Film and TV

Alamo Drafthouse in Sloan's Lake Has Blockbuster Ambitions

Alamo Drafthouse opens its Sloan's Lake location on Thursday, May 11.
Alamo Drafthouse
Alamo Drafthouse opens its Sloan's Lake location on Thursday, May 11.
The new Alamo Drafthouse opens on Thursday, May 11, at 4255 West Colfax Avenue, in the Sloan's Lake neighborhood. If it did nothing but imitate the amenities at the indie chain's Littleton theater – delicious food, tasty drinks, comfy seats and smart, innovative and popular programming – Alamo would be off to a good start in supplementing the city's already rich array of indie movie theaters. But the theater staff aims to become a vital part of both the neighborhood and the overall arts scene, a big ambition for a national chain.

The Alamo Drafthouse group is known for not just offering a high-end theatrical experiences but also programming an engaging slate of films – new and old alike. In coming weeks, the Sloan's Lake theater will show Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Princess Bride, Raising Arizona and The Sound of Music. Some of the theater's events are conventional screenings; others involve elaborate meals paired with the films. On Wednesday, May 17, the venue will screen the documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life With Floyd Norman, about the first African-American animator at Disney, and Norman himself will present the film.

The Alamo chain, which started in Austin, Texas, in 1997, intervened in an era when locally owned art-house cinemas were giving way to Landmark Theatre and many cinephiles were predicting the demise of the traditional movie-going experience altogether.

In Denver, Landmark continues to be the most formidable force in independent film, often working out deals with distributors that give its theaters the exclusive right to premiere successful indie titles. Landmark venues include the Esquire, the Mayan and Chez Artiste, theaters that offer a more traditional movie-going experience, with the latest independent and international films that have broken out of the festival circuit – but nothing too daring.

The other major player in Denver's independent film scene, the Denver Film Society's Sie FilmCenter, offers a wider slate of independent and international films than Landmark. The Sie hosts special events, including the Denver Film Festival, the Women + Film and Cinema Q festivals, midnight movie screenings and filmmaker retrospectives. It has also been one of the only multi-screen Denver venues regularly showcasing local filmmakers' movies. And recently it's been home to local film groups, including the small experimental-cinema nonprofit Process Reversal and the DIY-run Collective Misnomer, which will screen its first program at the Sie on Saturday, May 13.

When Alamo came into the Denver area in 2013, its Littleton theater upped the game for the FilmCenter and made the Landmark experience feel like a trip to the dollar theaters. That's because an Alamo screening is a multi-sensory experience. It's geared toward a younger crowd, yet it keeps out noisy children. It offers booze, but kicks out loud audience members. It highlights shorts as well as features, creating pre-movie programming that is often as good, if not better, than the feature movie itself.

click to enlarge Denver Alamo Drafthouse Creative Manager Steve Bessette and Vice President of Operations Walter Chaw take a break from opening the new theater. - KYLE HARRIS
Denver Alamo Drafthouse Creative Manager Steve Bessette and Vice President of Operations Walter Chaw take a break from opening the new theater.
Kyle Harris
Ask Alamo staffers about their competition, and they're supportive. "What's that phrase? 'A rising tide raises all boats,'" says Vice President of Operations Walter Chaw.

The Alamo has always had a forward-looking attitude, but it's guided by a preservationist instinct. The brand aims to save film culture from the death of the traditional movie-theater experience that doomsday cinephiles have been fretting about for decades, ever since the dawn of VHS. Chaw says the staff aims to create, foster and nurture film culture. "But it's not just filmmakers," he adds. "How do we help visual artists?"

Chaw saw opportunity to fill some gaps left in Denver's cultural life after DIY spaces were shuttered by city brass in the wake of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire. Many on his staff come from the DIY food, music, film and art scenes, he explains: "We're really intense about being local."
click to enlarge Drafthouse staffers ham it up at Barfly. - ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE
Drafthouse staffers ham it up at Barfly.
Alamo Drafthouse
So the team plans to showcase works by local artists – painting, music, film and beyond – in Barfly, the theater's Beat Generation-themed 135-seat lounge. The bar will serve up food, craft beer, movie-themed cocktails and live music before and after screenings.

Chaw not only plans to work with the creative community; he's also aiming to build strong relationships with the Sloan's Lake area. Many on his staff were born in Denver, and some grew up near the venue. As the child of immigrants, Chaw says, his hope is not to displace anybody, but to use the theater as a space to honor and reflect on the history of the many cultures that have been based in this neighborhood, which include strong Jewish, Asian and Latino communities.

Just as he plans to work with artists and musicians, Chaw wants to reach out to neighbors and let them know that the Alamo Drafthouse in Sloan's Lake is all about forming partnerships.

"If we're sending out a message, it's that we're open," Chaw concludes. "Let's have a conversation about it."

The Sloan's Lake Alamo Drafthouse will celebrate its grand opening on May 15, but has a soft opening starting Thursday, May 11. For more information, go to the theater's website.