A baby tiger cuddles in the arms of a chimp. Two bear cubs climb onto a hammock and flip over. Baby elephants splash in an inflatable pool. The unbearably cute footage on the screen is part of the Alamo Drafthouse's signature preshow, which on a recent afternoon got moviegoers at the Lake Creek theater ready to watch the Matt Damon movie "We Bought a Zoo."
From the nostalgic to the weird, the preshows compile rare video clips and expose Alamo Drafthouse audiences to the obscure and ridiculous. But who comes up with this stuff?
Meet Tommy Swenson. He's the mastermind behind, among other things, the preshows and the monthly montages that highlight the Drafthouse's upcoming shows and events.
Though surfing the Internet and laughing at hilarious videos at the office might be considered slacking off at most jobs, for Swenson it's all in day's work. Swenson joined the Alamo Drafthouse about two years ago as a part-time video editor. Soon, he persuaded the management to make his job a full-time position with added video responsibilities. But the 45-minute preshows remain his main focus.
The preshow concept has evolved under Swenson. In the past, preshows felt "like a video mix tape, more like video wallpaper of interesting stuff," Swenson said. Now, he tries to tailor the preshow specifically to the feature film.
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"Sometimes it's really obvious how it ties in, and other times only I realize how it's connected," Swenson, 27, said.
Offbeat preshows have long been an integral part of the movie theater's identity. Before Swenson there was Lars Nilsen, now a programmer with the Alamo Drafthouse.
"When I first started attending shows at the (original) Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado, the preshow was more or less long-form videos rather than brief clips," said Nilsen, who recruited Swenson to succeed him in 2010.
While the cinema industry saw ticket sales dip in the U.S. in 2011, the Alamo Drafthouse's ticket sales rose 2.6 percent. The preshows and special events help to engage audiences and build a loyal customer base, according to spokesperson Brandy Fons.
Preshows appear in lieu of advertisements.
"It feels so soulless to go (into another movie theater) after you've paid an exorbitant ticket price and then just be advertised at in a captive space," Swenson said. "Our content here is designed to be constantly engaging."
Swenson creates a unique preshow playlist for every movie that the theater shows — which can be 25-30 a week because of the specialty programming. We recently caught up with Swenson to ask him more about his labor of love.
American-Statesman: You seem to have such a fun job. How did you get it?
Tommy Swenson: Well, when they announced that VHS tapes weren't going to be manufactured anymore, a friend and I made a tribute to videotape and called it "Viva VHS." We edited a clip show, the best clips that are only on VHS, stuff that you can't find anywhere else. And we did that in Seattle, and when I moved down here I asked if this could show at the Drafthouse. It went over really well, and Lars liked it a lot. Based on "Viva VHS" they asked me if I wanted to do the preshows.
So where do you find your video clips?
From every conceivable, possible source. Definitely the video store is my No. 1 place. My job couldn't exist if all the video stores in our town went out of business. Suddenly the material available to me would become so limited. But besides the video stores, just all over the Internet.
A lot of people just send me clips and links. Every once in a while we put out a call to customers to give us suggestions. A lot of people bring in weird old tapes that they found and have something funny on them.
We also have a lot of partnerships with people like the Everything is Terrible and CollegeHumor, which are both two funny video websites.
Where does your love of movies, video stores and VHS tapes come from?
I just always have been into movies, and from the youngest age I said, "When I turn 16 I want to work in a video store so I can watch as many movies as I want." I come from Seattle, and the biggest video store in Seattle is called Scarecrow Video. It's actually the biggest video store anywhere in the world. It's got (more than) 110,000 individual titles, which is enormous. But it turned out I couldn't get a job there until I was 18 because they have porno. But I kept going back, and finally they said, "OK, today is your 18th birthday, you're hired." And I watched so many movies.
I think that background of growing up around videos really made me appreciate what a unique resource a video store is because so much of that stuff is just completely unavailable anywhere else. Stuff that came out on VHS 20 years ago no one cares about preserving — the only place you can still find it is in a video store. So I'm pretty passionate about video stores and preserving videotape.
What inspires your preshows?
I try to make the experience immersive, so when you come into the theater the preshow slowly starts to draw you into the world of the movie. My biggest inspiration is the way a line works at Disneyland. When you are in the line, all the architecture around you is bringing you into that world, and there's videos set up that start telling you the story of the ride you're about to go on.
The best preshows reach a little bit of that, but I try to draw you into the theme of the movie in the same way that a theme park will. So that coming here feels like an experience, an event and a unique place.
What are some of your favorite preshows?
Definitely "The Muppets" was one that was pure joy to put together. There are so many old Muppets clips to draw upon, and they all make you cry with happiness. Muppets are so heartwarming.
I also really liked doing the "Captain America" one because I got to go back and get some World War II propaganda footage. I intercut that with old Marvel comics cartoons. That was really fun.
Has the job changed the way you watch movies?
Yeah, in some ways. And it's a frustration. You can't get out of that mindset, where it's like "Pause this (because) I need to go put it on my computer and capture the scene." So it changes the way you think about movies, perhaps not for the best. It makes them more utilitarian, a source for my job rather than an experience.
Do you ever sneak into the theater during the preshows to gauge audience reaction?
Yeah, I do it a lot. It's very instructive. Clips that I watch on my own that I think are the best sometimes fall flat in the theater; everyone is just talking and eating. And other times I add something that I think (is just kind of) funny, and everyone just cracks up. You can only predict audience reactions so much.
Sometimes it's painful to sit in there and watch people talk over (the preshow) but the best thing is when I'm watching the preshow and people are actually vocally dismayed when the movie starts and the preshow stops. That always makes me feel like I did a good job.