December 2, 2023

Gabbing Geek

Your online community for all things geeky.

Exclusive: Go Behind The Scenes Of The Drafthouse’s Preshow!

This is the Alamo Drafthouse, the greatest movie theater in the world. Especially this exact one just a few miles from Ryan's house.
This is the Alamo Drafthouse, the greatest movie theater in the world. Especially this exact one just a few miles from Ryan’s house.

The Alamo Drafthouse is the best theater chain in the country in large part because of their preshow entertainment.  The fact that you can order food and drinks from your reserved-ahead-of-time-seat is great, of course, and the special events they host from quote-a-longs to fan festivals are always outstanding.  But the clips and commercials and trailers and funny videos that entertain you before the movie starts is what proves the Drafthouse loves movies.  Other big theater chains cram commercials down your throats with songs about soda and the latest ABC Family show that will be cancelled in its first season–not the Drafthouse.

The Drafthouse preshow not only sets the stage for the upcoming film but also sets the theater apart from all others.  So I was thrilled recently to be electronically introduced to Laird Jimenez (follow him on Twitter!), the man responsible for putting together these amazing shows.  Laird agreed to take time from his busy schedule to answer a few Gabbing Geek questions so head after the jump to peek behind the scenes on how it’s all put together!

How did you get started working for the Drafthouse and creating the preshows?

I lived in Seattle for about a decade and most of that time I worked for Scarecrow Video, the video store with the largest inventory in the world. I was already movie obsessed, and that sent me into rabbit holes I didn’t even know existed. While working there I met future Drafthouse programmers Tommy Swenson and Zack Carlson. Tommy moved to Austin in 2010 and took over making preshows. After some time he asked me to start to providing him with clips since I had access to Scarecrow’s library and video editing know how (my undergraduate degree from University of Georgia is in Digital Video Production). In 2013 Tommy was given the position of Ritz head programmer and the preshow editor position opened up. At this point I had received an MLIS degree from University of Washington and was working in the archive services division of Deluxe (the giant post-production company). I was pretty bored with what I was doing so I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I started in May of 2013.

Do you get to see the movies first or do you find that gets in the way of creating the preshow?

I don’t get to see the movies first, generally, but I do like knowing some basic details to give me an angle or theme. This has backfired on me before, because some people have thought I had spoilers in the preshow when I, in fact, hadn’t seen the movie but was just including trailers/clips from movies within the genre.

What’s an example of someone accusing you of spoiling the movie?    [WARNING, THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION HAS GONE GIRL SPOILERS–BUT WHY HAVEN’T YOU SEEN GONE GIRL?]

It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling, but I included the trailer for the classic film noir LAURA in the preshow for GONE GIRL.  LAURA is about a woman who fakes her own disappearance as is GONE GIRL. I didn’t know this when I put it in the preshow. I just knew GONE GIRL was about a missing woman and so is LAURA, so it seemed thematically appropriate.

What is your process for creating the preshows? 

I generally watch the trailer for the movie, then read the summary on IMDB, and start thinking of one or two overriding themes to hammer on: maybe it’s dogs, maybe it’s cars, maybe it’s something more specific, maybe it’s the stars of the movie. Once I have some ideas I have a number of resources to pull from: There’s a fairly robust archive of clips that were collected over the years by Lars Nilsen (the first preshow editor and one of the original Alamo programmers) and Tommy, but I’m trying to move away from those more and more because they’re played out and the video quality tends to be poor (for a number of reasons). Then I utilize our two great video stores we have here in Austin: Vulcan and I Luv Video. Between the two of them, they have four locations, and I can find 90% of what I’m looking for. I still have friends at Scarecrow Video too, who are able to hook me up with copies of some of the more rare items I’m looking for. After that, there’s the whole of the internet, probably the greatest resource of them all in terms of variety, but obviously, quality varies.

Once I have clips captured and labelled/tagged, I use Adobe Premiere to arrange and format the clips. This process has changed quite a bit from when I started. It used to be nothing but what are known as “butt cuts,” clips dropped into a timeline and placed right next to each other. It was the Wild West, and we just used whatever we wanted. As we expand and become more and more in the public eye, we are trying to adopt more of a fair use model. If you saw INSIDE OUT or TERMINATOR GENISYS at a Drafthouse you may have noticed way more text on screen, basically video essays with commentary on clips. This, obviously, takes more time and research, but it’s something you’ll see more of in the future. You may have also noticed more cards/text in preshows introducing clips announcing the theme as it relates to the feature. I’ve had to learn a lot more Photoshop and After Effects this year to try and make these components more visually appealing.

One aspect of the process that may be boring to hear about for most people, but is such a large part of it, is the formatting and transcoding of preshows to get them on movie screens. As noted above, the clips come from all over so they have to be resized to full HD, the audio has to be leveled off so its relatively consistent from clip to clip, and in some cases, I do a little bit of video level adjustments (especially to videos taken from the internet) so they don’t look too pixelated/digital on the movie screen. Once this is all done in Premiere, I export a video file that has to be repackaged as a DCP (digital cinema package) file, which is what the projectors read, and upload it to a central server for our projection teams to pull from. A half-hour preshow alone takes about 30 minutes to an hour to export from Premiere and another hour to an hour and a half to convert to DCP, so the processing time alone is such a large part of the process and limits how many I can complete in any given day.

Because it’s super geeky, and that’s what we do, how big is an average preshow DCP file in terms of gigs/terabytes?  

Average file size for a 30 minute preshow is around 12 Gigs. We deliver them in segments (two five-minute, two ten-minute) so that projection team can drop part of the preshow from a projector playlist if they need to for time reasons.

Now that there are Drafthouses around the country, do you create preshows for all the theaters or just some of them?  If you create them all, can local theaters modify the preshows or put in requests for specific content?

First run titles such as Fantastic Four are all created by me for Drafthouses across the country. There are some national repertory shows that I don’t make the preshows for (Girlie Night, Action Pack Quote and Sing-A-Longs, etc), but for the most part if it’s a title that’s playing at multiple locations, I make the preshow. For one-off shows that are only playing in one location, I have an archive of generic preshows by genre and I make new generic preshows every quarter for venues to use. As to the customization question: DCP files can’t be edited, and most of the venues don’t have the ability to make DCP files, so there’s not really a way to customize. This is probably for the better because by keeping it central we can control the quality and content. I’d imagine if someone put something on screen that was inappropriate I would still have to answer for it. Maybe some venues are doing this, and I’ve just never heard about it!

That said, some of the creative managers at other locations will make their own preshows for one-off special shows or get someone locally to make a preshow. These are still sent to me though to approve and format for projection.

What was the first preshow you created?  Looking back on it, what changes would you have made?

I think, but can’t remember exactly, that it was STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What is your favorite overall preshow ever created?

Strangely enough, probably that STAR TREK preshow or the MAN OF STEEL preshow. I knew those were the big titles that would be among the first I had to make when I started, so I had weeks and weeks of lead time to start gathering clips and start making more complex edits. Then, like a miracle, it just so happened that two of my coworkers had girlfriends with family videos from a now defunct interactive Star Trek feature at a Paramount theme park. It was a perfect mix of embarrassing, awkward and hilarious. My workload is such that I can’t spend as much time on any individual preshow as I did on these two, and so far, there hasn’t been any other happy coincidences quite so perfect.

That old Star Trek video–do you mean the show they used to do at Universal Studios?  I still have a video of that as well–I was the only one willing to volunteer to get water dumped on me (in the “radiation chamber”) so I remember that well.

It was from a theme park, yes, but I’m not sure which one. The video begins with Shatner and Nimoy arguing about who the star of the show is, then there’s a dramatic section about a stand-off between the Enterprise and a Klingon fleet in which the “civilians” get to give commands and interact with the pre-recorded stars. There’s a lot of shouting and photon firing.

This isn’t a question, just a comment–you listed some of your favorite preshows but I have to say my favorite preshow you ever did was for BIG HERO 6.  Those old robot clips were gold, especially the gas station attendant that started as an amusing look at the future and quickly turned into a biting parody of technology.  And I’m not just saying that because I saw that particular preshow four times.  🙂

Thanks! I love love love that stuff! I really hope that some kids got into retro-futurism too. I love how much people thought about technology and the future during the Space Age. It was such a part of pop culture, and I think we take things for granted now.

Speaking of BIG HERO 6, the last time I saw it was to see THE FORCE AWAKENS teaser and I still remember the trailer followed by the card “Let’s see that again.” Did it give you goosebumps to write that card knowing that crowds would go nuts for it?

That was Tim League’s doing if I remember correctly, but I will admit that trailer hits me in a very primal way that’s difficult to explain. Good to know the prequel trilogy didn’t completely kill my inner-child!

What’s your favorite single clip ever included in a preshow?

I made a supercut of Supermen from around the world from different eras for MAN OF STEEL that is my favorite original clip. As for my favorite clip from an existing property…I’m pretty into the Brazilian Marvel superhero dance group and “Solid Potato Salad” a contortionist dance number from an old WB musical.

What was the hardest preshow you ever had to create and what made it so difficult?

I don’t think there’s a single one I can think of, but movies with controversial/depressing topics are tough like ACT OF KILLING or 12 YEARS A SLAVE. I tend to just avoid having any theme in those preshows. Movies marketed [to] teen girls are tough for me to imagine the audience too. I’m about as far as you could get from a teen girl. Thankfully, I have great coworkers who are happy to help me with ideas for movies that stump me.

Have you already started working on the preshow for Episode VII?

Not officially, but I’ve got my feelers out and I’ve been flagging anything STAR WARS related I see. I want this one to be very special, so I plan on dedicating extra time and effort into making it great. STAR WARS was the movie that got me into movies, and the original trilogy was such a massive part of my childhood. I don’t know what the other aspects of the Drafthouse presentation of the new STAR WARS will be, but I can pretty much guarantee Drafthouse will be the place to see it.

On the Episode VII preshow front, if you’re at all interested in using the Gabbing Geek trailer reaction video then, as the owner, I give you full permission.  🙂

Thanks! There will be many many STAR WARS things (we hope, Disney permission pending) surrounding the release, so I’ll need as much ammo as I can get.

We can’t wait!  Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!