April 1st, 2010

on film

Movies in a movie house? Who came up with that crazy idea...

Remember this letter I wrote back in September to the Alamo Drafthouse people about the Alabama Theater?

Aside from a few comments from other bloggers about the idea, I never heard anything back. Nothing ever happened with the Alabama Theater after Bookstop moved out in Septebmer. They did use the theater for some sort of experimental media do hickey thingie during the Houston Cinema Arts Society Film Festival back in November, but since then it's had a "for lease" sign on it.

This is not to say that there hasn't been much speculation and activity. Last week, the Houston real estate blog, Swamplot, discovered plans to gut the theater and turn it into a Staples, which led to all sorts of outcry and some back peddling from the owner and lots of speculation in re-reporting, and independent confirmation. And then, finally, commentary from the owners about how they really don't want to destroy the historic theater. One Swamplot reader speculated that the difficulty with the space is "I’ve been told in the past that Weingarten would like to have a restaurant in this location, but with a rent that is probably in the low-mid 30’s/sf, that puts the monthly rent at around $35,000 a month, which is out of the price range of many retailers and restaurateurs. Also, 14,000 sf would be a huge restaurant."

Sometime last week, someone started a Facebook group to implore the Alamo Drafthouse to move into the Alabama Theater. Over the last week, it's grown to about 2,700 members, many of whom have comments. People following the Alabama theater story have written about the facebook group.

Around the same time that the Facebook group was starting to get momentum, I was wandering around the dealer's room at Comicpalooza. Someone at the Alamo Drafthouse booth was being interviewed for something or another and I loudly said "we need one inside the loop!" The other guy behind the counter at the booth smiled and told me that they were definitely looking for property inside the loop. We struck up a good ten to fifteen minute conversation.

I was under the impression that he was a manager in the local area, but I don’t know how high on the totem pole he was. He gave me movie tickets. :D

He said that they looked at the space quite some time ago, before Bookstop even closed, and the reconfiguration would probably be similar to the way the River Oaks works, with the balcony converted to accommodate more movies. He said that he thought three screens, like the River Oaks would work, and there would have to be some destruction of the Art Deco ceiling to make it work, though the side walls and the area around the big screen would be untouched.

I asked about the kitchen, and he said that actually wouldn’t be a big deal at all, because the space behind the screen, which had been storage for Bookstop, is pretty big. He didn’t seem to think that it’d have problems accommodating their kitchen.

My impression of the sticking point was that they weren’t sure if they’d be able to show the movies that they want to there, given its close proximity to the Edwards Greenway. From what I understand it’s a contractural thing. There are exclusive rights clauses in the distribution deals between the major motion studios/distributors and the theaters. Generally, they’re between ten and three miles, and because the Edwards was built when the old theater on Waugh and West Grey (where Fit is now) was still around, I assume this one is three miles. Whatever the exact distance is, the Alabama is well within that radius, and so it’d be very difficult to compete with the Edwards having a two week head start (the two week number came from a comment on the Facebook page) on the movies people are most likely going to want to see, the new ones. Obviously, people see older movies, and from what I understand, the longer the movie is out the more that the theater gets to keep, but the business model for the Alamo on Alabama in particular would have to be slightly different than that of the other Alamos because they won’t be showing the same movies at the same time. They’d have to figure out new and interesting things to do with event movies, like Iron Man. Because the fanboys will have arleady seen Iron Man at least once by the time it hits the Alabama.He said that they were very interested in coming inside the loop, but they just hadn’t found the right space yet. I asked if they’d looked at the Tower Theater over on Westheimer, and I didn’t get the impression that it was as on their radar at all (I think it probably would be even more difficult, as parking would be a nightmare).

He was aware of the facebook group, but when I talked to him, it probably had a couple hundred members instead of the nearly three thousand it has now.

So yesterday all of the interested blogs and reporters started posting that negotiations have reopened between Weingarten and the Alamo Drafthouse.

We'll see what happens next, but it's possible that we may get a very cool movie theater out of, er, a very cool movie theater. But if social media helps with historic preservation, that'd be pretty awesome.