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James Sanford

What is your official title?

Creative Manager at Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo.


What is Alamo Drafthouse?

We have been open for 15 months and we are still getting people coming in for the first time, which is wonderful; we love that, it’s such a thrill. The basic concept of Alamo Drafthouse is that we are a movie theater, restaurant, and we have a full bar and cocktail service. We strive to show a mix of first-run films, from the latest blockbusters to independent and art movies that people are talking about, and we incorporate into that line up an assortment of specialty programming, which includes cult films, classics, event programming like Royal Shakespeare Company, we have a lot of anime — usually one showing a month — and then the trademark Alamo Quote Along, Sing Along, Dance Along, and Xanadu was a Glow Along.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

24 hours, no 25 hours. My job doesn’t have a lot of average days. There are certain days that I know I have things to get done on that particular day, but my schedule is very fluid, flexible, ever-changing, and always evolving.

Mondays we have the conference calls with our film buyers and we determine what we are going to be playing for Friday. I have to do a booking sheet which is sent out to the management here and our home office in Austin, TX to let them know, “this is what we are playing and this is the specialty programming” that keeps them up to date. Then I have certain things I do throughout the course of the week as well — keep track of the box office report and the specialty programming, which is anything we show that isn’t a first release film, anything that is a Quote Along or Sing Along, and also the special events we do.

This month we did an event with the Kalamazoo Public Library where they are watching a documentary to connect to their Reading Together program. All of that is under my jurisdiction. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a lot to keep track of. But there is a certain degree of flexibility in terms of what we schedule so if something does surprisingly well we can often figure out how to make a hole in the schedule so we can do an encore of it, which is something we do a lot of.


What has done surprisingly well?

We had Cinema Cocktails a couple of months ago, where we showed My Man Godfrey from 1936, and it had been on sale for a couple of weeks and it was up to two or three tickets and the day before it was up to maybe 7 or 8 tickets. We were thinking, “Dang, we were really hoping it would do better.’ Then an hour before showtime all these people came in and it completely sold out. We just thought, “Well, I guess this must be Carole Lombard Day or something” — that came out of nowhere. We also did really well with Xanadu, which was the kick off for our Eternally 80s series that we are doing for March and April. That surprised me. I had people who told me that they drove over two hours because they had to see Xanadu on the big screen. People from the east side, Lansing, all over. We have a Facebook page has followers from all over the place and our calendar says “these are all the shows that are on sale for the next two months.” Apparently for certain films there are Twitter handles that broadcast when certain films are being played — same thing for Grease 2; we had people drive from all over and they LOVED it.

It’s always a roll of the dice. There is so much that is dependent on the night that it’s scheduled, the weather, what else is out at the same time, are students on spring break, you just never know.


What is your background and how did you get involved when it Alamo Drafthouse came to Kalamazoo?

I had been working in journalism professionally since 1997. I was at the Kalamazoo Gazette for 12 years, then I worked for a weekly entertainment magazine on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer of 2009. After that I worked in Lansing for a weekly newspaper called City Pulse, and while I was in Lansing I got an invite to join the Enquirer in Battle Creek. I was at the Enquirer and I had just done a little blurb on the front page about how Alamo Drafthouse was coming to Kalamazoo — it’s an interesting company, this is what you can expect — an informational type article. A couple of days later I got a message through LinkedIn from this gentleman named Travis and he said “Hi, I was wondering if I could talk with you about Alamo Drafthouse coming to Kalamazoo?” As a journalist I thought he was pitching a story and you get in touch with them and they say “Let me send you a press release…” So, I responded back saying “Hi Travis, I just wrote an article about it in the Enquirer, here is the story, I’m sure we’ll be writing more about it as opening day gets closer, thank you for contacting me, have a good day.” I received a message back the next day saying, “Oh I don’t think I made myself clear, I am a recruiter for Alamo Drafthouse. I want to talk with you about working for Alamo Drafthouse in Kalamazoo.” I’m thinking, yes, you didn’t say anything about that — this is news haha. Of course I wrote back saying, “That sounds very interesting, let’s talk.”

Then the interview process started — first I had a phone interview with Travis, then another phone interview with Marketing, and yet another with Private Events and Community Organizations, a Video conference with Head of Programming, and then a breakfast meeting in person with the Director of Operations when he was here in town. Everything was progressing and going well so I thought, “ok, here’s the job offer,” but the Director of Operations came back saying “Ok, now we are going to fly you down to Austin so you can meet everyone in the home office.”

At this point, I had never been to an Alamo Drafthouse, I just knew a lot about the company and thought it sounded amazing. I had been theater management in the late 80s and 90s, working for a bunch of different places. I worked with this one chain booking films from the 80s, just to spice up bookings on slow nights and we did superbly well. I wanted to do more of that stuff and my bosses were like, “Not so much, this is a fluke. People like it now, but they are going to get sick of it real quickly, so just stop doing it.” So, I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to do these promos with first-run movies and serve a meal with the movie — we did Toy Story and we had “Breakfast with Toys”. You got English muffins, bacon, orange juice — the kids loved it, we sold out, and we did several more shows like that. We did great with those too, but again my bosses weren’t into it. I ended up leaving that company when I got an offer to write for the Gazette.

Several years later there is a big profile on Tim League and how he and his wife founded Alamo Drafthouse, and after reading about it I found that he was doing exactly what I had tried to do, but he got funding for this, he got support, he did it! I thought, I’ll never get to go, I haven’t been to Texas in my life — little did I know! In June of 2013 I flew down to Austin, met everyone in the home office, went through a lot more interviews, went to the Clueless Quote Along and several other special programming events.

I knew that there was food on the menu but I was expecting microwave pizza and sliders, nothing spectacular. But I opened it up and saw things like a burger with olive tapenade, pizza with brussel sprouts on it. And those shakes, that is one of the toughest parts of this job, avoiding the shakes — whether they are alcoholic or virgin — they are tantalizing. I just tell everyone that it’s quantity control, really. I need to try them. I really didn’t think it was going to be food of that caliber; there was obviously a lot of care that went into the preparation. I think I came back from that trip weighing about 10 pounds more.

I finished my four days in Austin and a week or so later I got the call that I got the job as Creative Manager at Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Then I had to go back to Austin for a month and trained in the programming department, and learned the intricacies of their schedules. When I wasn’t in the office I was in the theater — watching something, assisting with the Quote Alongs, watching a show.

They are thorough, they don’t mess around with hiring. At first I thought it was strange that they would go through so many interviews, but by the end of it I felt so knowledgeable about the company’s history, the mission, what kind of people they count on to make this happen, and what goes into all of the events. It really gave me the sense that these are people that know what’s going on. I can trust them, they can trust me. I really felt like I knew what I was getting myself into.

I came back in October of 2013 and we opened right before Thanksgiving in 2013. You always hope there is a period of adjustment and you’ll build up to bigger and bigger business. We were open for 4 days and then we got the Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen in the same weekend. We all had to get up to speed quickly! There was so much education to do in the market because people had ideas of what the experience was going to be like — some people were wildly off and others were close. As people familiarized themselves with what Alamo is all about it became much easier. The first few days we were open I think I had to give the “what is Alamo and how is this going to work today” speech 96 times.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

We are currently gearing up for the summer, which starts very early because the new Avengers movie is May 1st. It used to be that summer started Memorial Day but it just keeps moving up and up. As far as special events in the summer, we are looking to tie into Kalamazoo Pride in June, but that’s still in the formative stages. We have had such ridiculous success with the Harry Potter series and the James Bond series that next we are doing the Lord of the Rings films and there will probably be a marathon as well.

In April we are participating in Dining Out For Life, which we also did last year. This year we are doing a dinner party on Sunday April 26th at 4:00pm. The movie is “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” which is a slapstick comedy spectacular from 1963, which is so much fun to watch on the big screen. It has almost anybody who was anybody that was in comedy at that time, so you have Buddy Hackett, Spencer Tracy, the Three Stooges, all sorts of stuff. I actually have people that are flying in from out of state for it — they just said that they love the movie and love the food. We are going to donate proceeds from that event for Dining Out for Life. Last year we did movies on the same day as Dining Out for Life and there were people that wanted to come see our shows, but they were working somewhere that was also doing Dining Out for Life or they were attending another event, so we we decided to do ours a different day.

Also, the Eternally 80s series continues through the end of April and we are showing a wide assortment of 80s stuff. We have Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, Better Off Dead, Flashdance is coming — get your torn sweatshirt out. We are doing a Dance-a-Long for Footloose, you really can dance if you want to; there’s lots of room in the front.


What movie are you most looking forward to seeing in 2015?

I’m very curious to see the next Avengers, I liked the first one so much. But I like to be surprised. I really enjoy going to film festivals and seeing things that I don’t know much about and discovering them. I go to the Toronto International film festival every September and last year in Toronto I saw Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Wild, The Last Five Years, all of the stuff that, since then, we wound up playing. I really love to go and discover stuff and I suspect there will be a lot of that in the next few months.

Surprises are the best though, like last summer I knew nothing about Snowpiercer, but we had people who had bought it through iTunes and they kept coming to us saying “is there any way you would play this, theatrically?” I thought, let’s take a shot. I tend to try to not get overly excited about things are coming up because I’ve gone in with enormous expectations and been disappointed. Snowpiercer did not disappoint.

There are many interesting projects on the horizon. I tend to get more interested in original films, I’m not going to be the person saying “Oh my gosh, they are doing another version of Friday The 13th”. I’m sorry, but Hot Tub Time Machine 2? I’m excited when you have somebody like Christopher Nolan or Wes Anderson, someone who comes up with an original screenplay and takes us someplace we haven’t been before. That being said I do have a ticket to Pitch Perfect 2.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo always seems to be changing, usually for the better. We have so many people here who are not only supportive of, but really invested in the arts and culture in our community. People want to keep our wonderful array of musical organizations, theater groups, the KIA, the amazing art institutions that you have at Western and K College. There are so many people who actively support the work that is being done there, which is not the case in every town. There are many places that are bigger than Kalamazoo that don’t have that kind of dedication.

When I was working for the Kalamazoo Gazette and attending conferences other journalists would ask, “What do you do, where are you from?” I would tell them that I am an Arts Reporter and Editor in Kalamazoo. And they would laugh and say “Oh Kalamazoo, I bet that’s a real flourishing place for the arts…” So I would tell them, listen, we have one of the top three community theaters in the nation with the Kalamazoo Civic, we have the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, KIA, one university, a private college, KVCC — all of which are active in the arts. We have the Kalamazoo Film Society, the wonderful work that Wellspring Theater has done, and the Kalamazoo Ballet Theater.

We never have a shortage of things to report on about the arts in Kalamazoo. All of sudden they would say, “Oh gosh, I had no idea.” We’ve had so much that has gone on as far as the incredible education to the arts program. I’ve been a judge for the Kalamazoo Teen Film Festival, the quality of that since it’s been around is impressive; there is great work from young filmmakers around here. You see musicians who train at Western or come up through the Civic’s Youth Theater and wind up going on to Broadway, film, or television. Alex Koch, whom I worked with in Crawlspace Eviction, for example, is now on Under the Dome — it happens. A lot of that has to do with the fact that this is just such a tremendous environment for the arts and that is one of the things that never changes; I’ve lived here three different times in my life and that’s never changed.


What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

I would love to see a downtown environment that is more conducive to people living in downtown. They have built a lot of luxury apartments and condos — lovely. But I’d love to see places downtown where those that are graduating from Western, K College, or KVCC could actually move downtown without having to buy a car and drive every time you need groceries, clothing, etc. We have a lot of wonderful things downtown, but we could really use more in the areas of affordably priced apartments and more services that people can take advantage of. We don’t have some of the day-to-day essentials that you need to live in an urban area without taking a car or taking a bus.

I would also love to see better transportation around the area. The bus is great, but it doesn’t run all of the time. We have employees here at Alamo who can’t work when the bus isn’t running. It would be great to have better service between Kalamazoo and Portage — shuttles, trolleys, whatever that may be. I live in Portage and I have to drive down here everyday, I didn’t have the luxury to say, “Oh, I just jump on the bus and do my reading when I go to work.” It’s 8 miles, so not far, but still it would be really wonderful to be able to have the kind of service where people who live in Kalamazoo could run out to Portage and vice versa, not have to worry about where do I park, is the ramp going to be full today, is construction going on, etc. There are a lot of wonderful things about this city and if the generous genie gave me three wishes they would be all about making it more accessible, making it easier to get downtown and stay downtown.

I wish there was more support for local business. It broke my heart when Cupcake Zoo closed. Not just because I love their cupcakes, but I felt like a business like that, there should be some sort of support from the downtown business community to make sure that a business like that that has wonderful products, that it can have some time to find and build an audience, and they didn’t really have that. There have been several other places that have come and gone too quickly.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Black. Very black. Most people do not like it when I make coffee, because I am told I make it very European. I put a shot of espresso in the bottom. I love Starbucks Komoto Dragon brand. The first time I went to England, I was like, I love the country, I love the coffee. I had finally reconnected with the coffee I needed.


Do you have a go-to spot in Kalamazoo?

Other than this?? I love Zazios, I love Fandango — their tapas plates are fantastic and their Sangrias with the peach juice and champagne, I could swim in them. I love Irving’s too; you can never go wrong. If I am not eating our food I am getting something from Irvings; I can’t believe how terrific they are. I am also a big cheerleader for Earth Fare.


When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

You will laugh. My earliest career ambition was to be an Acrobat because I thought it had something to do with Batman. Then someone put that dream in perspective when they told me what it actually was. My first serious career goal was to host movies on TV. In the place that I grew up, Columbus, Ohio, we had this guy named Jerry Beck who hosted All Night Theater on Channel 4. I use to pretend I went to bed then sneak out and turn on All Night Theater. I thought Jerry Beck had the most amazing job. That is one of the ways I got into film and film history. People use to laugh, but who’s laughing now?

I realized there wasn’t a huge demand for TV movie hosts so I decided I was going into psychology — because that’s a natural transition. Then I got hired by the GR Press when I was 16 to write for a weekly section they did about teen journalism and I had no journalism background at all but I loved it and people loved what I wrote so psychology got left in the dust — people were paying me to write stories! I still want to be a novelist; I have two books on Amazon, but I have not had any fiction that has been published.


What celebrity would play you in a movie?

I would be very open to Edward Norton, he is a great actor and the more glamorous version of me, plus such a great actor. If Channing Tatum wanted to tackle the role, I’d be open to that. I think we are very much alike, I haven’t told anyone about my former career as a male stripper, but as soon as I can make up a story about it I will.

Matt Damon could play me, I would endorse that. Andrew Garfield is nice, too. I got to hold the door for him at Starbucks one time.


If a James Sanford Movie Marathon aired to Alamo Drafthouse, what 4 movies would play?

I dread questions like this. I dread them. I don’t have to worry about funding, right? Oh ok, well that would amazing.

I would show —
1. Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face from 1933, which I have always wanted to see on the big screen. A heart-warming story about a small-town tramp that sleeps her way to the top. It’s such a good movie. It’s so sleazy, which is why it’s so great.

2. There is a movie with Meryl Streep from 1985 called Plenty, based on a David Hare play and I think it’s one of her best performances. It’s sort of a blueprint for her Margaret Thatcher role in The Iron Lady and I actually think she is better in Plenty. And it’s got an amazing cast. I would want to show that so people can rediscover it.

3. I would love to show Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, which I have been trying to get scheduled here. The only time I ever saw it on screen was as 16mm in film class. That is a powerhouse movie.

4. For a little bit of fun, The Monkees did a movie called Head that is co-written by Jack Nicholson. It’s one that we can’t show because of legal entanglements right now, but that would be an absolute blast to subject an audience to. It’s completely psychedelic, lots of black-outs and many opportunities to sing.


James, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with James and Alamo Drafthouse on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.