was Melissa McCarthy on Sesame Street, Sandra Bullock in some cheesy 80s TV show and clips from 70s exploitation films about female cops. This definitely is a step up from your standard fare. And of course before the show starts you are treated to the Drafthouse’s now famous angry customer voicemail/don’t use your phone message.
I do think there is a modest contradiction between the theatre’s strict enforcement of good cinema etiquette and the food and drink service aspect that can serve as a distraction from the film, but they managed it was a lot of skill. My waitress doubled as water ninja as in one case I barely even noticed as she replaced my glass (which is unfortunate if only because I shouldn’t drink that much water while watching a film). On the whole, it makes for a very enjoyable, if expensive (the tickets are normal priced but who isn’t going to order food and drink) theatre experience. They even had a nice little bar attached whose selection would make it a strong bar even if it wasn’t part of a movie theatre.
If I still lived in Denver (and this certainly made the incentive to get back to Denver stronger), I’d certainly make a lot of trips to the Drafthouse, but I’m not sure I could make it my regular cinema because it would get too expensive. I appreciate what the chain is doing in pushing toward better cinema experiences though, which will be essential as other ways of watching movies compete. The Drafthouse company also plays a role as film distributor, pushing indie and genre filmmaking forward. They certainly proved why their brand is so distinctive in the world of cine.