A Devotion to Showmanship

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Tue, 07/10/2018 - 11:03 -- Nick Dager

Alamo has always had considerable pride in the fact that we are first and foremost a movie theatre, by movie lovers, for movie lovers. Photo by Kathy Tran.With a passion for movies that he’s had for as long as he can remember Mark Louis, director of presentation for Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, started working in the theatre industry almost 40 years ago. When watching movies, he realized early on that the slightest imperfection in the presentation was a distraction. Even unavoidable distractions like on-screen cue marks on 35mm film prints would grab his attention. He says he found himself wondering why imperfections like those marks were present and could they be avoided. That frustration with a less than perfect presentation and a fascination with how movie magic actually worked is what lured him to the technical side of the business where he remains to this day. I recently spoke with Louis about his career in exhibition and his role at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas.

Digital Cinema Report: Is it fair to say that you’ve worked in exhibition your entire life?

Mark Louis: Yes definitely. In grade school, I was always volunteering to operate the classroom slide projector, thread the 16mm projector or operate the other A/V equipment.  My very first job was as an usher at a local two-screen theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was only an usher for about one month before I was promoted to usher/operator where I became responsible for running both 35mm and 70mm reel-to-reel film presentations. I continued working in theatres throughout high school and college and eventually worked in every position, but always concentrated on the technical side.

DCR: What about working in a movie theatre first appealed to you?

ML: Being a typical 15 year old, I hadn't thought much about where I was going to get a job until my girlfriend (who was a year older) asked me about my job prospects. When she realized I had no idea, she suggested that I work at the local theatre with her, and the rest is history. When I became a projectionist, I quickly realized that I was in control of the quality of the presentation and could prevent many of the things that would inhibit the moviegoer from being totally immersed in the story. More than anything else, the satisfaction I felt when putting on a good show kept me working in the theatre long after my girlfriend was gone.

DCR: Where were you before you joined Alamo Drafthouse?

ML: I worked my way up through the management and technical ranks with several exhibitors.  My longest tenure was with National Amusements where I ran a projection-training center and worked in the technical department for over 19 years. After leaving National Amusements, I ran my own small projection service and installation company for a time before I joined Strong Technical Services as a senior technician and tech specialist. I worked at Strong for five years before joining Alamo.

DCR: How did you become Alamo’s Director of Presentation?

Job one for me is to ensure that our presentation standards are the highest in the industry and to institute and maintain systems that guarantee the best presentation quality possible. Photo by Kathy Tran.ML: Alamo apparently began their search for the right person to fill this new position in the company by asking several friends in the industry for recommendations. One of those friends was a former colleague of mine who convinced Alamo to consider me. It took several months of interviews and discussions but once Alamo determined I was qualified and just as importantly was a good fit for the Alamo culture, I was hired.

DCR: Describe your role as Director of Presentation

ML: Job one for me is to ensure that our presentation standards are the highest in the industry and to institute and maintain systems that guarantee the best presentation quality possible. All venues are monitored and subjected to regular quality control checks to make sure they meet our brand standards for perfect presentation. I make projection and sound equipment decisions based first on quality and second on price. I evaluate all new technology options by first asking two basic questions, "Will it enhance the true movie going experience or will it be a distraction?" and "Will it still enable us to present the movie the way the director intended?" I assume that every loyal Alamo guest already expects us to provide the best movie going experience available. And my main responsibility is to make certain we meet their presentation expectations in every way. If we happen to exceed someone’s expectation, we gain a new loyal guest.

DCR: How does Alamo balance its restaurant business with the business of showing movies?

ML: Alamo has always had considerable pride in the fact that we are first and foremost a movie theatre, by movie lovers, for movie lovers. However, we are still very proud of our food. Food, drink and movies have always gone well together but Tim and Karrie League had a vision of a movie theatre that provided a premium experience and for that, they insisted on premium food to go with a premium presentation. Every venue has a dedicated local chef to tailor the menu to the local community beyond the brand standard menu items. Our kitchens are 100 percent scratch cooking and prioritize using local ingredients.  

DCR: What differentiates Alamo from other exhibitors?

ML: I would say that one of the key differentiators is Alamo's devotion to showmanship. Our dedication to a perfect presentation is obvious but I see showmanship shine through in everything Alamo does. From the restaurant to the bar to the Rolling Road Show to our special events, the care and enthusiasm that goes into every endeavor is on full display. We don't spend very much time with comparing Alamo to other exhibitors, we prefer to compare Alamo to Alamo and try to raise the bar even higher. Another differentiator is our willingness to hire the people necessary to give full attention to the important aspects of our business. 

In addition to the aforementioned chef, every venue has projectionists/AV managers, program managers, creative managers, and a full staff of ninja like servers. And of course there is our strict no talking, no texting policy and our custom pre-shows with no advertising allowed.

I would say that one of the key differentiators is Alamo's devotion to showmanship. Photo by Kathy Tran.DCR: Who designs your theatres and how does that process work? How are all Alamo theatres alike? How, if at all, are they different?

ML: In addition to the full-service kitchen, each Alamo Drafthouse theatre also has a bar on-site that’s not only a great place to visit before or after a movie but independent of seeing a film if you just want to grab a beer, a meal, or come for an event such as a Geeks Who Drink trivia event.  The themes of the bars also differ, such as 400 Rabbits at Austin's Slaughter Lane location with its tequila focus all the way to Video Vortex which doubles as a video rental store at the new location in Raleigh, North Carolina. As well, the theatre lobbies have different themes, so each Alamo Drafthouse location you visit has it’s own distinct look and feel specific to that location. 

DCR: Do all Alamo theatres have the same technology?

ML: While we try to maintain consistency as much as possible, our propensity to allow each venue to be unique has created a few technical challenges. Any changes in presentation technology go through rigorous evaluation to ensure that the equipment meets our brand standard for quality and reliability.

DCR: What theatre management systems do you use and how have they been incorporated into your operation?

ML: The vast majority of our venues have Sony Projectors and for those theatres we use the Sony TMS system. Recently we opened two venues with Barco Laser projection utilizing the GDC TMS system. Because of Alamo's wide variety of programming, we need a TMS system that is versatile and allows for last minute changes. Our projectionists and A/V managers are masters at using the TMS systems to move content with very little notice and making changes on the fly.

DCR: Alamo has recently announced a subscription program. Can you provide any details on how that will work?

Louis referred this question to Alamo's public relations people and a spokesman provided this statement in response: Alamo Drafthouse is launching a waitlist beta for a monthly subscription program called Alamo Season Pass. The beta test will be run exclusively at our Yonkers, New York location, with the first invites going out on July 18th. Our guests have been asking for quite some time for us to offer an affordable monthly subscription plan that allows for unlimited movies and the ability to reserve tickets in advance at Alamo Drafthouse. We plan to test a variety of models and pricing structures to see what works as a sustainable model. At this time there's no firm timeline for a wider rollout to other Alamo Drafthouse locations, but when there is we'll let our Alamo Victory loyalty members know first.