The need for screens

Alamo Drafthouse theaters have a new owner. It’s time for them to come to Philly.

3 minute read
A small crowd of people move around outside the lit-up marquee of the Alamo Drafthouse entrance.
The Austin location of Alamo Drafthouse in 2015. (Photo by Stephen Silver.)

I’ve been writing about the precarious and uncertain state of movie exhibitions in Philadelphia in this space and elsewhere for nearly a decade. In the past couple of years, the problem has gotten worse rather than better. As cinemas continue to struggle nationwide post-Covid, Philadelphia remains underserved by screens for a city of its size.

The city’s largest multiplex, the Riverview, closed in late 2020, and nearly four years later, its former location continues to sit empty on Columbus Boulevard. Less than five years after relocating from West Philly to South Broad, the Lightbox Film Center closed up shop again in June, a casualty of the sudden closure of the University of the Arts.

Center City finally got its first multiplex in years in late 2019, with the arrival of the AMC Fashion District theater—but if the 76 Place arena project goes forward, it’s set for displacement. No one seems to have articulated the plans for what will happen to the theater if the arena is built, whether it will be relocated to the remaining section of the Fashion District complex, somewhere else in the city, or closed altogether.

Throughout the last few years of machinations and theaters opening and closing, one possibility has remained tantalizing for Philadelphia-area cineastes: The idea that the Alamo Drafthouse chain could expand to the city.

Why avoid the Philly market?

The Alamo chain has long been associated with first-rate cinematic presentation, savvy repertory curation, and a zero-tolerance policy for phones and talking during movie showings. While based in Austin, the chain has gradually expanded geographically over the years, including to Northeast markets like New York, Washington, D.C., and, as of late last year, Boston.

However, the Alamo chain has never brought a theater to Philly. Some Alamo theaters are operated by the main company, others by franchisees, and some have been in cities and others in suburbs. But the Philadelphia area has remained absent from its roster of markets, and I’ve never really heard a good explanation as to why.

There has, though, been a pretty significant development that has a chance to change the calculus.

A fresh start for the Alamo

On June 12, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that it had agreed to acquire Alamo Drafthouse and operate it under a new division called Sony Pictures Experiences. The chain will still be called Alamo Drafthouse, and according to the announcement, it will continue operating its theaters as before.

Since the deal was announced, Sony and Alamo have not announced any intentions to expand into markets in which Alamo is not presently active. It’s barely been a month, and the plans have barely begun to ramp up. I have no inside knowledge of Sony or Alamo’s plans.

However, just weeks after one of Alamo’s franchisees announced that it was closing six theaters—five in Texas and a sixth in Minnesota—Alamo announced, post-Sony deal, that those theaters would reopen.

We know that the independent incarnation of Alamo, which has suffered financial problems recently and was in bankruptcy in 2021, now has a deep-pocketed corporate owner who can pay for equipment upgrades and other such capital expenses. And if the Dallas area can support five Alamo theaters, the Philly market can support at least one.

A perfect fit?

Where could the Alamo go? The old Riverview location remains unused, as does the old Boyd Theatre location on Chestnut Street, which was considered for years for a new theater but most recently occupied by the infamous, ill-fated Bankroll sports bar. Various suburban locations on either side of the Delaware are also possibilities.

For now, plenty of theaters in the region feature plentiful repertory offerings, led by the Film Society and Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Plenty also offer decent food, including the Fashion District and other AMC Dine-In theaters in the suburbs.

However, Alamo Drafthouse offers both and would seem a perfect fit for the Philadelphia market.

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