Austin Movie Theater Creates a Viral Sensation With “Don’t Text” PSA

Iconic Austin theater Alamo Drafthouse is making a big splash online and in national media this week with a recently debuted PSA about texting during movies. In the video, we hear an unlettered, swear-filled voicemail the Alamo received from an angry customer who was ejected from the theater (without a refund) after ignoring repeated warnings about using her phone during a film.

The video and its corresponding blog post have generated thousands of comments and racked in a couple of million views on YouTube (uncensored and censored versions combined). The two-minute clip is well on its way to viral video fame, fueled by mainstream mentions everywhere from CNET to CNN, where Anderson Cooper said Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his crusade against rude moviegoers.

What can brands learn from Alamo Drafthouse’s viral sensation, and what are the pros and cons of such a campaign? We had a brief roundtable to discuss.

Eric: Tim League’s Austin-born combo of beer, food, film and creative events is a popular one — Entertainment Weekly, Wired and Fandango call it one of the best theaters in the world — particularly with film fanatics, no doubt in part thanks to League’s zero tolerance policy on talking and texting. But, even if this customer acted like a jerk, does the PSA go too far by having a laugh at her expense?

Brittany: Girlfriend probably should have saved the drunk dial for an ex-boyfriend, but it’s within Alamo’s legal rights to use it. This is not the first provocative or explicit no-talking warning Alamo has put together, and I think it’s perfectly in line with its edgy, anti-corporate brand.

Eric: The way I see it is that League is a bit of hero to many film buffs. And not just for his outspokenness or his theaters’ Austin attitude. Besides creating the Alamo, he also heads a nonprofit called the American Genre Film Archive that preserves and exhibits the largest genre film archive in the world. The man obviously loves film and has a reverence for the movie-going experience that much of the general public doesn’t share. His stance is simple: If you don’t feel this way, don’t come to the Alamo.

As for the woman in the voicemail, she remains anonymous unless she decides to try to raise a stink about the video, so I don’t feel too bad for her. Besides, anyone who has ever worked a day in their life has dealt with a nightmare customer like this and can take some satisfaction in seeing her get publicly taken to task. Just because you give someone your money doesn’t mean you have the right to behave like a foul-mouthed brat. The Alamo makes it very clear before every movie that if you talk you’ll be kicked out — without a refund.

Catherine (our resident goody two-shoes): Let me first say that, as a longtime Austinite, I am a huge fan of Alamo Drafthouse and their “Keep Austin Weird” attitude. However, while I completely understand that Alamo has every right to use the caller’s voice message for their most recent PSA, does it really mean that they should have? My opinion is no, they shouldn’t have. Don’t get me wrong — I think the PSA is funny, and I laughed (like when you laugh at someone falling down or tripping). But, the goody two-shoes in me thinks it was a little mean spirited.

Eric: So we’ve got some differing opinions here about the video, but what should one consider before attempting to launch a potentially divisive campaign like this?

Caitlin: You have to weigh the positive and negative aspects to your message to make the best decision.

First, what was the Alamo Drafthouse’s message? That they’re the best movie theater to patron because not only do they promote a unique, “Keep Austin Weird” atmosphere, but they’re also serious about eliminating inconsiderate behavior during films.

Second, how can they prove that they’re serious? By using real world examples. The drunken voicemail was like a pot of gold landing in their lap. How could they not use it? Not only does the inebriated caller sound incredibly uneducated — “the Magnited States of America” takes offense — but she also severs any shred of sympathy we could feel for her with a rude, expletive-filled rant against a beloved local business.

Next, you have to weigh the positives and negatives. We’ll start with the negative. Some people might still feel sorry for her. It isn’t easy watching everyone turn on someone else, even if they deserve it (e.g., Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Anthony Weiner). Now, the positive. As I said before, most people can’t identify with her voicemail and have most likely lost respect for her, so using it is a comedic way to drive home the point that you are serious about your message.

As for the outcome? I’d say this anti-theater-texting PSA was quite successful due to the national media coverage and its viral web presence. If the Alamo Drafthouse weighed the positive and negative, I’m sure they decided that way more people would find it hilarious than mean. Though, we’re glad to have people on our team who are too kind-hearted to find the voicemail’s use appropriate. (We love you, Catherine!)

Valerie: I thought the video was funny, but I’m seeing something from looking at the comments on the Alamo’s blog post that we’ve not touched on yet. Tim League took a bold move opening the company up to criticism — not only from folks who don’t agree with the theater’s policy or think this is bad customer service or unnecessarily shaming of the girl, but also from folks who haven’t had this experience at Alamo theaters. Many commenters on the Alamo’s site complain of being bothered by noisy patrons and telling management only to have management not respond as promised. It was gutsy from that perspective too because they had to be ready to go into crisis response PR mode.

Eric: Well, no matter your opinion on the video, it’s hard to deny it’s a hit. The Alamo Drafthouse posted the video online last week and began showing it before screenings last weekend, and its view count is skyrocketing. For a video that probably took 30 minutes to make, that’s some great exposure.