Alamo Drafthouse is the premier up-market cinema chain in the United States. Yet it is sometimes better known for its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to people using cellphones, smartphones or even Google Glass in its cinemas.
Following the big response we had to the topic of smartphone use in cinemas (‘Smartphones Are Killing the Cinema Experience‘) we got in touch with Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas’ founder and CEO to quiz him about the background and specifics of his chain policy and practices.
Celluloid Junkie: What was the origin of Alamo Drafthouse’s ‘zero tolerance’ towards cellphones, smartphones and wearable devices?
Tim League: For the first few weeks of operation back in 1997, we didn’t have a formal policy. About a month in, we had midnight screenings of “Blue Velvet” which sold out. We had a really cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon special that sold really well and we unfortunately had our first rowdy audience.
I went in the theater and it was out of control. People were chatting and shouting at the screen. I felt sick to my stomach. This wasn’t the theater that I wanted to build. That week I bought a copy of Final Cut Pro 1.0 and taught myself how to use it. I cut together our first Don’t Talk PSA and the zero-tolerance policy was born.
CJ: How was the policy formulated and what staff training was required to put it into practice?
TL:In the old days, I was there every day and I was the enforcer. When there was a complaint, I came in to sort the problem. These days, we have a good amount of training on how to deal with upset customers. We probably throw out 100 or so customers a year, but in general most people quiet down when they get their first warning.
CJ: Can you tell us about the ‘silent notification’ process?
If you have a loud table nearby, you just write down where they are sitting on paper supplied at the table. A server slinks in and takes the note and alerts the manager. A manager will stand in the theater until it happens again. When it does he or she will give the table a warning and tell them they will be thrown out without a refund if it happens again.