Disclosure: Birth.Movies.Death. is owned by the Alamo Drafthouse.
Perched on the second floor of downtown open-air plaza, The Bloc, like a jewel in a crown, the Alamo Drafthouse’ Los Angeles location delivers on a long-held promise to provide local cinephiles with a unique destination to satisfy their most eclectic tastes. After many decades where Hollywood-adjacent theatrical experiences were compartmentalized into premiere, first-run, guild and repertory categories, the national chain finally provides the city with a clearinghouse for movies new and old - high-profile blockbusters, scrappy indies and cult obscurities alike - to be screened, and celebrated, alongside one another in a pristine, first-rate moviegoing environment.
Celebrating its 22nd year, the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain first launched with a simple premise that would prove surprisingly unique - exhibit first and second-run films in food- and drink-friendly theaters where presentation, both on-screen and in the auditorium, was the focus. The opening of dozens of locations across the country over more than two decades has underscored the appetite that exists - increasingly - for theaters that prioritize perfect picture and sound, while copycat businesses have attempted to incorporate luxury seating and elaborate menus into their programming to keep customers coming back for more. But the arrival of the Drafthouse in Los Angeles feels woefully overdue - not simply because plans were hatched to bring the chain to the city several years ago, but because its brand of cinephilia has become an integral part of the fabric of the entertainment industry itself that has heretofore only sporadically been concentrated in one permanent location.
Not coincidentally positioned above a prime stop on Los Angeles’ metro line, the Drafthouse houses twelve screens where all different kinds of films are to be programmed, from blockbusters to ones you’ve barely heard of before you step into the building. Adjacent to the box office is Video Vortex, the city’s first new destination for DVD rentals in several years, as well as a display for Mondo collectibles, including records, print artwork, apparel and toys from the Drafthouse’s merchandising subsidiary. The lobby also features an expansive bar featuring almost 50 beers on tap, a food menu, and display screens playing video rarities from the company’s skilled team of collectors, archivists and editors. The location serves as a meeting spot and holding area that’s different from most local theaters, offering ticket holders the chance to congregate before or after their film to discuss what they’re seeing, and of course plan for their next visit.
Just up a narrow escalator, past a series of looming movie posters imported from Drafthouse owners’ Tim and Karrie League’s personal collection, are the theaters themselves. Twelve screens of various sizes play host to the theater programming that Los Angeles Head of Creative and Programming Rachel Walker explains is simultaneously coordinated with other locations and tailor-made to suit the needs of the local community. “Tim really wanted me to follow whatever I felt was right that the direction that the LA theater should go in when it opens,” Walker says. “So a big goal for me was finding an ‘in,’ and finding out what the community wants to see.”
“I'm excited that this month we're showing these art-house documentaries, like the Mads Brugger stuff,” she reveals. “But it's also the Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays and doing a live podcast with Unspooled - it's been cool to get to do all kinds of crazy things and see what sticks.”
The biggest auditorium holds just 63 seats, ensuring an immersive and intimate experience that won’t be sabotaged by shuffling moviegoers by the dozens as they file in and out. Additionally, Head of Marketing Anam Syed calls the theater layouts “Drafthouse Version 3.0” where, instead of sharing long railings to place orders and receive their food, guests can utilize individualized tables for a degree of privacy and to reduce interruptions to others around them. Like with every other Drafthouse, the menus both feature “staples” familiar to visitors from other cities, and a few specialties unique to the Los Angeles location. Some of these include chips and queso (a rarity in Southern California), salads (that can also be served as wraps), pizzas (including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options) and a wide variety milkshakes (many that include an option to add a little booze for an extra kick).
Commensurate with its history as a second-run theater and showcase for series, festivals and special screenings, the theater is equipped with a 35mm projector in addition to its digital projectors, guaranteeing filmmakers and moviegoers alike the opportunity to see films in a premium format. In addition to first-run programming - a healthy mix of studio fare like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and smaller films like the documentary Apollo 11 - Drafthouse has many regular series, such as Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday, where Walker can coordinate screenings that coincide with larger programming initiatives for the chain or accommodate events and priorities to suit local ticket buyers.
Recent screenings included a Weird Wednesday screening of the 2017 Anne Hathaway-Matthew McConaughey curio Serenity hosted by Are You Afraid of the Dark? writer BenDavid Grabinski, and a screening of a new 4K restoration of Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall. More broadly in August, the theme of one block of films is “Don’t Try This At Home,” inspired by the release of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has thus far led to some unique programming opportunities for Walker’s team.
“They’re all movie focusing on stunts, so we brainstormed what would be good titles and we can choose to play all of them, or play none,” she explains. “For Hooper on Monday, a stunt organization reached out and said, we want to get involved with stunt month, so we had a q&a with Buddy Joe Hooker, the guy that Jan-Michael Vincent’s character is based on who’s also Kurt Russell’s stunt double in Death Proof. He's a legend - he's been around for forever - and it just turned into this really neat event, just by the mere fact that we’re in proximity to where those people are.”
But given the abundance of first-rate theaters in Los Angeles, the Drafthouse arrives less as an outlier than an odd and essential aggregate of what many others offer - dynamic programming, stellar, singular presentation, top-flight menu items, personalized service, and a bustling social community built around and interconnected with the theater that encourages visitors to stay and experience it before, during and after going to the movies. The Alamo Drafthouse Los Angeles isn’t merely anticipating the tentpoles in a nationwide release calendar or reacting to trends, it’s driving a conversation between audiences, filmmakers and Hollywood itself in order to share in the commonality of a collective love of cinema - past, present and future. “It's not just ‘here's a q&a for a movie coming out’ - which of course we love and we're doing those pretty much every weekend,” Walker says, laughing. “But it's connecting over something else, connecting over a different movie that we're all learning about together or learning from the filmmaker about.”
“It gives filmmakers even more of a voice to talk about the things that inspired them, and I think enhances the film community and the industry overall,” she says. “It's about connecting with filmmakers and the industry, specifically about loving film.”
(Note: All photos in this post courtesy Tiffany Roohani)