The Alamo Drafthouse Lands in a San Francisco Dizzy With Change
San Francisco Landmark No. 245 is gutted now, but it used to be a futon store. In the 1920s, it had a beautiful Art Deco lobby, but only faint traces of that can be seen anymore. There’s graffiti on the walls that looks like it’s from squatters, but is actually the product of a colossal rave. The light fixtures are gone and the carpet has been torn away, but nearly 100 years ago, the New Mission Theater was one of San Francisco’s great movie houses.
Starting today, reborn just in time for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it will be once again, as the newest location in Alamo Drafthouse’s burgeoning theater empire.
Back in July, with Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League guiding the way, it was just possible to see the glimmers of hope. Stand on your tip toes and you could see a bit of the plaster being repaired to restore the once-ornate ceiling. Crews found some scraps of the original carpet in an attic of the building, so it’s being recreated to cover the floors. The light fixtures are being rebuilt from old pictures, too. All-told, it’s a two-year, $10 million restoration that’s meant to get people living in Netflix Nation excited about going out to watch movies and chill.
To do that, League says, sitting in a cafe around the corner from the theater’s renovation, it’ll offer something for cinephiles and superfans alike. “We’re going to play some of the strangest and most esoteric films on the planet,” he says, “but we’re also going to play Star Wars.”
“I think a lot of people have fallen out of the habit of going to the movies, and I think that we’re going to sort of wake people up to that,” says Mike Keegan, the New Mission’s creative manager and programmer. “I think that people can rediscover movie-going through us. And through that I’m excited for someone coming in to see Star Wars to just like the experience a lot.”
Early indicators are that audiences are ready to buy what League is selling. Back in October, when the Alamo Drafthouse announced it would open the New Mission’s doors with The Force Awakens, ticket sales crashed the theater chain’s site. (Just like everyone else’s.) And, frankly, getting butts in seats is the Drafthouse’s specialty. The chain, which started in 1997 with one theater in Austin, has made a business out of screening both new releases and cult classics—provided by Drafthouse’s non-profit American Genre Film Archive—along with food and drinks. (Come for the Gremlins, stay for a local microbrew!) And the San Francisco location, situated in the city’s Mission District, is just one of many new locations Alamo is expanding into, with cinemas in Brooklyn and downtown Los Angeles already in the works.
But San Francisco, while technically the Alamo’s 22nd location, is also at the chain’s vanguard right now. And it’s got some work to do to establish itself in a city whose film community already has its local arthouses. Thankfully, the same technology that has so disrupted our media consumption—there are far fewer movie tickets sold now than there were in 2002 and in that time myriad new ways to stay at home and stream have emerged—has created jobs and dollars that have flooded flooded San Francisco. In other words, the city isn’t wanting for young, affluent people who are willing to spend a few extra bucks to be able to drink at the movies. (In another sign of the times, the New Mission’s renovation is happening in conjunction with one of the neighborhood’s many new condo complexes. “The timing was really good because they were joined at the hip a little bit,” League says. “Something good had to happen with the theater for that condo to happen. They needed us.”)
“There’s obviously an enormously rich cultural world that occurs in the Mission—from the formal to the informal—that has been there for a long time and some of that has been displaced,” says Noah Cowen, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. “So it’s nice to see something that I think both the old Mission and the new Mission can embrace to help us heal and move forward.”
Alamo Drafthouse is also planning to work with local theaters—the Roxie Theater, the Clay Theater, and the historic Castro Theater—to make sure their offerings jibe with what those movie houses are already doing. “It remains to be seen how they or any other single entity might impact the Mission. It’s a hotbed of competing interests, visions, and values right now,” says Tracy Wheeler, the chairman of the board at the Roxie. “That said, film, food, and beer are a great way to bring a diverse cross section of people together. We do it 363 days a year.”
Drafthouse’s plan to settle into the San Francisco scene also includes working with local film festivals to be a venue or offer complimentary programming. Cowen, whose organization puts on the San Francisco International Film Festival, says SFFS is open to having the New Mission as a venue, adding that having a Drafthouse theater in Silicon Valley helps the region’s street cred in the film community. “Because of the opinion-making ability of tech workers, we’ve become an important place to show your movie in advance,” he adds.
As for any emotions about bringing an old-school movie theater to the region most disrupting the movie theater business (remember that Beasts of No Nation dust-up?), the Alamo team is sanguine. “I don’t think you’re competing against Netflix, I think that you’re competing against going to a bar, or going to a restaurant, or going to the mall. The sphere of competition is what you’re going to do with your night,” says Keegan, who used to be a movie programmer at the Roxie. “As a resident of this neighborhood, I 100 percent understand and see where you’re going. But I’m excited to see where the audience sits 18 months from now. Like, who are the people who are coming to everything?”
Back in July, though, getting butts in seats was the least of the Alamo’s worries. There weren’t even seats to put butts into. The kitchen wasn’t built and not a single beer had been poured, but League was still stoked on what was to come. He was talking excitedly about opening the doors in time for The Force Awakens and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and mourning the fact that Silicon Valley was keeping all the good chefs happily employed. “Every tech company in the city has a chef that can go home to their family at 8 o’clock,” he says. “It’s a hard market.” But even more than offering food that’s pleasing to Bay Area palates, he wants to be welcomed to the neighborhood.
“I hope to be judged five years after the fact that it was great that the Alamo moved in. It’s all just words until that happens,” League says, but “I hope we’re better than a futon store.”
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