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New Alamo Drafthouse Promises Weirdness on Tap

San Francisco has lost most of its movie palaces. Alamo Drafthouse is reversing that trend.

An Alamo Drafthouse audience in Richardson, Texas, dons killer headgear for a 2013 screening of the slasher film You’re Next.


“There’s a risk to opening any kind of business,” insists Alamo Drafthouse founder and chief executive officer Tim League. He’s just back from a business trip to the Toronto International Film Festival, where his company’s movie distribution arm, Drafthouse Films, acquired the offbeat Danish flick Men and Chicken. He seems sanguine about the fowl-themed dark comedy’s prospects—but then again, this is a man who programs yearly Thanksgiving screenings of Blood Freak, “a cautionary anti-pot movie” about an experimental turkey farm and a turkey-headed murderer. Risky business is part of the game plan.

The Berkeley-born film buff has come a long way from the first Drafthouse, a parking garage that he and his wife transformed into a second-run theater in Austin, Texas, back in 1997. San Francisco’s Alamo Drafthouse, opening December 17 in the New Mission at 2550 Mission Street, is the first—and likely the biggest—component of League’s most ambitious expansion to date: He plans to cement Alamo as a national brand by bringing Drafthouses to San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Both Drafthouse Films and the current national expansion began brewing in 2010, when League wrested control of the brand back from former business partners who had expanded it willy-nilly during the aughts; League now has outposts in around 20 cities nationwide. 

Here in San Francisco, he’s going big: From the balustrades to the bathroom tile, the Mission Drafthouse will be fully restored in the art deco style used by architect Timothy Pflueger to adorn the Castro Theater. The grand room, originally designed by famed turn-of-the-century architects James and Merritt Reid, will seat 320. Three smallish cinemas, each with 30 or so seats, will trace the skeleton of the original balcony; across the hall will be a large new room.

Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday are coming to a Drafthouse near you.

In a city certifiably paranoid about all things carpetbagger, League’s announcement of his $10 million–plus plan to revitalize the New Mission was met with a startling reaction: applause. San Francisco’s Planning Department received 44 letters of support and only a sole phone call opposing the project. Of course, the makeover hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The city’s permitting process was, naturally, laborious, and the project, which includes a lavish bar, required a special exemption from an ordinance intended to curb the Mission’s mid-1990s alcohol blight. But on the whole, the city has welcomed Alamo Drafthouse. Architectural historian Katherine Petrin, who watched as the dilapidated theater passed from City College to developer Gus Murad to Oyster Development Corp. (which owns the new Vida condos next door), lights up at the mention of League’s name. To Petrin, who was a key player in landing the New Mission landmark status in 2004, League has “a really different take on that story we’ve seen around town.”

Like its neighbor the Mission Mall, which burned down in January, the New Mission extends from the front to the back of its block. Never twinned (split into two theaters) when that was in vogue, the 2,050-seat movie house had one of the city’s largest remaining single screens when it closed in 1993. The theater’s scale was so grand that when a Planning Department staffer walked into its Mayan-themed anteroom in the mid-’90s, she assumed that the screen had been removed—the room was so ornate that she didn’t realize she was still in the lobby.

Opening a huge, ornate cinema is neither an easy nor an intuitive move. This city’s collective memory is littered with the defunct theaters of yore: the Alexandria; the Bridge; the Coronet. This figures to be the first large new theater installed here since the Westfield San Francisco Centre opened in 2006—and the Mission Alamo Drafthouse will be showing far quirkier fare. So, if traditional business sense is to be found anywhere in League’s plan, it’s in his notion that the city is cinematically underserved—a shortcoming that the theater’s new creative manager, Mike Keegan (former programmer at the Roxie and SF Indiefest), is poised to beat back with sheer quantity. When the theater’s doors open, Keegan’s ambitious mix of first-run films, foreign art cinema, low-cost children’s screenings, and local festivals will meld with Drafthouse staples like Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday. This everything-to-everyone approach means that the projection booth must be among the best-equipped in town, capable of screening everything from DCP to 70mm to VHS—a format for which League has a particular affinity. “The theater is really going to blow minds when it opens,” Keegan says.

If early Internet chatter is any indication, so will the drink program. Created by former Tosca bar manager Isaac Shumway, the menu of the new Drafthouse’s 90-seat, open-to-the-public bar, Bear Vs. Bull, is an embarrassment of riches: 28 beers on tap, alcoholic milkshakes, and nitro cold brew from local De La Paz Coffee—not to mention a number of signature mostly film-themed drinks. A yet-to-be-announced food program designed by New Orleans–born Ronnie New (recently of Comstock Saloon) is also in the works. But despite such amenities, only time will tell if League’s Drafthouse is, in tech-speak, a culture fit for San Francisco. Importing classic Austin weirdness to a city that has been steadily drifting away from its own brand of weird is tricky. Alamo’s lauded etiquette-enforcement policy (merciless ejection, sans refund, of impolite patrons) may not play well in San Francisco; its anti-texting stance may inspire its share of angry texts. But League takes it all in stride. “I strongly believe,” he says, “that at a certain point, people want to get out of the house.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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