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Alamo Drafthouse: The New New Mission 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015

In a world where a grand, bustling motion picture playhouse hits the skids, on a street where movie magic is a mere memory, one man — backed by a successful business franchise — has the guts to transform a squalid storefront into a beacon of culture where people can find wonder and sustenance, sheltered from nearby head shops and taquerias.

That man is Tim League, that street is Mission Street, and that successful business franchise is the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Their mission: to bring creatively curated cinema programming to a theater near you and unite a neighborhood. (Plus beer!) And in December, their newest pleasure palace will rise from the dust of an old futon store.

It's hard not to be thrilled about this latest $10 million Mission makeover. Currently undergoing a careful, reverent renovation, the New Mission Theater — a landmark 1920s Art Deco movie house — owes its resurrection to the Mission's changing demographics.

Last week, when Alamo Drafthouse announced that its Dec. 17 grand opening will present Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens, its servers crashed and all screenings sold out immediately.

Crowd excitement notwithstanding, the theater at 2550 Mission still looks sufficiently bombed-out that it's hard to imagine it will be ready in time. After various construction complications, the renovation is behind schedule. But League chose to move up the opening date so the theater could show Star Wars.

"The timing is perfect," he said at a coffee shop near the theater, while waiting for an Uber to take him to the airport to head back home to Austin. "This was the seminal movie of my childhood. I saw it when I was 7 years old, and it meant movies for me for a long time."

League has long been a champion of film: preserving the old, promoting the new, and saluting all manner of guilty pleasures and assorted schlock. He's a scrappy proponent of the American way, too. Last year, League led a coalition of independent theaters and convinced Sony Pictures to allow them to screen The Interview after major theaters decided not to screen the Kim Jong Un-enraging film on Christmas Day.

League and his wife Karrie opened the first Alamo Drafthouse in Austin in 1997. San Francisco will be the chain's 20th theater, with locations in L.A. and Brooklyn close behind. The Leagues' recipe of drinks, eats, and eclectic programming spurred Wired to call Alamo the "Coolest Movie Theater in the World."

Technically, though, the first Alamo was in Bakersfield. League was right out of college (Rice University, where he met his future wife) and working as a mechanical engineer for Shell Oil.

"I just fell into this middle-class engineering job." But League said he "knew really, really early that I had to escape it." He saw a "for rent" sign on an abandoned theater and signed the lease the following week. "It was just something stupid you do when you're 23 years old and you don't know any better."

"We were showing art films. In Bakersfield," League said, by way of explaining why it was "a complete failure." Moreover, it was in "the crappiest part of Bakersfield. I had to shoo prostitutes off of the front steps of the theater. Cars were broken into ... So we learned a lesson about how having a great location really makes it possible."

Smack in the middle of Hipsterville, 94110, is exactly the right location. In fact, it was only thanks to the new luxury condo building, Vida — the one with the $7,500/month apartments — that this Alamo even got off the ground.

"The theater was tied at the hip to the condo development," League explained. Development restrictions imposed by the neighborhood stipulated that the condo needed to reopen The New Mission Theater. There were plans to turn it into a live music venue, but the owners weren't crazy about that. When Alamo approached them, they leapt at the project.

With five screens, Alamo will have something for everybody, including Vida residents (90 percent of whom, according to Curbed, are in the tech industry). Alamo fare will include first-run indies, mainstream blockbusters, documentaries, and foreign films, as well as Alamo's quirky roster of cult, kitsch, and horror flicks, special events, movie marathons, and Mystery Science Theater-style heckling. Feasts and themed cocktail pairings (a tequila tasting with The Three Amigos, for instance) will add to the festivities.

Back in Austin, Alamo does Frozen and Little Mermaid sing-alongs, but creative manager Mike Keegan (formerly the programmer at the Roxie Theater) knows that this is the Castro Theater's thing.

"We want to be good neighbors," he said.

To that end, the cinema will host cultural events and collaborate with the Bay Area Video Coalition, intending to make the theater available to young filmmakers. Alamo plans additional partnerships with the San Francisco Film Society, Frameline, and other Bay Area film festivals as well.

The new New Mission Theater opens in the midst of heated culture wars over the loss of the old Mission, and its existence will surely offend someone. But you can't argue with Tim League's modest assessment: "We are sure as hell better than a crappy futon store."


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Erika Milvy

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