Dave Anderson and Chris Akbari spent more than a year looking for just the right spot to put an Alamo Drafthouse cinema in northwest Arkansas.
What they found was both better and bigger than just a cinema location. The two friends partnered to form Catchlight Entertainment and buy the former Highway 112 Drive-In and its 36 acres for $5.5 million in August 2022.
Their plans for the Fayetteville site include a 38,000-SF Alamo Drafthouse cinema and a mixed-used development that includes 200 rental properties, restaurants and retail stores called The Aronson, while keeping the drive-in theater.
“We think we are bringing something really unique not only to Arkansas but to America, and it’s going to be an incredible cinema-inspired destination for neighborhood living and entertainment,” said Anderson, who heads Time Warp Enterprises of Little Rock. “We noticed that the 112 Drive-In was sitting on a really interesting piece of property that would allow us the space to do a theater. It began that way. Because there was plenty of space, it allowed us to do more things with the property as well.”
Anderson has a background in entertainment, while Akbari, the CEO of ITEX Group of Houston, is a developer of residential properties. What they both have in common is a love of movies.
The Aronson allows for all of it. It is named after Little Rock native Max Aronson, who gained fame in the silent film era as Broncho Billy, perhaps the first true Western movie star.
“We were lucky to acquire the site,” Akbari said. “We really like the thought of redeveloping a drive-in that had been very well thought of. We thought we could redo it in a way that it would work well for movie enthusiasts, and we could preserve some aspect of it that a lot of people loved and cherished.
“The housing was secondary, but it is always a key component of a project we would be involved with. The other thing is we believed we would be able to develop a cool neighborhood that is walkable and attractive to residents who like movies and who like restaurants.”
Anderson said he has wanted to open an Alamo Drafthouse since he first walked into one of its cinemas in the late 1990s.
The franchise was founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997 and has become famous for its strict do-not-disturb policies during movies, which include no talking or cellphone use, and made-from-scratch menu items and drinks. Violators of the do-not-talk rules are kicked out and Alamo officials care not if they complain about it.
If you want to see a movie at an Alamo, arrive early because late arrivals are not allowed in, and each movie is preceded by a customized video preshow. The cinemas run themes, such as Terror Tuesday, and feature first-run movies as well as classic reshowings.
Anderson said an Alamo Drafthouse will show 10 times as many movie titles as a traditional theater.
“We really do believe that we are building the best cinema destination in America,” Anderson said. “It is going to be spectacular. There is nothing else like it.”
To prepare, Anderson and Akbari traveled the country and visited a half-dozen Alamo Drafthouse cinemas and spoke with owners and employees. Nationwide, cinema attendance has dropped amid competition from streaming services and the COVID-19 pandemic, but Akbari believes there is opportunity nonetheless.
Regal Cinemas, one of the nation’s largest movie theater chains, announced theater closings amid a bankruptcy filing by its parent company. Akbari said cinemas, just like any other industry in the present day, have to be innovative to compete for customers, many of whom still want to go to the movies.
“There is still a lot of interest in movies,” Akbari said. “We think with a dynamic brand like Alamo, there is a lot of room for us to take market share.”
Anderson and Akbari are interested in opening additional Alamo Drafthouses in the future. The Fayetteville development is still going through the approval process with the city, but the pair hopes to begin construction this year.
Akbari, whose ITEX has developed more than 8,000 residential units worth more than $800 million, said he is interested in the region between Nashville, Tennessee, and Tulsa. Arkansas is obviously in the middle.
Akbari said The Aronson will provide affordable rental duplex-style units in a walkable community.
“This is our first residential development in Arkansas, and the reason we like Arkansas and especially northwest Arkansas is because of the growth dynamics,” Akbari said. “We think there is a big opportunity there for residents who want to live in something that is a little more spacious.”
Anderson said The Aronson will be designed to fit with the biking and walking culture of northwest Arkansas.
“We are both envelope pushers,” Anderson said. “We are both futurists and community oriented in our outlook. We both build places where we would want to live, too.”
Both Anderson and Akbari said keeping the drive-in theater was an important part of their plans. The drive-in screen won’t have as much capacity as before, but there was never any talk of removing it entirely.
“We recognize that the 112 was and is a magical place,” Anderson said. “There were no businesspeople in the room saying, ‘Oh, you have to plow that under.’ We believe that combining a drive-in with an Alamo concept enriches it.
“We did it because it was the right thing and we wanted to create something unique.”