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Best Independent Movie Theaters in America

by: Hillary Sussman


Disclaimer: I used to work at an Alamo Drafthouse and was incredibly spoiled because I could kick out other moviegoers for talking and texting. I could eat goat cheese pizza and drink beer alone in an empty dark room (every young girl’s fantasy), and, most importantly, I could see unlimited movies for free. Since leaving, I’ve had to travel into the depths of hell (AMC and Regal, for example) and be exposed to patrons TALKING and TEXTING in the theatre, paying $7 for popcorn, and having limited access to indie films. For instance, this summer, I couldn’t find a theatre playing The Wolfpack, so I had to settle for Jurassic World. Resulting in me spending two and a half hours staring inquisitively at Bryce Dallas Howard running through the Hawaiian jungle in stilettos. So I figured I’d do some chicken soup for the soul-searching and find independent movie theaters in America that are trying to keep cinema alive and accessible to the people.


Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (Austin, TX)

In 1997, Tim League (CEO and Founder) opened the first Alamo Drafthouse with his wife, and fellow movie-lover, in Austin, TX. The once single screen theater has grown and franchised, now boasting 20 locations in the United States, with more to come! Other amazing things about this chain: they don’t allow unaccompanied minors in, have a zero-tolerance policy for talking and texting, support local breweries, aim to become a part of the community, and want to preserve film. If you can argue with any points of that mission statement, you’re a monster and we have nothing more to discuss.


Music Box Theatre (Chicago, IL)

Between 1977 and 1983, the Music Box was used sporadically for Spanish language films, Arabic language films, and lastly porno films. In 1983, management reopened the theater with a format of double feature revival and repertory films. Eventually, foreign films were reinstated, and independent and cult films were added to the roster. The Music Box Theatre now presents a yearly average of 300 films and ha been called “Chicago’s year-round film festival”. It is independently owned and operated by the Southport Music Box Corporation and through its Music Box Films division, also distributes foreign and independent films in the theatrical, DVD and television markets.


Angelika Film Center (New York, NY)

The original Angelika Film Center & Café (the cafe is on ground level, making you descend into the theaters themselves) opened in New York City's Soho district in 1989. The Angelika plays an impressive and diverse mix of independent films, and since its opening, has become the most successful and recognized arthouse in the United States. They even have their own newsletter, “InFocus”, which contains weekly showtimes, film & event info, special offers & discounts, and free screening invitations.


Nitehawk Cinema (Brooklyn, NY)

Nitehawk Cinema, like Alamo, is doing it right by offering repertory film programming along with food and local beverage service in the theaters. Nitehawk’s team creates specialty dishes and drinks inspired by the films they’re showing. Their unique Signature Series programming includes LIVE + SOUND + CINEMA, Country Brunchin’, Nitehawk Naughties, Nitehawk Nasties, The Works, Music Driven, and Art Seen. The Cinema also presents thirty-minute “Pre-shows” tailored to each movie that feature local filmmakers and clips curated by their cinema department.


SIFF Cinema (Seattle, WA)

Founded in 1976, SIFF is Seattle's leading year-round film organization that brings the best in international and independent film to the Seattle area with the Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF Cinema, and SIFF Education. SIFF Cinema has three venues in Seattle’s Kings County, with each one featuring new film releases, special events, 2K and 4K digital projection, Dolby digital 3D, and 35mm archival capabilities. Each theater is designed for intimate film experiences and screens a wide array of independent film, foreign language cinema, documentaries and restored classics.


 AFI Silver Theatre (Silver Springs, MD)

Created by the citizens of Montgomery County, Maryland, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center is dedicated to artists, educators and audiences of the world. It presents the richness of American and world cinema, exploring all forms of the moving image in the digital era and seeing the screen itself as a source of literacy, learning and vision for the future. The exceptional technical facilities of the AFI Silver include film formats from 16 to 70mm, high-definition digital cinema video projection, broadcast quality video recording and distance learning capabilities via satellite, fiber and the Internet. 


Castro Theater (San Francisco, CA)

From 1922 until 1976 the Castro showed first and second run mainstream films. Then, in 1976, the theatre was leased to Surf Theaters and later to Blumenfeld Theaters. These two chains proceeded to change the exhibition format to repertory cinema, foreign films, film festivals and special first run presentations. When the last lease expired on July 31, 2001, the Nasser family again took over operation of the theatre. Under their direction substantial improvements were made to enhance and preserve the beauty and functionality of the theatre. The facade is stunning enough, but the auditorium really takes the breath away. The huge, chandelier-ceilinged 1407-seater space is luxurious and ornate. In front of the screen-shielding velvet red curtains sits a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that is played by a tuxedo-sporting chap pre-film, before sinking dramatically into the floor.