The Alamo's Action Man
Programmer Greg MacLennan on the world's most ridiculous job
By Richard Whittaker, 6:17PM, Sun. Oct. 13, 2013
If you're a regular at the Alamo Drafthouse, you've probably seen one man's work more than any other. No, not Roth or Tarantino or Meyer. It's Greg MacLennan, the guy that edits together the video montages before every screening.
Ask MacLennan about his job as a programmer and video editor for the Alamo, and he's still a little bit shocked that it's a real thing that people get to do, and be paid for.
A former video store employee ("I was a chain kid. I work with all the guys who are like, 'Scarecrow! I Luv!' and I'm like, 'Blockbuster ...') turned bored accounting and HR drone, MacLennan started his "pants dropping career" by complete accident. One SXSW, he was in the same room with Alamo head honcho Tim League. The pair had met a couple of times and so "Tim was like, 'I know that face,' so he walked over to me, and he was with Henri Mazza, the creative director of the Drafthouse at the time." They ended up at the Austin Chronicle film party, when they ran out of booze. MacLennan recalls telling the pair, "I can get more drinks tickets. 'Oh, how can you do that?' Well, I can do this Scottish accent pretty convincingly, and everybody who met me said, 'Welcome to Texas, have a drink ticket.'"
Thus was born a beautiful friendship, and it soon became an unlikely job interview. "Eventually Henri said, 'How do you feel about standing on a stage and talking to people?' and I said, 'petrified.' He said, 'how do you feel about doing it for money?' and I said, 'compromised'" He started hosting quotealongs and singalongs "and it just got to the point where I was doing them so frequently that I said, 'You are aware that it might be cheaper for your company to pay me a full time salary?"
Three years ago, he managed to become a programmer, a job he calls "ridiculous, and I love it. I get where I go from throwing myself head over heels hard into whatever I'm doing, and then the company's been nice enough to change direction for me along the way."
The biggest monthly challenge may be putting together the monthly 'coming soon' montages, where the Drafthouse celebrates and spotlights the big upcoming films and events. The programmers gather, select the eight or nine core titles, then it's up to MacLennan to make some kind of gestalt sense of the melange. "I go, 'alright, all 20 hours of you, where are those core 90 seconds that make sense of all of you?"
It can be a painful process, trying to find shots that will connect Mary Poppins and I Spit on Your Grave into a meaningful montage. "After the third or fourth movie, I'll go, 'you know what's really weird about these movies? There's a scene where everybody's snapping, or there's a scene where everone's eating a sandwich.' The strangest, most random thing, but if I cut between all these things, people will go, 'wait, what?' Then they go, 'I want to see all those movies, because there's a through line, even if it's the most stupid one.'"
The toughest part sometimes can be finding the music. Often it's "what makes sense, this music works for that." Sometimes it's just a musician he likes (that's how Sam Cooke's "Shake" made the cut one month.) What astonishes MacLennan the most is that bands actually agree to let him use their stuff. "It used to be that I would spend half my day going, 'hey, local band, send me your music,'" he said. "Then I would spend half of my day listening to library music going, 'what can I buy for $5?'" That's why old football fans might recognize the Summer of '83 montage music as the old sting that the NFL used in 1982 to cue up the highlights.
But now the montages are established enough that acts like The Black Angels and Matt & Kim are letting him use their work for free. "I'll go, 'seriously? I've literally been editing to library music. Come to the theater as often as you like.'"
Recently, MacLennan has become famous for his marathon homages to action heroes like the Stallone Zone, Baymaggedon, and the upcoming tribute to Nicolas Cage. The real work there is hunting down some realitively obscure prints. "A lot of the times, those prints are findable, then you have to start banging on an prison pipe, asking, 'who's got one?'" Sometimes it's a real challenge, and sometimes it's a real surprise what's hard to hunt down, like one classic Kurt Russell movie he wanted for Russellmania "There's no prints of Escape from New York," he said, "and all of them are scorched red. That's why ours was a little washed out, a little beat up, but it's the only 35mm print you can watch."
Another tough one was the oft-ignored Joe Vs. the Volcano, aka the other-other-other Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks film. MacLennand called it "one of my top ten films of all time. I think it's one of the strangest, most layered films that nobody's watched the right way." He spent a year trying to track it down, even almost buying his own print, and finally the Drafthouse's dedicated print finder delivered. "He emailed me a year later and said, 'Guess what I found? Joe vs. The Volcano.' I'm going to show the shit out of that movie."
The single toughest print? Jean Claude van Damme's 1990 French Foreign Legion smash fest Lionheart. "I was so adamant about showing that as part of Van Dammage," he said, but there were no prints to be found. After six months, he'd given up, "and then the second-to-last week, someone said, 'I've found you Lionheart.' 'No, you didn't!'"
Does there ever come a point when it just doesn't make financial sense to keep up the hunt? MacLennan called that the smallest check box in the list. "The checks and balances are all the programmers I work with. I sit in the room with people that I'm giving the same concessions I'm asking for. So if you believe that strongly in something, I'm never going to tell you not to do it."
For MacLennan, there's an evangelical aspect to working on the Drafthouse booking team. "I was there at Weird Wednesday all through college, I went to Butt-Numb-A-Thon seven years in a row. I know how good and cool things can be, and when I got a job as a programmer I got this weird sense of responsibility to give that back to people. But in a way, it's the same job he had when he was shuffling DVDs at Blockbuster. "The most satisfying thing in the world for the guys making $8.50 an hour is to say, 'you should watch that,' and that person says, 'That's what I'm doing with my night.' Me? You listened to me?"