Why Do You Worship at the Alamo Drafthouse?

By  · Published on March 10th, 2013

Alamo Drafthouse logo

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

It’s time to remember the Alamo. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, that is. Every week, we showcase another movie theater from around the world as a “Movie House of Worship,” and we tend to save certain cinemas to feature during certain film festivals they’re affiliated with. Naturally, with SXSW going on this week, an Alamo location is necessary. But which one? Normally I’d go with the Alamo South Lamar, but that’s out of commission this year. Also, Brian recently wrote up a great tribute to the theater on the eve of its temporary closing. And who is best to assign an entry on an Alamo theater? I would do it, but I’m not a local and there are plenty of people who know the brand and locations better.

I decided the best way to go this week is more open. Invite all you readers to share your experience with any Alamo Drafthouse theater. Answer the usual questions of why you worship there, what is your take on the food and what’s a recent (or not recent even) screening of note. Are you a year-long regular or a visitor who only sees the inside of an Alamo during SXSW or Fantastic Fest or any other occasion? Are you enough of an Alamo veteran that you could do a MHOW entry for the original 409 Colorado location (Alamo Drafthouse Downtown)? And finally, are you able to single out what you like best about these theaters, whether it’s the programming, the food/drink, the etiquette rules, the auditorium set up or the feeling of being a part of a special film community and culture?

Celebrating the Alamo may seem a bit unnecessary. We all know about it, we all either love it or, if we’ve never been, experience it. But it’s an interesting time to consider the brand and chain, as a number of locations are in construction for cities outside of Texas, including New York and San Francisco, a new era of expansion for the Alamo that will make it even more known and cherished throughout the nation. Also, more and more other chains and singular establishments are copying the Alamo model and just not quite getting it right. I’ve seen similar theaters that are more intimate and down-to-earth, I’ve seen variations that aim for a more “upscale” approach. For whatever reason, none (that I’ve been to anyway) give me a feeling remotely like I have at an Alamo theater ‐ even the Ritz, which I’ve had issues with.

So, here’s my brief fill-in of some of the usual MHOW listings (excluding the dated and basic bits). Again, I’m not the most experienced or regular Alamo patron. And unlike my wife, I’m not cool enough to have been to the original (and only the original in her case). I don’t know founder/CEO/madman Tim League, and he doesn’t know me. I’m just the average outsider who gets to make a pilgrimage every now and then and wishes a franchise would now come to his neck of the woods (Atlanta! How about it?)

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Location: Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Kansas City and Northern Virginia [Coming soon to NYC, San Francisco, Kalamazoo, and Littleton, CO]

Opened: May 25, 1997, with the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown, which moved to the Ritz location in 2007

No. of screens: 2–10

FSR publisher Neil Miller with Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta in 2008, via Slashfilm.

Why I worship here: The short answer is that it’s a SXSW screening venue, and that’s almost entirely been what I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing it as (see below). But I can still tell there’s a special atmosphere and attitude about it that speaks to my heart. The fact that it knows how to love and respect its customers the right way is a big plus for me, probably above anything else. They know their audience and their community and have no problem ostracizing anyone who doesn’t get it or fit in with the crowd. And yet you don’t have to be a total cinephile, movie geek or film nerd, it’s not like they quiz you on your knowledge of Eisenstein and Carpenter alike. You just can’t be an awful person (at least not noticeably). It’s not easy to otherwise define a specific thing that makes me fond of the Alamo. When I walk in I’m overwhelmed by my obsession with the retro pre-show stuff on the screen, the extensive menu (it should be the worst thing in the world for a man as chronically indecisive as myself, but it’s not) and even my immediate glass of water that I realize I need because my mouth is dry from over-salivating on my way in.

Recent screening of note: I haven’t been recently, so I’ll pick a first screening of note, which is special in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve ever seen a movie at an Alamo that wasn’t part of the SXSW Film Festival. This was my first time, the breaking of my Alamo virginity. It happened in 2008 on the day that year’s fest kicked off. I arrived early enough that I had time to kill before the opening night film so I went straight to the South Lamar location and bought whatever was playing right then. It was Semi-Pro. It didn’t matter what it was. It could have been my least favorite film of all time. I loved it.

Devotion to the concessions: As a popcorn junkie, I’ll admit that while my first Alamo visit included the best movie theater corn I’ve ever had, the last couple years I’ve been disappointed. So, like everyone else I’ve moved over to the queso. Mostly, though, I love the craft beer selection on draft and the fact that it’s not overpriced. Oh, and the milkshakes obviously. Especially the ones with liquor.

Last word: My wife and I came very close to moving to Austin last year with one of the main reasons being the Alamo Drafthouse. Now I can only hope that one comes to Georgia.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.