In July 1999, the River Oaks Theatre had the honor of exclusively hosting The Blair Witch Project for two weeks. Lines snaked around the building for an endless stream of sold-out shows. People began trying to sneak their friends in through the exit. With too many people and not enough seats, a minor riot ensued.
Then-general manager Rob Arcos and the rest of the staff ended up barricaded in the office while the cops escorted people out. Artisan Entertainment eventually sent the various Landmark Theatres staff T-shirts saying “I survived The Blair Witch Project,” as thanks for handling the two weeks of insanity.
Ah, those heady days when going to the movies was still a must-do experience. Nowadays, confronted with streaming entertainment and digital piracy, Houston theaters are finding new best strategies as they try to hold onto their share of the market and remain relevant.
For instance, he really isn’t a ghoul, but when Robert Saucedo of Alamo Drafthouse finds out a celebrity actor has died, he springs into action, operating on the premise that when someone you love dies, you go to that person’s funeral. When an actor you love dies, you go to the movies.
Just after David Bowie died suddenly, at the beginning of 2016, cinemas all over the country packed mourning fans into seats to swoon for the dearly departed Goblin King in Labyrinth. Ditto for Prince and Purple Rain when His Royal Badness also left us. Following last week’s death of Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, Alamo added on-screen tributes to screenings of Rogue One (and scheduled a lightsaber vigil in which people were asked to dress up as Star Wars characters and bring along lightsabers, glowsticks or flashlights). Arranging these memorial screenings is part of Saucedo’s job as program director of Triple Tap Ventures and franchise holder for Alamo Drafthouses in Houston, Lubbock and El Paso.
“People like to go and pay their respects to their heroes on the big screen,” Saucedo says.” When Gene Wilder passed away, we had to add four or five screenings of Blazing Saddles just to keep up with demand.”
Saucedo is no novice when it comes to making the moviegoing experience personal and unique. He owes his position to Alamo Drafthouse’s going out of its way to reunite the cast of the 1987 horror-comedy The Monster Squad for a screening he attended. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, addicted to tapes his sister would bring home from the Blockbuster where she worked, he’d never seen a movie theater do something like that.
“I didn’t think anyone else even knew about that movie,” he says, “let alone enough to sell out an entire theater just to see it.”
After graduating from college, Saucedo pestered the chain’s managers until they created an accounting position for him. He moved on to programming in Houston, where in addition to first-run movies he’s done everything from giving Houstonians a chance to see the supposed corpse of Bigfoot to having live alligators at a screening of Alligator. Still, for all the razzle-dazzle, these events are more marketing than box-office moneymakers.
“We’re not making much on special events,” says Saucedo. “They bring in business on a slow night and give journalists a reason to talk about us. We’re just hoping that they have an amazing time, and so when they’re choosing a place to see Star Wars or Dr. Strange, they’ll choose us.”
Cinemas have had to adapt considerably to compete with other avenues of entertainment. HDTVs and Blu-ray have brought a pretty impressive facsimile of going to the movies into people’s living rooms at fairly affordable prices. Among the best things happening on screens are Netflix shows like Stranger Things and the Marvel series, which are available at home instantly, and many of the independent movies that used to fill up the small screens in multiplexes are now available at Video on Demand the same day they show up in theaters. Eighth-generation video game console titles rival Hollywood blockbusters in appearance and scope. That’s not even accounting for the piracy of new releases. In 2005 the Motion Picture Association of America estimated it was losing $3 billion (out of $10 billion) in box-office sales to piracy. Why go to the movies at all?
Saucedo points to things that going out can do that staying home can’t. His personal favorite is a screening of Shakma, a famously insane horror film from 1990 about a killer baboon driven homicidal by an experimental drug.
“Not a single empty seat in the theater, and not a single person who had ever seen it,” says Saucedo. “I tried to explain what they were in for, and they were not ready. One of the best reactions out of an audience I’ve ever seen. Laughing at the right moments. Screaming at the right moments. I was on a high for months. That’s what I live for.”
A similar cinema acolyte is Arcos, former general manager of both the River Oaks Theatre and Sundance Cinemas, as well as the owner of Montrose’s last great video-rental location, Movies the Store. He grew up watching films from a local video-rental store while his mom worked, and then went to work for an AMC dollar theater. An ad for Rushmore, playing exclusively at the River Oaks, changed his life.
“Who hasn’t had that experience?” says Arcos. “You walk into that space and you’re transported to another time when going to the movies always looked like that. The film broke, and I ended up outside the projection booth bothering the manager while she dealt with a brain wrap [a 35mm-film threading accident]. I just sat in the lobby until I could apply. It was just being in that venue.”
Part of the way that cinemas remain viable is by making sure that going to them is an event. This has involved some rather varied evolutions.
For Alamo Drafthouse, it’s meant perfecting the cinema eatery. Though founder Tim League didn’t invent the concept, he did pave the way for it as an institution, and changed the way people think of the traditional dinner-and-a-movie date.
“People have a hard time in day-to-day life finding time or the cost of a babysitter for dinner and a show,” says Saucedo. “That can be a four- or five-hour process. So the consolidation of that is a huge benefit.”
It’s a model that has been adopted by several chains, like Star Cinema Grill (which recently took over the closed Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park location) and the Studio Movie Grill. Other places, like AMC and River Oaks, have adopted bar service to accompany their films. Alamo often runs specific food specials to tie in with new movies. More ambitious are its feasts and dinner parties, where the menus reflect the action on the screen.
“You can’t go to AMC and eat what the characters on the screen are eating, but you can at Alamo,” says Saucedo.
AMC theaters may lack Alamo’s menu, but they are making up for it in presentation. In many of the chain’s locations, the days of scrambling from a packed line to get the best seat in the house are gone in favor of a more elegant approach. More and more of them have replaced traditional stadium seating with luxury recliners, and they now let customers reserve their seats ahead of time — an approach long employed by live-action theaters. Santikos, which operates the Palladium in Katy and the Silverado in Tomball, has followed suit.
Ryan Noonan, the public relations director of AMC, admits that the inclusion of the new seating reduces seating capacity, but says that it actually is a net benefit for the box office numbers.
“It’s counterintuitive to say, but while we lose up to 60 percent of our seating capacity, historically we’ve seen huge increases in attendance,” says Noonan. There are fewer seats, but more people coming to the theater.
The most comfortable place to park your butt for the latest two-hour Transformer entry aside, the multiplexes are most interested in giving audiences an audiovisual experience that cannot be replicated at home. Both AMC and Santikos are very, very invested in the latest technology.
In addition to having more IMAX screens than anyone else in North America, AMC is partnered with Dolby for some extremely high-viewing tech. The Dolby Atmos sound does for audio what Real 3D does for video. It renders audio in real time, and can support up to 128 different audio tracks. Of course, this sort of premium-user experience isn’t cheap. Experiencing AMC Dolby will run you nearly 50 percent more than the standard movie ticket price.
Santikos is another chain that wants to be the Rolls-Royce for audiences seeing the latest blockbuster.
“We just opened our newest theater here in San Antonio, the Casa Blanca,” says CEO David Holmes. “It’s the first full-laser-digital theater in the world. It’s like HD on steroids…truly cutting-edge. Instead of light being passed through an image onto a screen, there’s a computer image being delivered via laser. The computer has a much broader color palette, and the laser is much clearer than a lightbulb and more focused, with no shadowing in the corners. It’s a third brighter than any other format.”
The expectation of a premium experience is doing a number on theaters that promise it and can’t deliver. Houston’s Sundance, formerly the Angelika and the heir apparent to be the center of the classier side of Houston’s Inner Loop film scene, has often failed to live up to expectations. Audiences report breakdowns in the air-conditioning, incorrect online information, poor visual quality and unkempt facilities. In 2015, the chain was sold to Carmike Cinemas, which on December 21 was itself bought by AMC.
“Every time I’m in Sundance, it breaks my heart,” says Arcos. “It’s a theater that Paul [Richardson, CEO of Sundance Cinemas] and I put a lot of effort into making a go-to place for film lovers. Customers wonder why they are paying that extra cost when things are broken. When it happens at the River Oaks, it’s part of the charm of an old theater. When I go to, say, Edwards, I’m always surprised at how on top of things they are. They look just as good as they did ten years ago.”
Luxury, however, isn’t everything. Indeed, a lack of it is what keeps another cinema institution going. There are only three second-run movie theaters left in the greater Houston area, and Steven Tsao owns two of them, the North Oaks Cinema 6 and the Windchimes Cinema 8 (the third is the Premiere Cinema Nasa Dollar 8, in Webster).
Walking into the North Oaks is like walking back in time 20 years ago. The building itself is 40 years old, and everything resembles the last great glut of mall cinemas. The floors slope gently in the auditoriums, whose screens are flanked by tattered curtains designed to be adjusted for the proper aperture plate setting on a 35mm projector. Concessions are cash-only (many local movie theaters were strangely reluctant to switch to credit cards well into the 21st century), and the North Oaks sports probably the best theater arcade left in the city, with some really first-rate pinball tables. It’s a place out of time, and Tsao operates it as such.
“To stay in business, we just have to try not to overspend,” he says. “We don’t run it like a corporation. This is more of a mom-and-pop deal. It’s one of the reasons we’re one of the only ones left. The others? They screwed up. They overspent.”
Tsao has been forced to upgrade the second-run moviegoing experience some — with digital projectors, for example. Many smaller films, such as The Mechanic, are not even made available on 35mm anymore, so digital is necessary. The North Oaks also shows 3-D films for $4. The way Tsao looks at it, his theater provides a chance to bring moviegoing to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it, albeit somewhat later. Typically the theater receives its films four to 12 weeks after initial release. It’s popular with families and day-care groups.
“We need this in Houston,” says Tsao. “A lot of families aren’t here for the movie. They’re here to get out of the house, have popcorn, go to the arcade. They can’t afford the $50 at AMC, but they can afford $20 here.”
Zen Rocha, who divides his time slinging popcorn at the North Oaks, attending Lone Star College, and writing lyrics and playing guitar in Omerta, thinks the bare-bones atmosphere is what keeps people coming back.
“I think the nostalgia helps,” he says. “People like coming here because it’s what they remember. It’s comforting.”
A sense of community is also a big factor in how movie theaters stay vital. At the North Oaks, for instance, Kristal keeps working the ticket booth even though she recently finished her schooling to teach ninth grade English (she keeps the shelf under the nacho display stocked with books for employees to read during the lull after films start). Having grown up in a small town with the nearest movie theater more than an hour away, she often dreamed of working in a cinema. She takes shifts on weekends and during breaks, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of the job, but it’s the regulars that make the job feel special.
“They know my name. I know their orders at the concession stand,” she says. “You get to talk to people, especially selling tickets. You get to be a part of their night.”
For Saucedo, community engagement is a top priority as well. One of the things that made Alamo Drafthouse’s somewhat distant locations viable was embracing the idea that places like Katy and northwest Houston were their own areas with their own moviegoing audiences.
“When I first started working five years ago, I was beating my head against the wall trying to figure out how to get people to come from inside the Loop,” says Saucedo. “Eventually I decided, you know, those people are important, and we of course want them to come, but the other important thing is how we serve the communities that we are actually in.”
In order to jump-start that conversation with customers, Saucedo started the Drafthouse Cinephiles group on Facebook. It allows casual conversation between the theater and regular people to find out what they want. For instance, he’s learned that people want to see more foreign films without having to make the drive into town to River Oaks, and adding more of those titles is a primary goal of his in 2017. Can’t decide whether people would rather see the upcoming Ray Kroc biography, The Founder, or Stephen Gaghan’s latest crime drama, Gold? Ask the people on Facebook and they’ll tell you.
Much of the community engagement ties into larger fandoms, and by extension creates a solid fraternity based on shared interests. Showings of Star Wars and Marvel films often have cosplayers and comic book vendors in attendance. Formerly, a big draw for the Mason Park location was monthly screenings of classic Doctor Who serials that brought out that rabid fan base, and the theater partners with Sentai Filmworks in presenting its regular anime nights.
“I’ve been really impressed with the community we’ve been able to build,” says Saucedo. “The amazing thing is you’ll see one or two people come by themselves at, like, 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. They’ll start talking to people and building relationships. I’ve gotten to watch those relationships build up, talking on the page and planning on coming to films together, or go to Neil’s Bahr. We’re part of their origin story.
Local film festivals, such as WorldFest — now in its 50th year — are another way the moviegoing experience stays tied into the community. Alamo formerly hosted the Splatterfest, a showcase of horror shorts made by many local filmmakers. The Houston Cinema Arts Festival is also deeply involved in tying film to Houston institutions. It screens films at the Sundance, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Aurora Picture Show, among other venues.
“The festival was created in order to revitalize film culture in Houston,” says artistic director Richard Herskowitz. “We try to rejuvenate the live experience, such as having Dale Watson perform live after a screening of Honky Tonk Heaven. Community is a huge part of what we do. We involve the Houston Ballet for dance films, and for years we collaborated with Project Row Houses to bring filmmakers to the El Dorado Ballroom. We worked with the Houston Museum of African American Culture for the first time this year. It’s all about finding different communities to involve in exhibition.”
Then there are the niche markets. Cinema Latino in Pasadena shows American first-run movies, but dubbed or subtitled in Spanish for Hispanic audiences. There’s also FunAsia, a multimedia company specializing in South Asian entertainment, which screens movies at the Carmike Yorktown. Formerly FunAsia ran its own six-screen Bollywood theater out on Westheimer and Highway 6, but now it does what’s called four-walling, paying a flat rate to the Yorktown to show films while FunAsia keeps the box office. The group’s primary audience is Indian and Pakistani filmgoers, though it also gets Nepalese and other groups.
“There’s a huge market in Houston,” says Shariq Hamid, founder of FunAsia. “We get all the A titles, the relatively big movies. These are movies that people want to see in the theaters. The bootleg market does hurt quite a bit, but we still have a large enough population to sustain a moviegoing audience.”
Santikos takes a different approach on community. Its founder, the late John Santikos, envisioned his cinemas as an engine for charity, and according to Holmes, every dollar not spent on operating costs is funneled back into the local community.
“It’s things like scholarships, education, disaster relief and medical research,” says Holmes. “We are one of the biggest charitable engines in South Texas.”
When there was catastrophic flooding in Wimberley, Texas, in 2015, the chain made a six-figure donation within 72 hours. In Houston it has donated $9.3 million to the UT Health Science Center for a medical research project. Following the police shooting in Dallas, Santikos began allowing first responders to attend movies for free, no questions asked (the program ended in September).
“We’re in the business of being a good corporate citizen,” says Holmes. “Santikos left $600 million behind. He wanted the organization to keep going forward showing movies and helping the community, and people thought he was nuts. Two years later, we’re keeping going.”
Involvement in the community benefits not just audiences, but filmmakers as well. Houston has a thriving filmmaking scene, and places like Alamo and River Oaks are receptive to allowing those makers to show their works to audiences. Alamo in particular runs specials in which makers can screen their movies on a Monday for only $50.
“We’re strongly supportive of local filmmakers,” says Saucedo. “A lot of the guys starting out today are going to be huge deals in the future, and we want to give them that opportunity.”
Saucedo’s personal favorite local screening was Jeremy Sumrall’s The Pick-Axe Murders III: The Final Chapter. In addition to the film, Saucedo also allowed Sumrall to pick a movie that had influenced Pick-Axe to play as a double feature. Sumrall chose Tony Maylam’s 1981 slasher, The Burning.
“For many of our unbelievably talented actors and actresses, these local screenings give them the validation that they’re on the right path or made the right decision to drop out of law school or quit their comfortable 9-to-5 to pursue a dream,” says Pick-Axe producer Dom Orozco. “These screenings aren’t game changers, but they are still important to the local community.”
Actor and director Joe Grisaffi finds the screenings to be a mixed bag. He took advantage of the $50 Alamo deal to screen his movie Lars the Emo Kid, and the results were profitable, but he doesn’t think that it overall makes a difference in his career.
“Here’s how I think local theaters could really help filmmakers’ careers,” says Grisaffi. “Find a good film that the theater or chain can get behind and keep showing it to see if it could build an audience. Sort of like what happened with Slackers in Austin many years ago.”
At least one local filmmaker has managed to use screenings to help keep her career moving forward. Millie Loredo grew up idolizing Robert Rodriguez for making El Mariachi, and it inspired her to try to tell stories in film herself. She started small, making short films that she freely admits are terrible but that allowed her to practice the craft until she could produce better work. Eventually she conceived of her psychological thriller, Sorrow, based on a bad dream she had. A sold-out screening at the River Oaks in 2015 not only allowed her to pay off her investors but gave the film much-needed feedback and prestige.
“It allows us to see what works and doesn’t work with an audience,” says Loredo. “There were scenes in Sorrow when people laughed when they weren’t supposed to or not scream when they were supposed to, and I was able to adjust accordingly going forward.”
It was shortly after she was able to brag that she had sold out River Oaks with Sorrow that the film was picked up for distribution. Coupled with happy investors and a new relationship with the distributor, Loredo is embarking on her second feature film, Dreams, about a man with lucid dreaming who attempts to solve a murder. Part of what has laid the path for the next step in her journey was the River Oaks’s willingness to let her show her movie.
“Trust me,” says Arcos, recalling when he was booking films there. “Distributors care an awful lot about what films are shown at the River Oaks.”
Loredo is a local artist on the rise, but the chance to screen smaller and more niche films has also kept Alamo Drafthouse in the loop when it comes to the next wave of nationally known filmmakers. Saucedo spends a lot of his time attending film festivals and watching screener copies, looking to see what might play well for Houston audiences. In doing so, he’s been in at the beginning of some impressive careers.
“Gareth Edwards, who did Rogue One?” says Saucedo. “We had him out here on Skype when he did Monsters. We did an event with David Green, who went on to do the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. It’s spectacular to look at some of these people and think, ‘Wow, I remember freaking out because we couldn’t get the Skype to connect for his Q&A on his first feature film.’”
Ultimately, it’s the filmmakers that keep the cinema business going. Movies are made with the expectation that they will be watched in theaters. When Quentin Tarantino releasedThe Hateful Eight
, in 2015, he arranged for theaters to screen it on 70mm film projectors so that audiences could experience it as intended.
“If you watch The Force Awakens on the greatest home theater system in the world, I’m sorry, but it just isn’t the same movie J.J. Abrams had in mind,” says Holmes. “It’s our belief that content creators design and direct films to be exhibited in large format. Can you watch it at home? Of course, but do you remember when they started bringing films to television on Turner Classic Movies? It was a huge mess. They basically had to edit out a third of the screen. In the chariot race in Ben Hur, there’s like four chariots you can’t even see.”
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Saucedo is keenly aware of that, and considers himself to be a curator of film that will be shown as it was intended.
“That you can connect people with movies they wouldn’t otherwise see on the big screen is a big deal for me,” he says. “As long as I can make money on a Marvel hit or a Princess Bride quote-along, I can show more esoteric things like Wings of Desire.”
Alamo is currently in the midst of a major expansion. It may have lost its Vintage Park location, but it has plans to open four new ones in Houston, including an Inner Loop theater and one in Sugar Land. Saucedo is looking forward to exploring the film needs of these new communities.
“When someone picks a film to show, it’s an indicator that they thought the people who go to their theater would like it,” says Saucedo. “It was selected for them by someone who cares and knows. It’s something that drives me, the chance to show someone something they haven’t seen or that hasn’t been in theaters in 20 years.”