When the Alamo Drafthouse announced in April that it would be opening a new five-screen movie theater in the historic Metro Theater on 100th Street and Broadway next year, it was arguably the most exciting news to hit the Upper West Side in years. The Metro, which opened in 1933, showed films for decades (including pornos for a brief sad period) before closing in 2005. Locals could scarcely imagine that the space, which has basically been gutted, would ever be used to show movies again.
The Alamo has five theaters in Austin, Texas but it has gained a national reputation as a haven for movie-lovers. The theaters show a wide array of movies, from first-run hits to foreign and independent films, to popular series like 70’s exploitation films. And the Alamo has stadium seating with full food service — you can have meals and alcohol delivered right to your seat before and during the movies. They also hold screenings that pair a meal with a movie, allowing you to watch Like Water for Chocolate while eating the amazing food featured in the film. Brilliant, right?
The Alamo, which recently began distributing films, is expanding to New York, LA and San Francisco.
We recently got a chance to interview Alamo founder and president Tim League. The Q&A is below, and has been edited slightly for clarity.
West Side Rag: Why’d you choose the Metro Theater as the location for the new theater?
Tim League: We were actually looking all over the place for suitable real estate. It being a pretty compact city there aren’t a huge number of opportunities that are just the right configuration. We had a few prospects, but then when the Metro became available I thought it was a really great fit. Partially because I know that neighborhood really well. When I come into New York my aunt has a place that’s on 99th and Central Park West and that’s where I’m usually staying. I’ve wandered that neighborhood more than any other. There’s a need for additional screens up there. There’s lots of residential, you’ve got the university nearby. There’s lots of factors that make it a really great fit. I’ve also got a real soft spot for old actual theater spaces that are no longer theater spaces. We look for spaces like that to try to renovate them.
WSR: Why did you want to open a theater in New York in the first place? Have you been considering this for awhile?
TL: Yeah, I have. In part, we’ve gotten involved with a small distribution company and we know how important the market in New York is for small independent and foreign language films. The concentration of media in New York makes it a really important town for films to open. It’s one of two hubs of the industry. It’s important for both distributing our own films but also helping films we really love that come through our network. I think we can program a lot of really great stuff there. Whether its our own films we pick up or just movies that we love, if we can find a good home for them and promote them it’s something that’s missing right now for a lot of films. It’s a big step for us and I think it signifies that we’re trying to become a national company as opposed to a regional company down here in Texas.
WSR: Is this the first of multiple Alamo theaters in New York?
TL: Probably. We can’t say for sure. The first one has to work before we start talking about number two. But in our own backyard here in Austin we’ve opened up 5 theaters. We’re nowhere near the size of New York. New York is a huge metropolitan area and frankly a lot of parts of the city are a little bit under-screened.
WSR: You said in a recent interview that there were some “permitting issues” you were dealing with in New York (West Side Rag wrote about it here). Do those threaten the project at all?
TL: That [interview] made it sound worse than it actually is. Every construction process has a permitting process, so we’re in that phase right now. There’s nothing unforeseen, there’s no problems per se, but we can’t proceed with hiring a contractor and starting with construction until we get our building permit. So we’re probably another month or two away from doing that. There are no indications that there’s anything wrong, it’s just all part of the process of starting construction.
WSR: The Metro has basically been gutted. Is there any chance of restoring it?
TL: We’re gonna fully restore the exterior, the façade and the neon and the marquee. As for the interior, a lot of the problems with why some of the old theaters faded away is that they are gigantic single-screen venues. Since it is already gutted out we’re going to turn it into a five-screen theater. We’re going to use every possible nook and cranny of the space. That’s not true to the original design of it. It will be a nice finish-out. We’re certainly doing some historical research to find out some of the key details and style. And we’ll use that as a baseline for our renovation work. But we’re creating a five-screen theater, we’re having to build a kitchen as well, so it’s not going to be a classic historic renovation.
WSR: Are you familiar with the Upper West Side’s history as the home of some of the great movie theaters of the 20th Century?
TL: I’ve certainly looked through pictures of movie palaces of days gone by and there’s historic photos of a lot of the Upper West Side theaters. I’m on the Heritage Society board here in Austin, which is our historic preservation society, and its depressing – every week you look at great structures that were once here that have been torn down for parking lots and strip malls. It’s nice to at least be able to preserve the historic façade [of the Metro] and sort of the sense of what the theater was in its prime. Those types of properties, there’s not that many of them anywhere anymore.
WSR: What will you screen? Will you have more independent movies or more big-budget first-run ones?
TL: I think the biggest parallel for our plans in New York is our downtown theater in Austin, which is another historic property. That one does a mix of first-run, indie, foreign and special events. That’s only a two-screen theater. There’s usually one screen that’s first-run and one screen dedicated to repertory and classic films, festivals, that sort of thing. Since we’re getting five for the Metro we’ll probably have a mix. I think we’re going to lean much more heavily toward independent, foreign, and art there, but there will probably be some first-run commercial films as well.
WSR: On Alamo’s facebook page, you recently said that it might be fun to screen Duck Soup and Hannah and her Sisters on opening night and serve a meal to complement the movies (From the facebook page: “One idea from Louis Spiegler: Double feature of Hannah and Her Sisters & Duck Soup with a special menu that has a culinary riff on both chopped liver with crackers and Wonder Bread with mayo. In Hannah, Woody watches Duck Soup at the Metro theater and discovers his reason to keep on living.”). Are you planning to go ahead with that? And was it you who wrote that?
TL: I wrote that. It was meant to spur some ideas about what are some other things we can do to celebrate that theater in particular, that part of New York. So it would be hard to beat that one, especially if Woody Allen is into it.
WSR: Would you contact him?
TL: We haven’t done it yet, but that’s the idea. At the very least we’ll reach out. The fact that he puts the theater in his film is no accident, so he’s probably pretty fond of the Metro.
WSR: Do you have a relationship with him?
TL: No. I’ve seen almost all of his movies but no relationship.
WSR: How do you serve food during the movie? Does that mostly happen before the movie starts?
TL: It’s mostly before. But if you want something during the movie it’s a non-verbal interaction, you just write down what you want. If you want a pint of beer, you raise that piece of paper up like a flag in front of your table. It’s stadium seating so somebody sort of slinks in below you, picks up the paper, and then will drop off another pint of beer or whatever. Hopefully silently. Most of that interaction happens well before the movie.
WSR: Do you guys serve draft beer?
TL: Yeah. Beer, wine and liquor as well.
WSR: I see in Texas you have weekly shows for people who can bring their toddlers. Is that something you’d consider here?
TL: We probably will. It’s usually an early morning or early afternoon show. It’s clearly marked for parents only. If you don’t have a kid it’s the last room you’re gonna want to be in. But usually the state of movie theaters at that time of day there’s gonna be one theater where there’s almost nobody in it anyway. It’s a good service for moms and families to come out and check out a show.
WSR: Is there an age cutoff at the theater, because I know you’re serious about removing distractions like texting and talking from the movie-going experience? I assume you’ll also have a strict anti-texting policy like you do in Texas (picture of Austin theater at left).
TL: No kids under 6 at anytime. And no unaccompanied kids. If you’re under 18 you have to come with your parents. Both of those are targeting the same thing that we do with our anti-texting policy.
WSR: You also have special events in Austin, like film parody contests, to get local filmmakers involved. Will you be doing that here?
TL: All those things that are part of the Alamo brand are gonna be there [in New York]. We’re also hiring at least one but probably more hosts-promoters-film nerds to oversee the things that happen in New York.
WSR: How about outdoor movie series?
TL: Yeah, for sure. We’ve done a few shows in New York already. We did a big Warriors cast and crew reunion out in Coney Island, we did On the Waterfront out in Hoboken. We showed it at one of the parks that was featured in the movie.
WSR: Any other series?
TL: We’ll have a lot of our repertory series, like 35 mm screenings of 70’s exploitation classics. That’s a series that we’ve done every week for the past 11 years. We’ll definitely continue that series up in New York. And our food pairings. We’ll do special menus to compliment food-based movies. From Julie and Julia to Like Water for Chocolate, it’s a five-course paired meal to match the food that’s in the movie.
WSR: How much does that usually cost?
TL: It ranges based on how rare and fine the ingredients and wine are. They’re anywhere from $50 to I think the most expensive is the one we do for the Lord of the Rings, where it’s a 12-hour event with eight meals.
WSR: Wow. How much does the Lord of the Rings feast cost?
TL: It’s like $125 or something like that.
WSR: And you do that every year?
TL: We’ve been doing it every year.
WSR: And you’ll probably do that here too?
TL: Yeah, we’ll do that here.
WSR: Will all the projectors be digital?
TL: It will be all digital. In one of the rooms at least we’ll be able to change to archived 35 mm.
WSR: I see you’ve distributed 3 films so far through your company. Do you have any more coming out?
TL: We just released a trailer for a Danish comedy called Klown. It screens at the end of July. We have some other announcements coming up. We have 2 or 3 more films we have lined up for the rest of the year that we haven’t announced yet.
WSR: Any more clarity on the timeline for when you will open? You said it will be sometime in 2013.
TL: That’s as clear as I can get you. Until we actually have our permits in hand and choose a contractor, then they’ll set the schedule. Once we have the schedule we’ll announce it.
Photos of Tim League by Annie Ray. Photo of the Metro Theater by Patrick Crowley. Interior of Alamo Theater in Austin by David Hill Photo via flickr.