By Cory Sklar
The Alamo Drafthouse is a haven. A refuge for lovers of cinema. A community space for horror heads, arthouse fans, and rom-com enthusiasts. A place where an aspiring filmmaker can meet their favorite director, writer, cinematographer, or actor. But it’s not just a place for cinephiles. It’s also a place where the general moviegoing public can enjoy a first-run movie with some great food and an amazing cocktail, and not have to worry about hearing the people next to them yapping or the distraction of someone using their phone. It’s a place for parents that need somewhere to get away for a little bit. The Alamo is many things to many people, who can all agree on one thing: It’s a damn good place to watch a movie.
The Alamo began in 1997 as a hand-built, single-screen movie theater in the warehouse district of Austin, Texas, founded by Rice University alumni Tim and Karrie League, a married couple with a deep passion for cinema. They opened the original Alamo with one intention—to have “good food, good beer, and good films all in the same place,” and create a place where they would want to spend a lot of their own time.
Early on, they innovated the theater experience with an ingenious food and drink ordering system. Write your order on a little card, place it on the front of your table, and boom! A friendly member of their waitstaff takes care of it for you. This method also innovated how to communicate while collectively watching a movie. Who needs to talk when you can just pass notes to your friends in the theater like you did back in junior high? That note-passing comes in handy at The Drafthouse, as the theater also implemented its now-famous no talking/no texting policy. Tim League came up with this idea after observing a particularly rowdy and distracting screening of Blue Velvet (1986). We’ve all been there.
As the Alamo chain quickly expanded locations, the original warehouse district location became a hub for eccentric movie curation with cult films, foreign rarities, and actor and director retrospectives. There were silent movies with live scores performed by local bands, as well as themed nights where food-and-drink menus were based on the plot or location of the evening’s main attraction. Soon a community of film lovers was born.
The popularity of these specialty screenings paved the way for the other Alamo theaters to specialize in genre screenings of movies hand-selected by some of the most talented, knowledgeable film buffs in the biz, like Jake Isgar who programs the Alamo Drafthouse at The New Mission in San Francisco, and his predecessor, Mike Keegan. These screenings bring out the weird-movie loving hordes of Drafthouse devotees. Each location enlists local tastemakers to curate weekly specialty nights, such as Music Mondays, Terror Tuesdays, and Weird Wednesdays. These hosts and curators become figureheads of their respective scenes. Going to an Alamo screening feels like being in an exclusive club and hanging out with the cool kids.
With their annual Fantastic Fest, a film festival that shines a spotlight on horror, science fiction, fantasy, action, Asian, and cult films, Tim League and the Drafthouse programmers introduce young, up-and-coming underground filmmakers to audiences nationwide. Through their in-house house distribution company, Drafthouse Films, The Alamo has exposed important works that would have otherwise been left in obscurity to audiences worldwide. Movies like The Miami Connection (1987), Roar (1981), Ms. 45 (1981), The Visitor (1979), and Wake in Fright (1971, Festival 2010) have all found new audiences, as they have been lovingly restored and rereleased by Drafthouse.
Alamo Drafthouse also works to collect, preserve, screen, and distribute obscure classics through their nonprofit organization The American Genre Film Archive (AFGA), which houses over 6,000 film prints, a 4K film scanner, and theatrical and home video distribution arms. This accomplishment in addition to their unique programming is more than enough reason why this modern institution is so deserving of SFFILM’s prestigious Mel Novikoff Award.
As a pioneering art and repertory film exhibitor who exposed so many films to so many audiences, Mel Novikoff was someone who set out to expand the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema. Few institutions outside of the Alamo Drafthouse embody Mel’s work and vision more.
Oh, and Alamo’s fried pickles aren’t bad either.
Cory Sklar is a local musician, radio DJ, writer, and sometimes host at The Alamo Drafthouse at The New Mission in San Francisco.