Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
For the millions of movie fanatics living nowhere near Austin, Texas, the next few months will be marked by a slew of $100-million-plus, major studio blockbusters, long-awaited tentpoles the likes of Men in Black 3D, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, and The Amazing Spider-Man, amongst several others. Jump-started into maximum overdrive two weeks ago with the record-breaking opening of Marvel’s epic The Avengers, the summer of 2012 is shaping up to be the most profitable one of all time, and the levels of audience elation and businessman celebration are enormously tangible.
So why single out the vibrant city of Austin, Texas, then? Because there, specifically at the storied film-buff haven Alamo Drafthouse theater, the following weeks leading up to August 25th are all about the past. Beginning last weekend with a special screening of the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led fantasy classic Conan the Barbarian, the Drafthouse is dedicating this year’s hot weather months to a truly badass, you’ll-wish-you-lived-in-Austin series called the “Summer of 1982,” inspired by the historical fact that the June-August stretch of ’82 saw the theatrical releases of eight monumental genre films: the aforementioned Conan, The Road Warrior, Rocky III, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and TRON. All of which will screen at the Drafthouse’s downtown Ritz site for either one-night- or one-weekend-only engagements.
As the series tagline states, it was “the greatest summer of movies… ever.” “Every movie that we’re playing is almost as relevant and discussed now as anytime in the last 30 years,” says Zack Carlson, 37, one of the Drafthouse’s fulltime programmers. “It’s not like you can bring up the original Conan the Barbarian and anybody over ten-years-old says, ‘What’s that?’”
And, considering that it’s the Alamo Drafthouse, “Summer of 1982” is typically loaded with an abundance of special features. With each movie screening on the same weekend that it opened back in 1982, those eight movies will all be shown in their original 35MM print form, complete with the same exact trailers that played before them 30 years back and a Drafthouse menu—from which each patron can order restaurant-quality food and/or beer, per usual—accessorized by out-of-date items like Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and a selection of choice ’82-specific candies.
Most importantly, though, the Summer of 1982 events have been designed to give fans who have never seen these classics on the big screen, in their original, pre-digital-conversion forms, the chances to do so in the neatest possible ways. It wasn’t an easy task to accomplish on the programmers’ ends, though. Despite the Drafthouse’s over-2,000-prints-deep archive of 35mm films, the O.G. prints of the program’s eight old-school blockbusters all had to be obtained by Carlson. In some cases, all it took was a painless phone call to the respective studio and a pleasant request, aided by the widely respected Drafthouse name; yet, the problem children, so to speak, weren’t as smoothly obtained.
Take this weekend’s entry, for example; The Road Warrior, Mel Gibson’s second, and best, turn as the legendary post-apocalyptic action hero Mad Max, and an oldie that Warner Bros., the studio that owns the film, isn’t quick to relinquish. Carlson had to work extra hard to get the studio to send him an original 35mm version. But there was a catch: Warner’s lone copy is an Australian theatrical version, in which the U.S. title of The Road Warrior isn’t seen; instead, the title reads Mad Max 2. “That makes it a little more special,” says Carlson. “Not only is it an authentic, used 35mm print, but nobody in the U.S. has ever seen this version of the movie in a theater.”
The unique Mad Max 2 experience doesn’t stop there, either. To translate all of the film’s heightened carnage and violence, Carlson and his colleagues have scheduled a four-car demolition derby before this Friday night’s outdoor screening, garnished with Road Warrior-esque flaming barrels and automobiles ramming into one another at ludicrous speeds. “It’s probably going to be illegal, I guess,” says Carlson, along with a laugh. “We don’t have any kind of clearance for this; we don’t know what kind of clearance we’re supposed to get. But the drivers have all volunteered and signed waivers.”
The biggest coup of them all, however, is the original 1982 print of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.—the scheduled June 8th Drafthouse screening almost couldn’t even happen. In 2002, as E.T. die-hards too agonizingly recall, the sci-fi, family-accessible masterpiece was re-released in a special 20th anniversary edition, a sanitized version in which FBI agents’ handguns were digitally replaced by flashlights, phones, and other non-threatening objects; even worse, E.T. himself was, as Carlson puts it, “Jar-Jar-Binks-ed up.” When Carlson first reached out to Universal Pictures about showing a 35mm print of the film, he was told that only the 2002 edition is authorized. Naturally, he wasn’t having it. “We need to show the one that looks like 1982,” he told the Universal rep. “We can’t show the computerized, child-friendly version. That would be bullshit.”
Still met with resistance, Carlson tested the hater’s film-loving heart. “I said, ‘Can you imagine going back to relive those E.T. moments and you see these fucking digital flashlights? That would be so awful!’” he recalls. “The guy was quiet for a little bit, and then said, ‘OK, we have one of the original in the vault, and you guys can use it—but just once!’ That felt like a real moment, one where even the people who should be standing in our way felt the spirit of this Summer of ’82 thing, which was nice.”
As complete as the program seems, though, it’s actually not 100% whole. One of the biggest and most influential flicks released in that summer, director Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner, isn’t, sadly, on the schedule. But not for lack of effort on the programmers’ end. “That’s the biggest tragedy of 2012 for me, so far,” says Carlson.
Blade Runner, a monumental display of excellent storytelling and stunning visual effects, didn’t come cheap. Made for an estimated $28 million (not exactly chump change back in 1982), Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? required several wealthy parties to hop onboard as producers, in order to secure the financing necessary for Scott to present his futuristic vision of Los Angeles in all of hits dystopian, neon-colored glory. The downside to that communal funding, however, is that numerous people now own the film, meaning that lawyers had to get involved once Carlson came a-calling. One cold-blooded attorney, unfortunately, hasn’t been on the same page as Carlson, his Drafthouse crew, and all of Blade Runner’s other handlers, namely Ridley Scott himself, who has given his approval for the “Summer of 1982” look. “This lawyer was just like, ‘Why would it benefit us to screen this movie anywhere besides L.A.?’” says Carlson. “[He also said], ‘L.A. is the movie town, so why would we show it in some po-dunk Texas theater?’”
Carlson isn’t about to give up the good fight. And, fortunately, the film’s original release June 25th, 1982, release date gives him five more weeks to win the battle. “I just picture this lawyer bonehead as the dude from the Monopoly box, but much uglier,” he says. “He’s sitting there, laughing and snickering at us, and saying, ‘Ha ha! No fun allowed! No good things in this world!’ We’re battling true evil to get Blade Runner on, because, obviously, I feel like it must happen, and I’m not giving up.”
”The Greatest Summer of Movies… Ever”
When it comes to “Summer of 1982,” the mission for Alamo’s cinema-obsessed staff is straightforward: give each and every one of their Summer of 1982 customers a full-blown nostalgic ride like none others. “We’re trying to make it the complete experience,” says Carlson. “I wish that we could throw away everybody’s cell phones and make it a thing where we announce, ‘You are now in 1982! We shall relinquish all of your modern possessions!’”
As incredible as the Summer of 1982 series sounds to outsiders, the Drafthouse’s regular visitors know that it’s simply one-of-a-kind business as usual. First opened in May of 1997 by the husband-and-wife team of Tim and Karrie League, the Alamo Drafthouse is one of those rare venues where movie ardent fans of everything from big-deal Hollywood productions to obscure genre time capsules are welcomed with open arms, hot food, and cold brews. It’s also the location of the annual Fantastic Fest, a massive festival held every September in which the latest and greatest in horror, science fiction, and other sick genre fare either debuts (last year saw the premiere of Tom Six’s The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)) or continue their fest circuit runs; the Drafthouse’s six Austin-located theaters also play host to many of the flicks shown as part of March’s yearly SXSW Film Festival, particularly the always popular Midnight selections.
For Carlson, the Drafthouse is a meeting ground for people who measure a film’s worth on scales that have nothing to do with money or mainstream popularity. “The thing is, we show all of that stuff but there’s no irony to it,” says Carlson, a Seattle native who’s been with the Drafthouse team for seven years and counting. “That’s the company-wide motto: If something entertains you, it’s good, and if it doesn’t entertain you, then it’s bad. We’re not like,'Look at these cheesy movies!' Or, 'Remember how dumb the ’80s were?' These movies were fun, so we’re going to have fun.” As the company’s most enthusiastic programmer, Carlson travels around often to various multiplexes nationwide to scout movies and scope the competition, and those trips can sometimes flirt with soul-crushing emotions. “A lot of theaters will have something like ‘Shitty Movie Night,’ and they’ll show my favorite movies. I’ll be like, ‘What the fuck is this? How is Robocop a shitty movie? What’s wrong with you?’”
Applying that same embrace-the-fun mentality to all of their functions and programs, the Drafthouse crew routinely present films that would otherwise be relegated to VHS bins and late night cable airings, at best. Two of the coolest weekly events are “Terror Tuesdays,” Carlson’s self-programmed and ongoing series of 35mm prints of old horror movies, and “Weird Wednesdays,” which uses a similar model but for schlocky exploitation flicks.
Every night of the week, ticket-buyers can sip on frosty bottles of Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale while enjoying the types of pictures most other theater owners wouldn’t screen even unless they had guns pressed against their faces. “I like to think that the biggest difference is that we’re a movie theater run by and for movie fans,” says Tim League, 42, Drafthouse founder/CEO. “I think that’s reflected in the Summer of 1982 programming, too.”
Look no further than the Summer of 1982 series’ “extended lineup” inclusions, comprised of 12 lesser-celebrated genre flicks released in ’82 that may not have achieved the same degrees of widespread notoriety as E.T., Poltergeist, The Road Warrior, and the slate’s five other headliners, but, in the eyes of the Drafthouse staff, they’re just as memorable. Films like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the infamous horror sequel that has nothing to do with Michael Myers yet still holds a special place in open-minded, camp-loving horror fans’ hearts; Q: The Winged Serpent, director Larry Cohen’s low-budget creature feature about a flying stop-motion lizard that bites pedestrians heads off in New York City; Class of 1984, a youth-gone-bad action-thriller notable for its ’80s punk aesthetic, rocking Alice Cooper theme song (“I am the Future”), and an early, pre-fame performance from Michael J. Fox; and, League’s personal favorite, Vice Squad, an exploitation gem in which a hooker (Season Hubley) becomes a cop accessory and has to apprehend a homicidal pimp named, awesomely, Ramrod (Wings Hauser).
The first movie to screen as part of the Summer of 1982 series, Vice Squad, which played to a packed house last Wednesday, is indicative of the Drafthouse spirit. “Even though [Vice Squad] is made for a much grimier audience than the other Hollywood blockbusters we have in the program, people came out to it who are just curious about seeing it, and probably heard about it through this Summer of ’82 thing, and that’s great,” says Carlson. “If some 22-year-old is going to see a movie that’s that good, but it’s one that he wouldn’t have seen otherwise, that makes the world a better place.”
Though the series’ main attractions are unquestionably classics like TRON, The Thing, and Star Trek II, the quirkier offerings—which will screen during the week, leaving the weekends for the bigger films—also provide an opportunity for audience discovery that’s all but forgotten in today’s age of bombarding marketing tactics. Think about the countless number of Prometheus images already available online (there’s still nearly a month until the June 8th debut of Ridley Scott’s Alien-related showstopper), or the on-set paparazzi shots of Tom Hardy in his “secretive” Bane costume that leaked to the Internet months before the first The Dark Knight Rises Trailerever surfaced.
Back in 1982, before the cyber world turned cinephiles into spoiler-seekers, the summer movie season was more about a film’s mysteries, not whether it features everything that’s been seen online in advance. “In ’82, my awareness of the big summer movies was built on 30-second spots seen on TV, for the most part, and maybe a few fan magazines, too,” says League, who was a 12-year-old living in St. Clairsville, Ohio, in 1982. “There was also actual word-of-mouth—not Internet-based word-of-mouth, but actually your friends hearing something or seeing a poster and then telling you about all excitedly.”
“For example, I was very much into computers at that age, and TRON was probably my favorite movie of that summer,” continues League. “I had known about it through some magazines, and had been counting the days until I could see this movie, but I honestly didn’t really know anything about it. So there’s definitely a sense that it was fresher and more exciting because of that. Nowadays, if you want to, you can spoil a lot of movies before you even get to the cinema.”
So, has the summer movie experience been completely tainted as a result? The recent $200 million opening weekend posted by The Avengers answers that question in the negative connotation. Let’s be clear, though: Just because director Joss Whedon’s multi-superhero Marvel extravaganza is a history-making smash, and just because the forthcoming releases of The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man hint at the strong likelihood that the summer of 2012 will go down as the most lucrative of all time, that doesn’t mean that the Alamo Drafthouse team’s proclamation that the summer of 1982 is “the greatest” one for movies ever is about to be proven as a premature miscalculation.
Carlson, for one, couldn’t give a damn less about the monetary angles. “Let’s go with an ugly analogy: Criss Angel is probably more wealthy than Harry Houdini ever was, but are you going to say that Criss Angel is a better magician or entertainer than Harry Houdini?” he reasons. “No, he’s a complete douchebag. Just because he’s rich doesn’t mean he’s the greatest magician of all time. This whole [“Summer of 1982”] series is about movies that have persevered in people’s hearts, how many movies have done that lately? Look at this way: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made a ton a money, but how many people are going to look back on that movie in 30 years and go, ‘Man, those were the days! Watching that digital pirate ship bounce along on that digital sea!’ No one is going to say that in a month.”
League, for his part, is a bit more optimistic. “I think the importance of the influence of the summer of ’82 is bigger than whatever amount of money this summer’s movies might make,” says the Drafthouse’s head honcho. “Just look at the movies we’re showing and dwell on how many subsequent movies they’ve influenced. They stand as titans of all time. You’re not going to be able to judge the summer of 2012 until at least a decade from now. But, at this point in time, the summer of ’82 is definitely the greatest ever, and I invite any and everyone to visit our theater to see why.”
For more information: Summer of 1982
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)