A fledgling movie geek, still wet behind the ears and eyes, arrives in a town called Austin and heads to a movie theater he read about online. The first Alamo Drafthouse he ever visited was the location on South Lamar near downtown, a matinee screening of Hot Fuzz no less. The entire direction of his life was forever altered by the time the credits rolled and he paid his first check.
It’s true that my subsequent move to Austin was entirely motivated by a desire to be nearer the Alamo and to reap the benefits of the immersive and eclectic film education it offered. It was a bizarre gamble, one hard to explain to family and friends. “You want to move away from everything you know to be closer to a movie theater?” Their consternation was understandable because it sounds crazy, but to me the Alamo was never just a movie theater and could not be defined by brick and mortar. It was a haven for incurable cinephilia; a place where every real world distraction was stripped away to allow for full transportation by the images flickering on the screen. It was the gateway to an entirely different, and much needed, appreciation of film.
I was languishing in southern town with no film culture whatsoever and faced with the option of either returning home to a city that could do little more to nurture my passion, or strike out to this new place where I barely knew anyone and make a commitment to something I loved. Luckily, my incredible wife was instantly supportive and the most reckless thing I’ve ever done evolved into a new career, the strongest circle of friends I’ve ever known, and frankly a more enriched life. None of this would have been possible without that movie theater on South Lamar. But now it’s the bricks and mortar that are on my mind.
Right now, the whole shopping center where the Lamar Drafthouse was entrenched is being completely overhauled, and the quirky six-screen multiplex has shut its doors to prepare for massive renovations. It may seem strange to get sentimental over the temporary closing of a building that, upon completion of renovations six months later, will immediately reopen. However, there lingers an inescapable feeling that an important era is coming to a close. So as a last hurrah, as the last reel of celluloid rolls out in the South Lamar Drafthouse as we know it, it seemed fitting to pay homage to the history, the memories, and the impact of this outstanding cinematic temple.
The South Lamar location was opened in 2003 (with Dazed and Confused on the marquee). The fourth Alamo Drafthouse location began life as a supermarket; the terrazzo floor in the Alamo lobby remaining as a calling card of its mercantile roots. Little known fact, this humble little market was featured in a scene from Richard Linklater’s Slacker. This incorporation of Austin film history into its very foundation would prove fantastically apropos as the Alamo expanded. Alamo founder and CEO Tim League, a man who has become a hero to many a cinephile the world over, noted that the South Lamar location marked the first time he hadn’t been completely hands-on in the construction process.
“It was the very first one that we did not [renovate] by hand. Karrie and I did 409 Colorado together, and then we did The Village together, just the two of us. And then we had some other folks that were helping us. For South Lamar, we finally broke down and hired a general contractor. With my schedule and other priorities, I don’t build too much anymore. I do miss it. I did get back into it when we built The Ritz.”
It was also the opening of the South Lamar location that ushered in a new legacy not only for The Alamo Drafthouse, but also for the Austin film community at large. South Lamar became the origin, the glorious spawning pit, of a weeklong celebration of genre film from all over the world that we have come to know as Fantastic Fest. This manic cinema scheme has, in its short lifespan, become one of the premiere genre film festivals in the world; a place where major studios are eager to premiere their latest wares. Mel Gibson, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, and The Wachowskis are just some of the many A-list filmmakers who have designated Fantastic Fest as the place to unveil their movies.
More than that, Fantastic Fest has become one of the most anticipated weeks of the year for the Drafthouse’s many loyal patrons as well as diehard movie geeks from around the planet. The motto for this hallowed annual event has become, “a film festival with all the boring parts cut out,” and nothing could be more apt. It is a place where there is as much enjoyment to be gleaned from the post-movie conversations with like-minded film fanatics as from the movies themselves.
“My favorite event was the first Fantastic Fest at the South Lamar,” said longtime Drafthouse fan Aaron Morgan, “at the time, I was depressed about the fact that the original Colorado Street Drafthouse was closing, and I wasn’t sure if another Alamo could ever hold those kinds of memories and feelings for me. By the time that Fantastic Fest was over, I realized the magic I felt and respect I had for the original Alamo was not so much about a building, it was about the soul of that theater which was in the form of Tim and Karrie League. It made me realize that no matter what happened to a building, as long as a League was there, it will always have Frosty’s magic hat to bring it to life.”
But how was this fantastical festival conceived? Where did it come from? Given that, “it was gifted to unworthy man by the film gods,” is an explanation that tends to draw dubious glances, it seemed more prudent to ask Tim.
“The genesis for the idea of Fantastic Fest came in 2001,” he remembers, “but I didn’t act on it until 2005 when I felt I had enough personal time to dedicate to it. I was inspired by what they were doing with the Sitges Film Festival in Spain; I went there on vacation and then got the idea to do something of that vein. It wasn’t until a couple of folks came to me and Harry [Knowles], and talk to us about it. One of those was Tim McCanlies, the writer of Iron Giant and director of Dancer, Texas. He was a regular at the theater. He proposed that we stop talking about and do it, and said that if it lost money in the first year that he would cover the losses. That’s how much he wanted it to happen. He didn’t end up having to cover any losses, but he was the one who gave us the kick in the pants to get it moving.”
Fantastic Fest has become such a major part of South Lamar’s identity that the renovation crew is working hard to meet its goal of having the new facility completed by the opening night of 2013’s festival. “That is the plan,” Tim revealed, “worst case scenario is that we move it to another venue, but it is really part of South Lamar and it would feel strange moving it elsewhere.”