Story by Sara Cummings
Photos by Art Pekun
As the lights go down and the movie is about to begin, a quick video reminds patrons to turn cell phones off. Then former Gov. of Texas Ann Richards warns moviegoers they can be kicked out of the theater for being a distraction: “Don’t text during the movie, or Ann Richards will throw you out!” This isn’t something you would expect to view moments before a movie is about to begin. But then again, you wouldn’t expect most of the things that happen at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
The Alamo sits prominently near Exit 310 off of Interstate 81 about an hour north of Harrisonburg, Va. From the outside, it appears to be a typical movie theater: big building, big parking lot and a lot of advertised movies. But inside, it’s anything but the norm. Instead of an ordinary snack bar full of buttery popcorn and overpriced candy, there is a full bar offering wine, mixed drinks and up to thirty draft beer options. There is a full-course menu, from appetizers to the kids menu. The Alamo offers all types of food — burgers, pizza, salad and even the classic bowl of popcorn.
Walk into the theater and you’ll see a thin counter between typical rows of seats, with half sheets of white paper and small golf pencils waiting for moviegoers. Once a patron writes down an order, the paper is placed behind a metal bar so a waiter can quickly grab it without distracting others. Each row has a waiter and runners who take orders, deliver food and drinks from the kitchen, and pass along the check — a typical system for any restaurant, but at the Alamo it all happens during the movie. Once orders reach the kitchen, it’s usually time to sit back, relax and enjoy the previews. But like everything else, these aren’t typical movie theater previews. The Alamo doesn’t show any advertisements because they believe that viewers have already paid to see the movie.
A creative team makes a custom pre-show with original content that usually relates to the movie it precedes. There might be an ABBA music video from the ’80s or a video of men singing the lyrics, “I’m too hot to handle,” before a movie starring Bradley Cooper, People magazine’s 2011 sexiest man alive. “It’s important because we encourage people to get there early. That is a long time to be watching nonsense,” said Stephen Nerangis, co-owner of the Winchester Alamo. “We want people to be entertained.”
The Alamo is designed to be a unique experience. “We wanted each part of the experience to stand on its own: movie, food and drinks,” said Nerangis. The Alamo also offers many events. There was a 22-hour Harry Potter movie marathon with butterbeer and miniature Quidditch games, an eat-along during “The Princess Bride” and even sing-along events — the list goes on. The Alamo even hired a live jazz band to accompany “The General,” an old silent film. The jazz trio from Austin composed the entire score and then played it live during the movie.
There also are opportunities to meet actors and producers of films. One man from Germany planned his vacation around a showing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” because the actress who played Scout, Mary Badham, came to the theater to talk with the moviegoers. Efren Ramirez, also known as Pedro from “Napoleon Dynamite,” has been to the Alamo a few times to sign autographs and answer questions after the movie. “It is very innovative,” said Haley Lambert, from Strasburg, Va. “No wonder they have a lucrative business.” Lambert is a regular at the Alamo, and she has high expectations for her movie-theater experiences. In particular, she doesn’t like the prices at normal theaters.
“At the Alamo, you can get discounts for almost everything: children, student, senior and military,” said Lambert.
The Alamo started in 2009 when the Nerangis family purchased 31 acres of farmland to build a hotel in Winchester, Va. With more property to develop, the family decided to build something that the city desperately needed: a movie theater.
They took a trip to Austin, Texas, home of the only brand in the country that does franchising for theaters: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Tim League and his wife Karrie founded their theater in 1997. After the first theater they started in California was a bust, they packed up everything and headed to Austin to open the Alamo. League said on their website that he didn’t have any qualifications for opening a movie theater, “other than really liking movies, which I guess is the most important part.” Twelve years later, Nick Nerangis, Sr. and his three kids who loved the franchise brought the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema from Austin, Texas to Winchester, Va. “It’s an interesting story. It’s not something you’d expect to find in Winchester,” said Nerangis. The Alamo is currently the only movie theater in Winchester, but a new theater is being built in the nearby mall. “I’ll check out the new one, but it would have to really impress me to go there more,” said Lambert. “[The other theater] is going to be in trouble,” said Clint Miller from Charlestown, W. Va. He enjoys the luxury of having everything at your seat at the Alamo, and drinks that he can’t even find at a liquor store.
On the other hand, a few ladies waiting to see a movie for a friend’s birthday said that they are really looking forward to the new theater. Nerangis thinks customers who want a standard movie experience will go to the new theater. He explained that the Alamo works because people who like the experience will drive past the new theater to get there — like Craig Morris, from Harrisonburg, Va.
“It’s worth the hour of driving and not paying $4 for a box of candy,” said Morris. He said he also enjoys the mature atmosphere at the Alamo — unaccompanied minors aren’t permitted. He and his wife Hayley drive 45 minutes to Winchester about once every two months to see a movie at the Alamo. “It’s a good date spot,” Morris said. “It’s like going out for drinks and going out for a movie combined in one experience!” The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is unlike any other theater, combining food and film to give patrons a “night out” experience.