Seeing a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse is a unique cinematic experience — which is saying something, given that movies are a fairly stereotyped affair. Customers go to the theater, purchase their tickets, buy popcorn and retreat to a large, dark room to watch a film on a massive screen with amped up surround sound.
There have been changes to the model on the margin. Customers increasingly purchase their tickets online on the way to the theater and carry them on their phones, as opposed to lining up at the box office. The concession stand has gotten a bit more advanced: Nachos now sit proudly alongside popcorn, and premium candy stations are a common sight. The theater itself might have stadium seating, an IMAX screen or be presented in 3D. Upgrades aside, the movie-going experience is much the same as it was over 100 years ago, when people first started going to the cinema.
However, there’s problem: It’s a model that is not nearly as successful as it once was. The summer of 2017 was, but industry counts, the worst-attended summer movie season in 25 years. There were big successes, of course —“Wonder Woman” springs to mind — but there were far more high-profile, but very expensive, flops and misses: “The Mummy,” “Baywatch,” “The Dark Tower,” “The Alien” prequel, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. The situation improved over the fall, such that 2017 might not end up being the worst year for movie releases — a result which comes mostly care of a “Star Wars” movie release on Dec. 14. Still, on the whole, it seems likely 2017 will underperform 2016.
Why is an open question. Some have blamed review aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes for depressing consumer interest in going to the movies. Others have pointed the finger squarely at Netflix (and to a lesser extent other streaming services like Amazon and Hulu) for encouraging people to stay home, watch Netflix and “chill” and even going a step further and releasing their own in-house cinema creations directly to their streams, skipping the theater entirely. Incidentally, that strategy seems to be taking root. “Bright,” Netflix’s attempt at a direct-to-streaming blockbuster starring Will Smith, was viewed by 11 million people in its first weekend — equivalent to a box office take of around ~$100 million (around what “Wonder Woman” opened with and about half the proceeds of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”).
Movie theaters are feeling the pinch. Though not as heavily publicized as the retail store apocalypse, theaters are closing as foot traffic falls. The trend is particularly notable among smaller, independent chains.
Although there are some exceptions — like the aforementioned Alamo Drafthouse, which has thrown out much of the traditional moviegoing experience in favor of attempting to combine the best elements of going out to dinner, going to a movie and staying in your own living room. And while other chains are shrinking, the Drafthouse is growing its footprint and expanding its ambitions.
Doing It Differently
When a customer buys a ticket to an Alamo Drafthouse film, that ticket is attached to a specific seat in the theater, to which they go immediately. There is no line at the concession stand, because there is no concession stand: The seats come with tables, menus and a dedicated server. Patrons peruse the menu, write down their orders and leave it for their server, who returns with provisions while the movie is in progress. Popcorn is an option, but so is a selection of soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts, as well as a plethora of alcohol-enhanced drinking options.
And while one might worry that a movie theater full of increasingly intoxicated people watching “Star Wars” and eating full hot meals is a recipe for a drunken food fight, the Alamo Drafthouse keeps the mayhem to a minimum with firmly enforced rules. People who talk during movies get one warning and then are tossed out without a refund. Using a mobile phone? Bad idea: Again one warning, and the customer is out.
They don’t care if this makes customers angry — far from it; they widely advertise their rather heartless attitude toward disruptive patrons both in the theater and on social media. (Warning: That clip is both extremely funny and not safe for work.)
And more than just changing the dining option, Alamo Drafthouse is also, according to a member of its executive team, extremely committed to offering their customers a reason to leave the house beyond just seeing the latest release. While the latest release isn’t quite as meaningful in an era when home viewership is never more than a few months away and movie ticket prices are going ever upward even as consumer attendance is going down, Alamo offers viewers rare repertory films and access to extremely quirky “film festivals,” which give viewers a chance to experience something old in a new way.
“Customers can watch a B-movie at home,” the executive noted in an email with PYMNTS. “Or they can have someone serve them an alcoholic milkshake to enjoy it with.”
The Alamo’s commitment to doing things differently — and bringing a classic experience back in a not-quite-classic way — is something the movie theater is looking to expand to the realm of home entertainment.
By bringing back the VCR.
The Return of the Video Store
While it’s hard to overstate how much the emergence of the VCR changed the world of movies, these days video stores are about as rare as a typewriter repair shop.
But the Alamo — in its latest location in Raleigh, North Carolina — is betting that a little nostalgia can go a long way when it comes to entertainment and has thus decided to build the city’s “newest (and only) video rental store.”
Consumers have the option of choosing from a library of 30,000 titles. They’re also able to rent VCRs (if they don’t still have one), and HDMI to RCA adapters will be free of charge. The collection is built out of the “Video Vortex” series Alamo started a few years ago as a tribute to the world of straight-to-video movies.
Its curator, Joe Ziemba, will continue to oversee the selection for its brick-and-mortar spin-off.
“It gives me hope for humanity to see Video Vortex grow from a series at the Alamo to an actual video store,” Ziemba said. “VHS is still the only way to see hundreds of forgotten genre movies.”
The dream is that the Raleigh pilot will be successful enough to expand Video Vortex into a full-scale chain.
Will the dream ever be a reality?
Hard to say. The Alamo’s ability to bring out alternative elements in the cinema experience has allowed the chain to grow while other theaters are shutting down en masse. But it’s difficult to imagine adjusting the tracking on a VCR would appeal to anyone but the most nostalgic film buffs.