Alamo Drafthouse Opens In San Francisco While Other Theaters Go Broke: What Does Tim League Know That We Don’t?

There’s less than a week to go before the official opening of the Alamo Drafthouse’s new San Francisco branch, and it’s looking nowhere near finished. When I go to the front door for the press open house, construction workers with walkie-talkies on their hips carry equipment in and out,  oblivious to my presence. “Hey, Tom, did somebody move my paint bucket? HEY! DID SOMEBODY MOVE MY FUCKING PAINT BUCKET?” a grey-haired guy shouts, at first to someone named Tom, then to no one in particular. You can barely hear him over the sounds of hammers, saws, other people shouting about paint buckets.

I make my way past the lobby, outfitted in Drafthouse’s trademark red and yellow carpeting, and past two giant standees, a bear and a bull, near the entrance to the bar (the aptly named Bear vs. Bull). FYI: “The art deco Bear vs. Bull’s name is inspired by the Gold Rush era when settlers in the Mission would pit grizzly bears and Spanish bulls against each other for entertainment.”

The menu is posted, and you can already see the 27-strong beer list, even as the floor is still covered with carpet swatches and two by fours.

This is the Alamo Drafthouse’s first foray into the California market, its 22nd theater. Drafthouse CEO Tim League will be quick to tell you, however, that he cut his teeth running a theater in Bakersfield that he bought when he was 23, before he founded the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. It’s a church now.

Company history aside, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Back in 2012, when I was hosting a screening of The FP (distributed by Drafthouse Films, Alamo’s film distribution wing) down the street at The Roxie, I was already hearing word that Alamo was planning to open a San Francisco location. “In a year or two,” they said. Time passed. They opened a Drafthouse in Denver, announced plans to expand to Brooklyn, Los Angeles… The next announcement I heard, the San Francisco location would open in “early 2014.”

Some more time passed. The marquee went up, on Mission Street between 21st and 22nd, and we waited some more. And now, finally, it’s finished. Well, the doors are open, anyway.

Not that I’m complaining. Actually, I’m amazed. San Francisco is probably the toughest city in the country to plan a construction project (lots of regulations, no space, hostile neighbors), rents are sky high, hostility towards any new building is at a fever pitch (the dreaded gentrification). And the Drafthouse’s location is smack dab in one of the city’s most quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, where “hipsters” clash with “tech bros” daily, and activists protest outside Google buses. Right next to the Drafthouse, you can still see taped-up glass holes in the shiny, just-built condo, which was recently “customized” by some pissed off neighbor (or maybe just drunk people, who knows).

Despite all this, Drafthouse has been welcomed by even the sneeringest of NIMBY nose-thumbers (and some of my best friends are sneery nose-thumbers…).

“From the beginning, people were worried that we were going to have resistance from the local neighborhood,” League says, “But we never did.”

How did they pull this off? Well, for one thing, the Alamo Drafthouse isn’t kicking out any beloved local businesses. They aren’t building so much as restoring, the historic New Mission theater, which hasn’t been open since the ’90s. “It closed in 1993. And the last gang fight here was at… what was that Wesley Snipes movie?” League searches.

Ricochet?” I offer.

“No…” (Ricochet, from 1991 starred Denzel, John Lithgow, and Ice-T).

New Jack City?”

New Jack City! That’s the one.”

New Jack City, which also came out in 1991, starred Wesley Snipes and Ice-T (incidentally, it was a much better movie than Ricochet). Trivia aside, the history of the theater was clearly important to League and company, so much so that they recreated moldings and old light fixtures from photographs. There’s also a small section of the lobby, covered in glass, that preserves a swath of graffiti-covered wall from the New Mission’s abandoned period. (This apparently occurred during a rave). Despite the decay, the 100-year-old New Mission was apparently a pretty happening place in the ’20s and ’30s, and even more recently.

“This was a community theater for a long time,” League says. “It was where people would go to see Disney movies, kung-fu, and horror. And we’re gonna play… Disney movies, kung-fu, and horror. So we’re actually really bringing back something that had gone away.”

Thus, you could make a case that Drafthouse moving in is the opposite of gentrification. Or at least, a particularly cool form of it. And that seems to be the other factor in Drafthouse’s acceptance by the normally-furious San Francisco hipster contingent: It’s just cool. A local comedian I know, Bucky Sinister, who’s lived here for 20 years, likes to say that no matter when you get to San Francisco, the people here will always tell you that it was so much cooler five years ago. “In 1967, the summer of love, people were saying that. ‘Oh, you hippies, it was so much cooler when the beats were here.’ People been saying that since the ’50s,” he says.

Drafthouse distributes indie films they find on the festival circuit. They hold a film and genre festival in Austin every year (Fantastic Fest). They recently announced plans to partner with Megan Ellison to save the archive of a dying local video store, Le Video. They seem to have their finger on the pulse of the nostalgic film lover, and they clearly have that aura of “cool” about them. And in a city where people love to tell you how much cooler things used to be, having a new Alamo Drafthouse go up in your neighborhood is still pretty cool.

Of course, there are a lot more cool, dead businesses than cool live ones, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d tell you that the movie theater business is thriving. The number of tickets sold has fallen 11% from 2004 to 2013. 2015 was down 1.5% from the year before. There are fewer movie tickets being sold now than in 2002. Remember that Bret Easton Ellis movie, The Canyons? Shuttered movie theaters was an entire visual motif. (Not that you should see it, it’s really bad.) Which makes you wonder, what does Tim League know that the rest of us don’t?

“Maybe I’m just stupid, I don’t know,” he says.

I ask him how the company’s doing, and he’s just as guarded. “We’re doing well,” he says, and smiles.

Now, no CEO is going to tell you his company is doing poorly, but by the same laws of basic logic, no company that’s losing money would be pushing through a $10 million expansion into the toughest development city in the country. And one, it should be noted, that has no shortage of movie theaters. In fact, as of 2013, San Francisco had the most movie theaters per capita of any city in the country.

So maybe it’s not so much what Drafthouse does as what they’re doing differently. You can’t just get a beer and some nice food with your movie, there’s a full bar (run by Isaac Shumway, who used to cook at the French Laundry). There’s a full food menu (by Ronnie New, from Comstock Saloon and Magnolia Gastropub). The theaters have a waitstaff, like a comedy club, but better, where you can just write down your food order on a piece of paper and they’ll bring it to you. (Because this is Drafthouse, you can also use your order slip to silently rat out talkers and texters.) The menu was all planned locally, except for the queso dip, for which Ronnie New was flown to Texas to perfect.

If the Alamo Drafthouse’s success proves anything, it’s that you can still get people off the couch, it just takes more than premium-priced tickets and seven-dollar popcorn. (Incidentally, my favorite thing at Austin’s Drafthouse is the all-you-can-eat popcorn with real butter, covered in Parmesan. Have you ever had Parmesan on popcorn? It kicks the sh*t out of butter.)

“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,” programmer Mike Keegan (formerly of The Roxie) told Wired.

And speaking for me personally, the best thing about the new Star Wars movie isn’t a new Star Wars movie, it’s that its release provided a nice deadline for Alamo to finally finish their San Francisco branch.

“For me, it was like a line in the sand,” League says. (As we know, Drafthouses travel in single file to hide their numbers.) “This project probably could’ve slid for another month. But once we said, ‘We’re opening,’ everybody rallies and we get it done.”

“So how much are you scrambling to get it finished?” I ask.

“Uh… quite a bit!” League says, laughing.

I leave him alone so he can get back to it.

Post-Script: The Alamo Drafthouse SF did indeed open last night, and was, obviously, sold out. People seemed to enjoy it. This reporter didn’t get a ticket.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.