Alamo Drafthouse opens in Wrigleyville with plush chairs and a button for popcorn, tiptoeing into an uncertain moviegoing age

The new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Wrigleyville, which opened softly last weekend, tiptoeing into an uncertain post-pandemic culture, arrives just as the movies are dying.

Maybe. Probably.

Look, I don’t know. That’s what I heard. That’s what you heard.

At the opening ceremony for local media wags, someone stood and asked Alamo execs why they think they can open a new theater in Chicago at such a precarious time for movie theaters. They answered as they should: The Alamo will be a reminder that the cinema experience needs to lean into the experience part, the starry-eyed reverence for moviegoing Nicole Kidman is arguing for these days at AMC cinemas. But that’s as lazy as the idea that movies are dying. Theaters always claim to be all about the experience.

And the movies — at least since the talkies replaced the silents — are always dying.

Still, none of the above feels wrong.

The Alamo is opening in Chicago at a moment when the century-plus tradition of a night at the movies is going through existential upheaval. Filmgoing, like rock ‘n’ roll, painting, the novel, “Saturday Night Live” and Broadway, is perpetually on its last leg, but something does appear different: New releases arrive on video ridiculously early now. (“M3GAN,” a huge hit that opened less than a month ago, is already streaming at home.) Worse, you are not going to movie theaters to see anything but spectacles (“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water”). This means the Oscars, and those once thrilling holy days of artful obligation known as Oscar Season, are looking sort of forlorn.

Against that backdrop, this new Alamo is very much a fresh argument tossed into turbulent waters. It is wisely committed to the mission of making a night at the movies thoughtful again. Its staff wears T-shirts reading “Watch More Movies.” Its table tops are laminated with lobby cards for B-movie obscurities. Yet it doesn’t have a lobby. Or anything like a concession stand. Or ticket takers waiting by theater doors. But it does contain a video store that rents 11,000 VHS tapes and DVDs for free (and VCRs and disc players for a small fee) — presumably, to promote movie love (or just act as a loss leader for $15 tickets).

Some of the Alamo experience will seem familiar to Chicagoans as the Music Box experience. That venerable local landmark is just a 10-minute walk from the Alamo, and its stew of first-run films, cinephile culture and genre classics echoes the Alamo recipe.

Or rather, vice versa.

The Music Box, in a grand old house, its steep ceiling twinkling with a faux sky of stars, its enormous marquee throwing a gazillion-watt shine across Southport Avenue since 1929, still plays like a temple to film in all its forms, booking Buster Keaton and Billy Wilder alongside the latest indie horror and acclaimed foreign epic. During the Alamo dedication, even James Hughes, the son of late Chicago filmmaker John Hughes (whom the Alamo in Wrigleyville pays homage to), couldn’t help but reminisce about dragging his father to Music Box matinees and midnight screenings. Comparably, the Alamo — which as of right now has no marquee (or even decent signage to remind Clark Street that a multiplex waits inside) — is much closer to a snapshot of 21st-century movie culture, for better and worse. In other words, as Alamo execs have suggested, it’s meant as a sort of hybrid, multiplex familiarity crossbred with your living room couch.

The biggest obvious difference is that full-service kitchen and staff who race food out to your seat. Yes, the AMC Dine-In at Block 37 in the Loop also does this (and scores of other theater chains have done this for years, to varying degrees of success), but the Alamo, founded in Austin in 1997, perfected serving burgers and buffalo cauliflower and boozy milkshakes and popcorn to moviegoers with an unobtrusive stealthiness. I took my six-year-old to “Avatar” last weekend and she couldn’t help but press the button for our server repeatedly, asking for refill after refill of popcorn. That popcorn (excellent, warm) is offered in one size: bottomless. So the staff rushed refills so quickly (in a large metal mixing bowl, just like home), it was like yelling, “MA! Yo! More popcorn! Hey, MA!”

Albeit, it’s a living room designed by exacting movie lovers.

Each theater is oddly small — the largest is 106 seats, the smallest 48 seats — but the screens are big and the chairs are plush leather. And like any home theater with owners who rule their roost with an iron fist, it maintains seemingly draconian rules of conduct: You are reminded often, no texting, no talking, no late arrivals and (depending on the screening) no children. One of the most hallowed images of moviegoing — a group of kids dropped off at a theater, to be picked up later by parents — is impossible here; Alamo policy does not admit anyone under 18 without a parent, regardless of MPAA rating. Not to imply there is no sense of humor here: One of the ways they have to lure you into your seat early is by showing 30 minutes of original shorts, music videos, oddball public service announcements. These are not commercials. At my screening of “Avatar,” a video essay thoughtfully poked fun at the minor cultural impact of the “Avatar” movies (compared with “Star Wars” and Marvel) and the history of blue-hued characters. At a showing of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Matthew Broderick himself appeared in a prerecorded short, welcoming Chicago to its latest movie theater. I also saw a vintage Eisenhower-era PSA that promised this theater will throw you out for talking. Another PSA simply plays a recording of a real voicemail received at Alamo by a pissed customer: “I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to text in your little crappy ass theater ...”

The Alamo Drafthouse, now with 39 theaters in 22 markets, is very much a Gen-X production, exuding sardonic vibes. It started small in Austin when the Texas capital was one of the hubs of ‘90s cool. It partnered with Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater’s Austin film society. Not unlike Whole Foods, that other Austin-born institution, at first, Alamo came across as something different, thoughtful and casual. Perhaps too much: By 2018, as Alamo went nationwide, management faced multiple accusations of negligent, casual responses to sexual harassment claims against employees and customers. It was also accused of downplaying workplace injuries. In Kansas, its no-talking clampdowns were said to be enforced mainly with Black audiences. By 2021, the company entered bankruptcy (since resolved) and founder Tim League left as CEO; he’s now executive chairman, and said often that the company promises to do better.

All of which is to say, an Alamo Drafthouse is now both small enough to seem hands-on and full of personality, yet large enough to feel corporate. Particularly in Wrigleyville, where gentrification has replaced nearly every remaining shred of the old neighborhood and the practiced-easygoing vibe of lifestyle brands comes across as new authenticity.

Not that the Alamo isn’t charming.

The food’s good, the sound is great, the movie selection is eclectic (but not exactly surprising). It’s decorated in “Be Kind Rewind” wall art and old T-120 videotape graphics. Whereas a theater of another era might have Truffaut and Hitchcock posters, these hallways are lined with posters for junk genre favorites (“Empire of the Ants”) and Italian “Risky Business” posters. Each Alamo makes some attempt at adopting the local culture. On Staten Island, the Alamo created a kung fu-themed multiplex, in honor of hometown heroes the Wu-Tang Clan; for Washington, D.C., they went for politics, decorating the walls with Smithsonian-like portraits of famous movie presidents, such as Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman. Chicago got a John Hughes theater and ‘80s aesthetic, which is colorful, jammed with references to VCRs, and allows lots of room for the kinds of cult classics that littered video stores. The stock of its store, named the Video Vortex, feels lifted wholesale from the ‘80s. (Among the finds: Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and the infamous “Star Wars” holiday special, neither officially released on home video.) Alongside that, greeting moviegoers as they step off the elevator into the theater, there’s a replica of the Ferrari in “Ferris Bueller.”

The numbers on each of the six theaters are the exact green once favored by ancient computer monitors. And inside the theaters, you eat on swivel desks straight out of ninth grade. So, it’s not exactly film culture, but a nostalgia for a time when film was tactile — even if, ironically, every house in the place is operated by a large cube suspended from the back of the theater that projects movies digitally. There are no projection booths.

Film culture, as it once was, gave us the rise of foreign-language film in this country, the influence of critics, the indie wave, the explosion of ‘70s vanguards as varied as Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick, John Carpenter, Melvin Van Peebles. It also gave us, conversely, the VHS tape and a home-video culture that turned a generation of moviegoers into connoisseurs of revenge flicks, disco musicals, regional horror movies.

Eventually, the arguments, insights and tastes that often fueled the beating heart of film culture collapsed in a digital age, calcifying into Rotten Tomato percentages. Of course, that means it’s harder to gatekeep and bury a movie these days, in an age of TikTok and Instagram. Not a bad thing. But to follow film culture on social media is to assume film criticism is about lists, snark and that nobody has seen a movie made before 1971.

At an Alamo, this translates into “Bridesmaids” and “You’ve Got Mail” parties and stray John Carpenter screenings, a Chicago-themed slate of over-familiar classics and the occasional underground rarity. It means screenings of “The Goonies” and “Ferris Bueller.” This means theaters like the Music Box and Logan Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Loop and the 1,000-seat auditorium at the Tivoli in Downers Grove have nothing to fear. Film culture lives on, and it looks a little different. But if film culture has taught me anything, it’s how to pick a fight: I never need to see “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” again.

And “The Goonies” is even worse.