Sneak Preview: Alamo Drafthouse Los Angeles Promises To Be A Film Fanatic Nirvana

Over a decade ago, I saw my first movie screening in the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, and declared that it was "the best movie theater EVER!" I remember Alamo founder Tim League telling me at the time about his plans to build an Alamo Drafthouse in Los Angeles. Of course, it's taken over a decade to find the right location and build it, but the first Alamo Drafthouse is now finally coming to Los Angeles. Now the question is, were they able to recapture the magic of Austin's South Lamar theater?

Located in The Bloc, an open-air development in downtown Los Angeles, the Drafthouse aims to be not just a movie theater, but a gathering place for a new community of film, tabletop, and pop culture fanatics. Earlier this week, I got a sneak preview tour of the new Alamo Drafthouse DTLA, and I am excited to report back that it not only captures the magic of the Austin Drafthouses I fell in love with, but it promises to be so much more. Keep reading to learn about the new Alamo Drafthouse DTLA, see some photos, and more.

Video Vortex Is A Cool Pop Culture Store

To enter the Alamo Drafthouse, you first go into Video Vortex, a relatively new retail, community, and food concept from the company. This is only the fourth one they've ever created, and each looks and feels different.

Let's help paint a picture: there's a prominent wrap-around bar with a front display enclosure featuring tons of old VHS tapes. In front of that is a small store featuring the geekiest and coolest pop culture collectibles. There is a variety of collectible statues like Spider-Gwen, the monster from Colossal, and an Alfred Hitchcock scaled figure; some of the collectibles are produced by Mondo, and others are fun things curated specifically for this space. On the counter, you can find packs of The Dark Crystal and Terminator 2 trading card packs. Next to that, you can find a variety of enamel pins produced by Mondo. As for the wall of Mondo posters, they are limited edition and long sold out – but here you can take them home for $225. When one is sold, they pull another random screenprint from the back and hang it up in its place. It's unclear what the rarity of some of the prints in the back are, but I'm sure some Mondo poster collectors will be making regular trips to Video Vortex to window shop the wall of posters.

As for merch, there is a lot to buy, and a lot that I want to buy. There is a selection of T-shirts, some of which are Alamo Drafthouse branded, others Mondo produced (remember, Mondo started as a T-shirt company) and other film nerd-tastic options, including some for Vidiots (with the proceeds going to Vidiots). And if you like one of the games you play there, you can buy a new copy and take it home. Yep – games are a big part of this Drafthouse location.

Creating A New Community Of Film Fanatics & Tabletop Gamers

The back wall is lined with eight retro arcade machines, classics that range from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Brothers to Centipede. Next to it is a full wall of classic Mondo prints from the past. A screen in the back plays one of the many movies in the collection, and six tables with eight seats each function as an activity space. The tables have classic lobby cards underneath the glass tops. A disco ball spins on the ceiling, providing a fun twinkling light ambiance. Drafthouse will be using this space for Triviadome (a fun pop culture trivia competition), karaoke, and even tabletop events.

The space is also open for special event rentals, so if you were a filmmaker who wanted to do a cast and crew screening and party, you could theoretically do it all in house.

Six additional four-top tables sit right next to the tabletop library, which comes with a selection of a few dozen board games that are open and available to play to anyone. The tables themselves are built for board games, with cup holders extending off of the play area. The game collection ranges from gateway games to party games like Two Rooms and a Boom and Codenames to deeper strategy games like Arkham Horror and The Thing (a game produced by Alamo-owned Mondo Games). The games sit on a shelf which helps divide the room, and decor on the other side looks like huge VHS tapes.

Free Movie Rentals

One of the goals of Video Vortex is to acquire the inventory of big video stores as they go out of business, and rescue the movies and providing them to communities who want to see them for free. That's right: FREE. At the opening, the Los Angeles Video Vortex will offer 40,000 movies on DVD and Blu-ray (there wasn't enough room for VHS, although Drafthouse does rent VHS tapes and VCRs at their Raleigh location). Video Vortex in Los Angeles is monumental, becoming the first specialty video store to open since 2003. Vidiots will be helping to curate Tales from the Video Store, a series of screenings where they will have people of interest programming selections from the collection.

Los Angeles residents just need to sign up for an account and they can rent up to two movies at a time for a week for free. Of course, late fees do apply. But still, this is an excellent deal for any film fanatic who lives or works near the Alamo Drafthouse DTLA. Alamo is smart, as they are trying to foster a community of film fans which in turn should come to movies, buy merchandise, and enjoy food and drinks at the bar.

The video collection is laid out in well-organized bins and drawers, but the selection is also searchable on an iPad in the corner of the store, as well as online as part of the website. But unlike an old school Blockbuster, Video Vortex doesn't have membership cards – everything is digital. And yes, it's kind of funny that a company trying to save plastic DVDs and VHS tapes doesn't offer plastic membership cards. The collection features 3,000 horror movies alone, and around 4,500 documentaries. It's up to date until Summer 2017, and they will be adding to it over time; 7,000 TV titles are on their way to the collection after opening.

Video Vortex Bar Helps Put The Draft In Drafthouse

As for the bar, it's pretty cool. The Video Vortex bar menus are printed on VHS clamshells, divided into two sections. "Rewind," on the front, contains classics like a Manhattan, White Russian, and a Cosmo, all inspired by movies. The "Fast Forward" section, on the back, is signature drinks named after films. They also offer 45 plus beers on tap, including cider and kombucha. The draft beers are very craft and local-focused. There will be a lot of options offered at the bar that are unavailable in the theaters, and they will have seasonal and limited release beer rotations at the bar. The selection itself is a bit more refined and fancier than other Alamo locations, catering to the Los Angeles crowd. They also offer a more extensive wine program here.

The Ambiance of the Movie Theater Hallways

To get to the movie theaters themselves, you ascend the escalator past some vintage oversized posters. The hallways that connect the 12 theaters contain a black and white wallpaper featuring a circular pattern you might not recognize at first, but look closer and you'll notice it's actually the guts of a 35mm projector. The walls feature a selection of 86 large scale vintage posters from the American Genre Film Archives collection. The AGFA started with Tim League's personal collection of 35mm films, and became a nonprofit ten years ago. It now contains over 4,000 films and 4,000 movie trailers, and the association claims it loans out more movies than The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The posters in this Alamo location, as well as a few of the more recent Drafthouses, comprise the AGFA's vintage poster collection.

While you'll be hard-pressed to have seen many of the movies lining these walls, the huge posters are very impressive nonetheless. Some of them are taller than a grown man, and I saw two about the size of a roadside billboard. In Alamo Drafthouse DTLA, the posters are divided into sections, from science fiction to westerns, exploitation, and even a nook of films that are about rebellious teenagers. The Alamo Drafthouse opening in Staten Island will be comprised of only kung-fu posters. As impressive as these are, I wish there was more of a cohesive theme to the collection in our theater.

Right near the escalator, there is a display case, which at the opening will feature the twins from The Shining. Apparently, the matching dresses belonged to Tim League's daughters, who have since outgrown them. And now they will sit on display at the Drafthouse – that is, until they find something cooler that will one day replace it.

The Food and Drinks Inside The Theater

The menu offered in the theaters is a mix of Drafthouse favorites and some new California-inspired items. The menu is split up into pizzas, salads, signatures (which is basically the Tex-Mex-inspired menu from the Austin flagship), sandwiches & hot dogs, snacks, sweets, shakes, popcorn, candy, soda, and alcoholic drinks (which includes cocktails, beer, cider, wine, and even adult shakes). They also have a small section of brunch items that are served all day, which is pretty cool.

All the food being served at the Drafthouse is made fresh daily. The chef bragged to us that they have the ability to cook up to 40 pizzas at the same time, "if needed." Up to 15 cooks will be in the kitchen in the busier times, with four or five people working on the drink station alone. Chips and queso is one of the most popular items in the other locations, and they expect that the Los Angeles patrons will love the signature Alamo queso recipe.

They also have some excellent vegan and vegetarian options, like the buffalo cauliflower with vegan ranch. The chef noted that they are very accommodating of special diets and picky eaters. If you want a substitution or have a question, you can always write it on your order sheet. If needed, a chef will custom-make a dish for you.

Watching Movies

Out of the 12 screens at the new facility, the largest theater holds 63 seats and the smallest holds 37 seats. All of the screens are outfitted with state of the art Barco laser projectors, capable of simulcast technology to broadcast to any theater in the building or to any Alamo across the country. (If they held a Q&A screening that is sold out, they could expand the experience across multiple screens, and possibly to other Drafthouse theaters across the country.) The largest auditorium is also outfitted with a 35mm projector, something that can't be said of most new theater developments these days.

The seating in this Alamo is different than the older designs in other Drafthouse screens. Gone is the long wooden table, normal theater seats, and a large trench in between the stadium seating rows for the wait staff to walk down in between each row, out of the sight of the moviegoers. The new design adds very comfortable leather recliners, much like the ones you would find in the AMC Prime screens at an AMC Theatre. Each seat is equipped with an individual table connected to the right arm. The whole experience feels like an upgrade, something you'd have to pay premium prices at a chain theatre to experience in one or two renovated screens. But at the Alamo, every theater features this upgraded model, and the price isn't premium.

Just like the other Alamo locations, you order your food or drinks by writing your order on a slip of paper which you attach to your table. The wait staff are always monitoring the screenings for orders and to make sure no one is on their phones, and quickly come to pick up orders. The one possible downfall I see is that the setup doesn't feature a dramatic incline, creating less of a trench in between rows. I can imagine it will be easier to get distracted by wait staff making their way down one of the rows than it was with the older layout, but I have yet to experience it, so I'm not sure. Alamo prides themselves on their wait staff's "ninja service," so we'll see.

Other than that, the theaters themselves look very much like any of the other Alamo Drafthouse screens, with a maroon color scheme on the sides, with lights fashioned to look like film reels.

The Films

Rachel Walker is the programmer for the DTLA location, and the Drafthouse will maintain its history of special screenings, including Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday screenings, feasts with food and drinks specially curated and paired with a movie, interactive showings during the holidays (like sing-alongs), and midnight screenings. They will also be doing repertory screenings with a monthly theme. (August is all things stunts, in honor of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

The Austin Drafthouse crew will continue to assemble their weird pre-show videos, which usually have something to do with what you're about to see (if not, they at least feature cool and interesting things you've probably never seen before). I remember having so much fun at the Drafthouse in Austin watching these packages that it actually makes me want to get to the theater early again.

I'm very happy that Alamo Drafthouse seems to have kept their unique, weird, loud, badass vibe that I remember from when I first fell in love with the chain in Austin over a decade ago. Tim League says that his movie theater chain is a chain from someone who admits he doesn't like chains, and claims they instead operate as a network of community theaters. They are trying as hard as they can to recapture the vibe and community of the original Austin locations, and even six of the 160 or so employees are transfers to help launch this location.

The hardest challenge Alamo has with the DTLA location is convincing Los Angeles residents outside of the downtown area to come. Traffic is notoriously bad in our city, and if you're on the west side, it could take you over 90 minutes to get to downtown during busier driving times. Alamo is trying to promote public transportation offerings to get people into the area. At the Plaza level of The Bloc, the Blue, Red, Purple, and Expo lines converge – making it easy to reach from Hollywood, North Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire, Santa Monica, South LA, and Long Beach. Easy-access validated parking is available on-site in The Bloc's garage, and bike parking is readily available inside the theater.

Another challenge that Los Angeles traffic poses to the Drafthouse is patrons arriving early for showtimes. In other markets, moviegoers show up at the Drafthouse early to enjoy the custom edited packages of pre-show material, and order drinks or a meal. In Los Angeles, it's not unusual for 75% of the movie theater guests to not even be in the theater when the lights dim for the trailers. Los Angeles moviegoers often show up late, which might pose an interesting challenge for the wait staff and also test Alamo's policy to not allow anyone into a screening after the film has begun. I think the official policy is they stop admittance 15 minutes after the scheduled showtime, which includes the 15-20 minutes of trailers and Alamo promos. If someone isn't admitted, they will be given a refund.

The Alamo Drafthouse DTLA will open to Victory (loyalty club) members on July 19, 2019, and to the public on July 20, 2019 (just in time for Quentin Tarantino's newest film). They will be doing a soft opening for the first week or so, and during that time will be offering food and beverage discounts to accommodate the early guests as the new employees learn the ropes. The DTLA location will launch with Alamo Season Pass, the chain's new AMC A-List/MoviePass competitor, which basically allows you to watch a movie a day for around $25 a month.

As for the costs, a matinee on the weekdays costs $15; a night-time movie will run you $17.50, and $18 on weekends, which is pretty comparable to other movie theaters in the city. They will charge an extra $1 per seat for 35mm presentations, which is understandable since the 35mm projectors are more challenging to run and maintain. All screenings have reserved seating, so you don't have to worry about getting to the theater early for a good seat.