Have screen, will travel
A movie house lets fans see 'Jaws' on a lake, 'Speed' on a bus.
Thirteen miles east of Austin, the four-lane Martin Luther King Boulevard gives way to a narrow, curving two-lane country road. The air is thick and humid, and the heat-heavy green leaves of trees and plants sag toward the ground.
But what might seem unwelcomingly sticky for some proves auspicious for the hundred or so movie fanatics winding their way toward tiny Webberville, past the hand-painted sign that announces, in English and Spanish: Pigs for Sale.
These folks have shelled out $40 apiece to enjoy a full-immersion viewing of the classic 1972 Burt Reynolds flick, "Deliverance," in which four manly city friends spend a hideous (to put it mildly) weekend canoeing down a river in a backwoods area, fending off the inbred locals.
The canoe trip, courtesy of Tim and Karrie League, owners of the Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater in Austin, is one in an ongoing series known as The Rolling Roadshow. The Leagues gather enthusiastic movie fans in unusual locations following the film's theme and add their own special effects, thus taking dinner and a movie to new heights or, in some instances, depths.
The idea of an independently owned movie house that's not only hanging in there, but succeeding well enough to offer field trips to patrons is probably foreign to most Americans, for whom moviegoing means the multiplex.
But the Rolling Roadshow is just one of many film programs - some silly, some gastronomically intense, and all innovative - the Alamo Drafthouse offers to Austin movie aficionados. More about passion than profit, some events barely break even. Others aim not to raise company revenues but provide funds for local nonprofits. "As long as we're having fun and make a little bit of money, that's what we aim for," says Tim League, who gave up an engineering career for the ups and downs of life as one of the small group of independent theater owners (there are 450 left in the US).
The Leagues' creativity and love of the movies certainly play a role in their success, but part of the reason may come down to their choice of location.
"It's so Austin," says Stefan Caporale, a New Jersey native who's a graduate student at the University of Texas. "The concept - dinner and a movie - isn't new. But the success of this is the eclectic nature of Austin. Austin has a cult of movie fans better than I've seen in any other city."
This is not his first Rolling Roadshow. Over snacks, waiting for the spit-roasted pigs and industrial-sized cans of beans to finish cooking, Mr. Caporale waxes nostalgic over past events. He saw "Jaws" while sitting in an inner tube on a nearby lake. Scuba divers were hired to randomly grab audience members, and a swimmer wearing a fake shark fin added to the excitement.
He and Lorrie Houston, a chemical engineer who is also along for the canoe trip, both saw "Goonies" inside a cave. That night, the movie's no-longer-a-child star, Corey Feldman, made a live appearance. They watched "Speed" on a bus, driving around Austin's Hill Country looking for the home of the movie's star, Sandra Bullock. (Unsuccessful, they stopped and photographed the group in front of a random fancy house.) And there was "The Big Lebowski" at a bowling alley, and a dusk-till-dawn horror marathon at an abandoned mental institute.
Today's cinematic soiree calls for participants to congregate in one park, canoe a few miles down the Colorado River, partake of a pig roast, listen to live banjo music ("Deliverance" made the song "Dueling Banjos" a hit), and, at dusk, get down to the business of movie watching, replete with clips from other Reynolds vehicles, such as "Gator," "Cannonball Run," and "Hooper." The screening is made possible by the Leagues' beloved new toy, a portable, inflatable, 25 x 50-foot screen.
At the outset, Karrie League directs her eager charges into the 50 purple, yellow, green, and red canoes, each punctuated with bright orange life vests. Mexican polka music blasts from the speakers of a bright blue Miata. A chihuahua in a lemony bun-style life preserver prances around, eager to go.
Some moviegoers sport overalls in tribute to the hillbillies. Most are wearing swimsuits, though only a few wind up in the river courtesy of a poorly maneuvered canoe. There's no white water to make this a rough trip. With the recent drought, there's hardly any water at all. Hence the advice from the canoe rental guy: If you fall in, don't panic, just stand up.
A.J. Whitney grins easily and paddles even more easily down the river. A friend of the Leagues, he adds to the woodsy ambience, recounting his recent trek along the entire Appalachian trail. He's not a plant - he really did come here just to have fun - though last year the Leagues had special guests to enhance the experience. "We had people planted by the side of the river with overalls and blackened-out teeth," Karrie League says. "But one of them came down with the worst case of poison ivy ever, so we're not doing that this year."
The Leagues, who recently opened their third location, have managed not only to find business success in an otherwise dismal economy, but also respect in a city passionate for alternative film opportunities. This has been a pleasant turnaround from their initial foray into the world of cinema.
"My wife and I started a theater in Bakersfield, Calif.," Tim League says. "It was a terrible failure. We learned what we did wrong - it was a bad location, we were an art house with live music and special events ... we didn't have any employees." They had to race around dividing multiple roles - cashier, ticket taker, projectionist, concession stand operator - between them.
They sold the space to an evangelical church and returned to Texas.
"The year we moved to Austin, we lived on $5,000 total," says Karrie. "We apartment surfed and couch hopped. We ate bologna and ramen." They opened the first Drafthouse in 1997, during Austin's high-tech boom.
Today, all three locations offer food and drink served by waiters, leaving moviegoers to sit back and enjoy a variety of events, many of them kitschy, including the ongoing Mister Sinus Theater. A regular sellout, Mister Sinus is a bawdy spoof of the cult TV show "Mystery Science Theater."
On May 31, they commemorated the 10th anniversary of local filmmaker Rick Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," the movie that launched the career of Matthew McConaughey. This summer, the Leagues are looking to rent a camp and hold perhaps their most ambitious event to date. After a day of sundry camp activities, it'll be another all-night horror-fest, this time featuring scary camp movies. And if it gets too scary? The men may retire to the boys' cabins and the women to the girls'.