risking a numb butt at Alamo

“The lining up will take place at 10 am stretching towards the parking lot – south of the Drafthouse. There’s no need to arrive earlier than that. You’ll need your sleep and your rest. … Each person in the line will be given a raffle ticket. They will then be drawn beginning (estimation) around 11:30-11:40 am – giving you plenty of time to purchase your ticket, go through security and get your goodies and seat. You folks may want to bring an ass cushion as the folks drawn later in the process will most likely end up in folding chairs. Which can get a bit brutal on da buttocks.”
—Ain’t It Cool News article on standby procedures for the seventh annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon, Dec. 10-11, 2005
The Butt-Numb-A-Thon (aka BNAT) is an annual Austin 24-hour film festival run by Harry Knowles. I remember hearing about the first one and considered going. Back then, anyone could sign up online, although it sold out quickly. It was billed as the ultimate filmgoer test of stamina, and in fact you had to pay to leave the theater if you left before the 24 hours were over. I wasn’t sure I could make it through all 24 hours, wasn’t sure I’d like the films (they all appeared to be B-movies or even Z-movies), and didn’t think I could afford to leave early. Also, I knew it would screw up my sleeping schedule and my Christmas shopping-and-stress schedule, which is important when you are working a full-time-plus office job.

For the past few years, I kept saying that I was going to try the standby line for the Butt-Numb-A-Thon. I never did, though. I didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn, I have sciatica and I knew that standing in a line for hours would be torture, and I got the impression that the odds of actually getting a seat from the standby line were miniscule. Also, again, if I did get in, the sleeping schedule and holiday stress thing.
This year, however, nearly all my excuses were gone. I don’t have an office job with set hours. I’ve cut down on the amount of pre-holiday stuff I’m doing. I wouldn’t have to get downtown until 10 am, and the ticket giveaway system sounded equitable. The sciatica … well, I could wear comfy shoes and hope for the best. It sounded like it would only be a couple of hours, anyway.
As a film geek, how could I resist? I wondered if I could stand up to the challenge of 24 consecutive hours of watching feature films. Plus, the festival no longer was limited to old B-movies; in past years, Peter Jackson showed up to present The Return of the King, Mel Gibson screened a workprint of The Passion of the Christ, and other films were shown that would not be released in this country until significantly later. Rumors this year were flying about Jackson returning with King Kong, possibly previews of The Producers and Munich, and all kinds of other fun surprises. How could I resist?
Not to mention that as an aspiring film writer, it would provide an excellent opportunity to write about an event that few people get to attend. I need opportunities like that.
I filled out the application for confirmed seating back in October, but I may have been insufficiently geeky. I didn’t make the cut. Still, I could try the standby line. It couldn’t hurt to try.
So I dragged my butt out of bed relatively early for a Saturday morning, found some comfy loose clothes and a plush cardigan that could double as a seat cushion in case I did in fact get lucky, and headed for Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. I found good parking in a spot I would be able to remember 24 hours later, left my cel phone in the car, and arrived at the theater a couple of minutes after 10 am.
Of course, a standby line had formed already. I got to the end behind a few dozen people or so and wondered how it would all work. One of the guys in front of me told me that the people in the very front of the standby line had arrived around 5 am. That made no sense to me if the tickets really would be given away by lottery.
In fact, I had wondered if it was necessary to get there at 10 am, since the drawing wasn’t scheduled to take place until 11:30. It turned out to be a good idea to get there on time, though. An Alamo employee walked down the line shortly after I arrived and began distributing tickets for the drawing. She said that once she was needed at the box office to start processing registration for confirmed attendees, she would stop giving out the tickets, thus limiting the standby pool. It turned out that if you arrived after maybe 10:30, you were out of luck.
About 48 of us ended up in the standby line. The line consisted mostly of younger white guys, maybe college age. I think there were 8 or so females, including a couple of women in their 30s at the front of the line. Still, at the back of the pack with the college guys, I felt slightly out of place.
Many people, particularly the confirmed registrants, were carrying pillows or blankets. I saw a few yoga mats and even one guy in fuzzy slippers. These people were prepared for the marathon filmgoing. It was amusing to see a bunch of guys standing casually in line, smoking and talking about the Spider-Man 3 casting while clutching little pillows in one arm.
I spent most of the two hours chatting with the guys behind me in line. One guy had driven all the way from New Orleans, where he was working as a contractor, mostly tearing down houses that could not be salvaged. He had been working seven long days a week for months but had begged the time off to drive to Austin to get in the standby line. He hadn’t been able to apply for a guaranteed spot because he had very limited internet access.
Part of me kept thinking, “If you get a ticket, you ought to give it to him. I mean, you’re in Austin. You get to see good movies all the time. This guy never gets a chance. Don’t you want to help someone who’s helping New Orleans?” However, I realized I am not that altruistic. That line was very much every geek for him/herself. Besides, he had alternate plans if he didn’t get in the theater; his favorite band was in town playing that night.
We speculated on the number of empty seats that might be available for standby. One guy claimed that the theater could accommodate 20 or more folding chairs on each side, which sounded a little incredible to me since the Alamo is not that spacious. Most of the guys in the group had been able to get into BNAT at least once, always through the standby line. The New Orleans guy was even able to get a real seat in a theater row instead of a folding chair.
I noticed another guy behind me in a BNAT t-shirt from a previous year. I figured that meant he’d been through this all before and asked him about it.
“You know, you get one of those folding chairs, and they’re uncomfortable, plus you have a bad angle on the screen, off to one side. And you wonder how you’re ever going to make it through a single movie. But I tell you, it is the best moviegoing experience you will ever have, as a film geek. Because everyone in the audience is a film geek too, and they react to everything in the movie, but they know to quiet down quickly and listen. The energy in the theater … you’ll never experience anything better.”
In between bouts of anxiety about the possibility of getting in, and checking the line of confirmed registrants to see how much longer before they were all seated, everyone talked about movies, and occasionally TV. If I had felt insufficiently geeky when I was turned down for a reserved seat at BNAT, I felt much more so in the standby line.
The guys started with a discussion about Firefly, which led to a comparison of opinions on the best sf/fantasy TV shows ever, which naturally led to a comparison of the actors playing The Doctor on Doctor Who. I was advised never to speak of Eric Roberts. But damn, that conversation made me feel older than ever. The guys never mentioned the two actors I remembered as playing The Doctor: Tom Baker and Peter Davison. Instead, it was all about Christopher Eccleston and Paul McGann, which then segued into a discussion about an “old movie” McGann had been in way back when, Withnail and I. I saw that movie in theaters when it was released, my first year at LSU.
I felt even older after they decided to compare only American sf/fantasy TV series and discussed Stargate SG-1, a show I have never seen. Hey, had anyone seen the movie on which the show was based? One guy replied that no, he hadn’t been allowed, he’d only been 12 years old at the time … 1994. I realized these guys were all the same age as my youngest brother. I wish I’d asked him to accompany me, but I knew it was around finals week at LSU and I didn’t want to tempt him away from studying. Forget about the actual event — he would have loved talking to those guys in line with me.
Only one woman was standing anywhere near me in line, a young women amid another group of guys ahead of me. She was digging through her purse for cigarettes at one point and accidentally pulled out her pack of birth-control pills, which fell to the ground. Her face reddened and she said, “Damn, that’s embarrassing” as she bent down to pick them up. I gave her a sympathetic look and then realized that none of the guys had even noticed. In fact, I’m not sure they realized what it was she had dropped.
By 11:15 am, the sun had come out and the conversation had inevitably turned to the Star Wars movies. By 11:30, the guys were alternating between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings discussions. Shortly before noon, the Alamo employee who’d given out the tickets let us know that they were starting to count available seats in the theater and would be back shortly to draw tickets. One guy in line with me kept swearing that it was easy enough to wedge another few seats in there and that we surely would all get in.
I wished it would be true. We were all getting hungry (a taco truck would have made a pretty penny by stopping near the Alamo that morning), we all wanted to sit down, and I think I was hoping to get in the Alamo’s bathroom more than in an actual theater seat by that point. The warm sun was nice at first, but we were all dressed for colder weather, and I was worried that I wasn’t wearing a hat or sunscreen.
At noon, the guys behind me started debating the worst attributes of Uwe Boll and his video game-adaptation films while trying to control their nervousness about the odds of getting into the theater. The guy from New Orleans did a little jig, referencing The Last Boy Scout. I know I wasn’t the only person to bounce up and down a couple of times in anticipation.
Just as the conversation started veering towards Bruce Campbell, the Alamo employee returned with Harry Knowles’ dad in tow, carrying a Shiner beer bucket full of tickets. Only 12 seats were available, all folding chairs on the sides. Each of us had a 25 percent chance of getting into the theater.
The two older-then-college-age women from the front of the line were picked, their yoga mats slung on their backs. Two of the guys from the group in front of me were picked, one of them the group’s driver, who had to surrender his keys to a less lucky friend. The very first people in line didn’t get picked. The nice blond guy who came over to talk to us for awhile did. The guy who drove from New Orleans did not.
None of the guys in the group behind me were picked, sadly. And you know I wasn’t picked, because I am here writing about the standby line. Even though I knew the odds were slim, I felt terribly let down. The guys had been telling me all kinds of wonderful stories for two hours about the fun they’d had in previous years, and now we were all out of luck and leaving to do mundane, dull stuff. The guys looked forlorn and frustrated, clutching their little pillows and blankets. I was parked near the farmers’ market but couldn’t care less about produce. I went home to grab some lunch and a short nap.
But next year? I am absolutely in that line again. Who knows, I may even bring a pillow, although I think I will pass on the fuzzy slippers.

5 thoughts on “risking a numb butt at Alamo”

  1. Chris, if B-Fest were in Austin I wouldn’t miss it. I don’t think I can get to Chicago next year, though, unless I can con someone else into paying for it. (Any publications out there interested?) You’ll have to write about this one and share it with us.

  2. Thanks for the first hand story of your hours in the BNAT line – I’ve always wondered what it would be like. But please don’t say you feel old, Jette. For age, you’d fit between child #2 and child #3 in my family, so if you feel old I’m ancient.
    It would have been cool to see King Kong with that audience, and just the cast of The Professionals would have made it a treat.
    Do you think the Leagues have ever considered a Jane Austen marathon at the Alamo? The location would have to be the Village of course. There’s so much to choose from – the new P & P version, theatrical releases, various beloved mini-series, and the fun ones like Bride & Prejudice, and maybe Clueless? Harry Knowles might not be interested but Roger Ebert and Peter Travers are so crazy about Kiera that they might make the trip.
    Menu suggestions: tea, roast meats, strawberries, minced chicken and baked apples, but NO gruel.

  3. OUCH! Great account of the Standby line. I didn’t know whether or not you got in – reading it was a suspense tale. Wish you’d made it in, BNAT 5 was the most spectacular in terms of “guests” but in my opinion – this was my favorite year of programming. Kong, Lady Vengeance, V FOR VENDETTA, Descent, District 13 and of course Footlight Parade and THE PROFESSIONALS were just the bomb. Better luck next year! That goes for all of you.
    BTW – Annie – I’ll pass the idea on to Tim, I’d love to see a Jane Austen marathon!

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