As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. We asked Alamo Drafthouse CEO-cofounder Tim League to explain how the best movie theater in America – which has a strict no-talking policy dating back to 1997, and also prohibits patrons from texting – took the “Silence Is Golden” message to a whole new level. For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.
By: Tim League
One of the craziest moments of the year for us at Alamo was the launching and subsequent viral sharing of our “Don’t Talk - Angry Voice Mail” PSA.
The story began with our staff at the Alamo Drafthouse Village simply doing their job. The anonymous customer, despite what she tries to say in her voice mail, didn’t just use her phone to get to her seat. She was texting throughout the movie and was warned to stop or get kicked out. After being warned, she was rude and belligerent and then persisted with her texting. A manager was called and she was kicked out of the theater without a refund.
This happens at the Alamo Drafthouse maybe 100 times a year combined from all of our 10 locations. It doesn’t happen every day, but unfortunately it isn’t an isolated incident. This particular customer, however, went home and proceeded to leave the now-infamous and potentially intoxicated voice mail on our system later that night. The story probably would have ended there had it not been for the theater manager who forwarded the e-mail to our creative department (we get our voice mails via e-mail as MP3s) suggesting that it might in fact make a solid “Don’t Talk” PSA. We’ve been running these sometimes comedic PSAs at the theater since 1999; they have become something of a signature of the Alamo Drafthouse. We are always on the lookout for new material to provide clear warnings about talking or texting in the theater, and this one was indeed pretty ripe.
At this point we contacted our law firm to find out the legality of the situation. Apparently it is pretty cut-and-dry, well-trod legal territory. If someone leaves a voice mail at a business, the business is free to use that recording as it sees fit. The light was green and Henri Mazza, Chief Creative Officer of the Alamo Drafthouse, cut together the video and prepared to put it into rotation. The day we put it on screen at the Alamo Drafthouse, we also uploaded it to YouTube, standard procedure for many of our “Don’t Talk” PSAs. Roger Ebert was one of the first to chime in about it, and by the end of the day the video was everywhere, skyrocketing to well over a million hits in just a few hours. We had never experienced one of our videos “going viral” and were blindsided by a wave of crazy publicity, interviews and international notoriety as the theater with the hard-line stance on bad manners. The video also took down our website and we scrambled to replace the initial post with a cloud-based page. Within 48 hours the story was featured on The View, Howard Stern, Fox News, Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper, and countless other outlets all over the globe.
Amidst all the positive press, we started to consider the flip side, putting ourselves in the shoes of the girl who left the voice mail. The PSA was meant for local audiences, and when it became something of an Internet meme, the context of the video became much more significant. She was still thankfully anonymous, but with the insanely heightened awareness, we were worried that should her identity be revealed, this could easily descend into nasty cyber-bullying. Many of the comments on the video as well as those on the news sites that picked it up were violent and threatening towards the girl. We issued a video statement letting her know that she would be welcome back at the Alamo anytime (provided of course that she stop texting), and that the threats of violence were thoroughly inappropriate.
Although Maury Povich and others were actually on deck wanting to see a confrontation between me and the angry texter, she ultimately took the high road and kept her anonymity. Her only alleged resurfacing was to call into the morning show of KVET radio, a local country station in Austin. She was still mad as hell and not about ready to stop her mid-movie texting behavior. She was, however, prudently resolved to retain her anonymity.
The whole incident peaked and then died down within a few days. Our top-viral-video status was replaced by “drunk British guy falling down.” Our 15 minutes were up, but it was certainly a fun ride. Ultimately, the most satisfying aspect of the whole experience was seeing just how galvanized audiences across the world became about this issue. The video sparked a nearly unanimous public outcry and provided a forum for a lot of people to vent about the seeming epidemic of movie talkers and texters. Who knows, maybe we inadvertently helped teach a modicum of manners to a few folks who perhaps were previously unaware of the error of their ways.
We cycle our “Don’t Talk” PSAs regularly, and even now when this particular video plays, it still gets an ovation. Almost as if to close out this 2011 chapter, our current PSA is a spoof of “Don’t Talk - Angry Texter” performed by Patton Oswalt and Jason Reitman.