The Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters, known for their zero-tolerance of theater talking, their chips and queso, fried pickles, and cocktails paired with movies, and especially known for their avant-garde programming, are declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will be purchased by Altamont Capital and Fortress Investment. The Texas-based chain has theaters in 40 locations from New York to Los Angeles and has been hit incredibly hard by the COVID pandemic, along with many movie theaters. They also announced the closure of some of their locations, including their iconic downtown Austin theater at The Ritz, a mainstay for SXSW and other film festivals, as well as the best place in Austin to see a film in 70 mm in an old-style movie house.
Also, f@#$ this noise. This didn't have to happen, and I worry things will never be the same.
This is personal to me, as the Alamo Drafthouse is part of the reason I live in Austin. I literally moved here because 15 years ago, I visited and saw An Inconvenient Truth at their old South Congress location and enjoyed Al Gore's talk through a PowerPoint about climate change while eating a "Royale With Cheese" burger and a $5 milkshake. Any place that panders that much to my sensibilities I am down for. And since that time, there have been multiple SXSWs, Fantastic Fests, secret screenings, Master Pancake Presents (their version of Mystery Science Theater). And, in fact, one of my first entries into film journalism was an interview with Tim League, founder of the Alamo, about film censorship. (That article is so old the website it was published on no longer exists).
I have spent countless hours and dollars at their various theaters. And the last movie I saw before the pandemic shut everything down was a preview screening of the Dave Bautista film My Spy at their Alamo Mueller on the same night Tom Hanks announced he was COVID positive and the NBA announced they were shutting down. The pandemic became real at the Alamo Drafthouse that night a year ago.
It didn't have to be this way, either. I know post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a classic fallacy, but I can't escape the correlation that this bankruptcy followed the very day after our stupid, stupid Governor's pronouncement that all Texas mask mandates were ending and businesses can re-open to full capacity. Look, Greg, I don't believe you want movie theaters to open even a fraction of the amount that I want to. (You're hardly what I'd call a cinephile: you once cut a campaign ad telling people to text in a movie theater which Drafthouse responded with a promise to kick you out if you tried it.)
But here's the deal, Greg– it's not the mask mandate preventing me from going to the Drafthouse, which is my personal happy place and the first place I'm going after getting the vaccine. It's the damn virus, Greg. And you have done nothing to prevent its spread, leading to the infection of millions and deaths of tens of thousands of Texans. The way to get the movie theaters (and bars and restaurants) open is to control the virus's spread and get vaccines into people, which Texas is currently 48th of the 50 US States in doing.
If I were an investor in the Alamo Drafthouse and saw that announcement, after having no power and water at the majority of your locations for almost a week, I'd be spooked. With the state simply giving up in trying to fight COVID, fewer people are going to be comfortable coming back to your movie theaters. Sounds like a reason you might need to restructure and protect your assets, no?
And lest people think I'm making cheap partisan shots, let's also lay some blame on Biden and the Congressional Democrats, who have failed to pass necessary stimulus that could help small businesses like the Alamo Drafthouse. Thanks for filibustering a minimum wage and means-testing necessary stimulus, dragging your feet, and paving the way for Trump and Republicans to return to power. Thanks, Joe Manchin. Thanks, Chuck Schumer.
But Chapter 11 isn't the end of the world, is it? Well, not necessarily. Chapter 11 allows for a restructuring of debt, while Chapter 7 is where you liquidate the business and it ceases to exist. But with Chapter 11 being paired with major investments from venture capital firms, it's concerning that we may lose a lot of the character and uniqueness that makes the Alamo Drafthouse so special. Will they allow weird showings of random films or champion independent films? Or will they simply become another multiplex, albeit one that serves really good food and drinks?
Speaking of, the Alamo Drafthouse has always prided itself on sourcing a lot of its menu items locally and sustainably. Will the new corporate overlords be willing to continue this, or will they favor a standardized menu across locations, making each local Alamo just a little bit less special? We can't know this for certain, but it seems likely they'll favor the latter.
But strings always come attached from big investment firms. Strings, the likes of which have hampered other theater chains or businesses, leading to the eventual liquidation of beloved brands and stores like Toys R Us. The venture capitalists giveth, the vulture capitalists taketh away.
The old Alamo Drafthouse may simply have been too great for this world. We can only hope that the new one that emerges retains some of its natural "Keep Austin Weird" vibe and ethos, even across all its locations. But today is a sad day as we mourn the loss of one of the greats. It's another victim of this pandemic, the combined forces of conservatism and neoliberalism, and unfettered capitalism.
I'll see you as soon as I get vaccinated, Alamo Drafthouse, but it's going to be just a little bit less special.