100 Dallas Creatives: No. 83 Movie Nerd James Wallace
James Wallace talks with George Romero and cast of Dawn of the Dead
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the whos and whys.
Movie buffs can have such an infectious love for film that it feels like it should be classified as some kind of chemical addiction. They are always talking about movies. They squeeze as many of their favorite lines into daily conversations as if they are playing some personal game of Movie Bingo. They ask your opinions and then defend their favorites with knives, if necessary. And if they're as lucky as James Wallace, the Alamo Drafthouse's creative director, they find a way to turn their love of movies into a full-time job.
"To quote Liam Neeson, one has to have 'a very particular set of skills...skills I have acquired over a very long career,'" Wallace says using a not-so-subtle nod to Neeson's most famous line from Taken.
Wallace's love of movies has always been a driving force in his career. He helped launch the wildly successful movie blog Gordon and the Whale before launching his own movie site I Heart Cinema that aimed to bring creative movie viewing opportunities long before Tim and Carrie League had their eyes on setting up a Drafthouse in our backyard. He wrote film critiques and columns on his blog - as well as several local and national publications including the Dallas Observer - before earning the job that has made him the envy of every self-respecting movie fan in DFW.
Richardson's Drafthouse hasn't been open for a full year but Wallace's direction and event ideas have already drawn huge crowds to the theater chain that's already a mecca for movie-heads. He helped organize pre-opening screening party of the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy ending "The World's End" featuring appearances by director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost . He started a series of live table reads of famous movies like When Harry Met Sally... and Toy Story with the Dallas Screenwriters Association. He organized a series of secret screenings in which the audience doesn't know what they are buying a ticket to see until they sit down in the seat and the house lights dim.
Wallace talked to the Dallas Observer for the 100 Creatives series about what it takes to run a movie theater that prides itself on doing more than just screening movies and selling popcorn buckets.
James Wallace with the Ghostbusters' Ecto-1.
How does one become a creative manager for a movie theater chain?
It's not exactly a job you can just go out and find on Craigslist or something. You kind of have to be a Swiss Army Knife and know how to have a background in a bunch of different things. For example, my job first takes a storied knowledge of film since I'm first and foremost the programmer for Alamo DFW. Going to film school and having a formal education in the field certainly helped but so does just sitting down and watching everything you can get your hands on whenever you can find time. It also takes having a finger on the pulse of Dallas' film community. And then the list just goes on from there.
What I get to do for a job (it's sometimes hard to justifiably call it that) is something I've wanted to do my whole life. But I didn't really always know a job like this existed...so it's kind of hard to set some five-year plan for yourself when you don't always know what you're working towards. When you're passionate about something, you just kind of figure out ways to do those things and believe in your heart that if you don't give up, it will lead you to somewhere someday where you can do it full-time and someone pays you for it! I guess that's how I got to where I got.
How do you maintain or stimulate your creativity when it comes to your job?
Oh jeez, it'd be really hard not to maintain or stimulate creativity in my job. I mean just even from getting to walk into work every morning through the halls of a movie theater and work in that environment every day inspires me. For me, movie theaters have always been a magical place. There's a real child-like sense of wonderment to them for me to this day. So to now be in one everyday and, for example, be able to walk into a projection booth and look through the viewing window as the projector shines light through a lens and onto a screen, projecting a film and entertaining the audience in the theater below, it really is magic. Or see people coming through the doors wearing the excitement on their faces for what they're about to watch. On top of that, being around all of the fun and creative people I get to work with and constantly talking about movies and ideas for events for our new releases or repertory shows...if I can't manage to be creative in the midst of all that, well then I should probably make sure I'm not a robot.
Just how much of a "creative manager" are you? How much of your job is creative and how much of it technical, clerical, etc.?
I'd say it's primarily creative. The sides that are technical or clerical are in respect to marketing an event and then the business side of how well an event does. But I think that's one of the things that people who want to go into a creative field aren't always taught but should be. A big part of being creative and turning it into a career is also understanding the business side of that creativity, whether it's marketing, cost analyses, etc. That said, not all the things we do make the most dollars and sense on paper but sometimes it's not necessarily about that but rather "Is it important that we show this film?" So it's just about finding that balance between the two and having good instincts on both sides.
How much of your ideas for shows, screenings and events come from the fans and how many come from your mind? Is it difficult to come up with ways to surprise the Drafthouse fans?
That's a tough question to answer because I don't want to seem like I'm taking all of the credit or something. That said, it is my job to come up with these ideas and I think there are some events that have more of my calling card so to speak on them than others. However, as I mentioned before, even though I'm the only Creative Manager/Programmer for the DFW market, everyone who works at Alamo is a movie nerd at heart so they all have great ideas to contribute. And we're a movie theater run by movie nerds for movie nerds so I'm constantly listening to what the fans have to say about what they'd like to see. I think part of what makes you good at this job is not just approaching it from your own tastes but also having a sense of what the tastes of the film community around you are and being able to step outside of yourself.
As for it being difficult to surprise Drafthouse fans, I think we're constantly trying to outdo whatever we've done before so it's a challenge we're always up for. And now that we've been here almost a year and people are familiar with our brand, they expect those big things from us. There's not another theater like Alamo in DFW and so the fans that come here for their movie experiences come here because of of the ways that we make going to the movies a special experience. So I wouldn't say it's necessarily difficult. It's just one of the challenges that goes along with the role that drives me to always think bigger. I always sense this built-in excitement for the next thing we're doing, even if people don't have any idea what or when that is. I get excited myself. In this job, you never know week to week what opportunities will present themselves.
Personally, what would be your ultimate movie going experience if budget, time and availability were not obstacles?
Easy. A "Back to the Future" 30th Anniversary Rolling Roadshow event on October 21, 2015 at Universal's Courthouse Square backlot with a full cast reunion complete with an "Enchantment Under The Sea Dance" after the showing.
That's something I've dreamt of for a long time and then coincidentally I read that Secret Cinema in the UK was doing something very similar. So I guess I would add into that budget a real working, time-travelin' DeLorean so I could go back and stop them from doing theirs so I could do mine for the anniversary next year and so it didn't seem like I was just ripping off their idea for this question.
So that, or a showing of "Star Wars" on the Moon.
What would you say is your biggest creative challenge?
That human cloning doesn't exist yet and so I can only do so much at one time and be in one place at a time.
Do you tend to avoid movies in your spare time or are you always there or is there a happy medium between movies and other hobbies?
Avoid movies?! No way! I don't think I could ever avoid movies. Movies are my hobby and it just so happens that movies are also my job. I've been enraptured by film my entire life, ever since my mom took me to see Bambi on the big screen when Bambi could walk better than I could. There is absolutely a happy medium though. Everything can become a "job," even if it's something you love to do.
So to keep from getting burnt out or becoming jaded, you have to have balance in your life with other things. I'm always trying to learn that more and more. For me, that's spending time with my wife and our daughter. Staring at any kind of screen for too long can make you miss the thousands of other things life has to offer around you. Those are all the things that movies are inspired by in the first place after all and why we all flock to them - sometimes to escape life, yes, but other times to see it reflected back at us.
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