Back Story

James Sanford

Creative Director Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

If he hadn’t been so critical of his high school’s newspaper when he was 16, there’s no telling what James Sanford would be doing now.

In a true “money-where-your-mouth-is” moment, the newspaper’s advisor challenged Sanford to do something to improve the newspaper. So he did. He wrote album reviews. Then movie reviews. And then, at the age of 17, he became a freelance movie critic and writer for the Grand Rapids Press.

His journalism career kept on going through college, but when he graduated, Sanford tried something different: He worked in the cinema industry itself.

Now, as the creative director for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Kalamazoo, it’s Sanford who dreams up such promotions as Bonday (showing James Bond films every week), and ’80s movie sing-alongs to make movie-going more than just passive watching.

How did you get where you are today?

Even though I had a substantial portfolio of journalism work when I graduated from Western Michigan University, I had never had an actual job interview. I graduated during a recession, so when I sent out resumes and the phone didn’t ring, I thought, “My career is over.” I had always been interested in the movie industry, so I went to work in a video store and then got my own store to manage. Later a friend who worked at Goodrich Theatres offered me a job in marketing, and from there I went to work for AMC Theatres in Detroit. I came back to Kalamazoo to work for Loeks Theatres (now Celebration! Cinema).

I started working again as a freelance writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette, and that became a full-time job. I was at the Gazette for 12 years, and in 2008 I was offered a buyout, which I took. I went to work for an entertainment magazine on Martha’s Vineyard that only operated in the summer, and it was the ultimate working vacation. When that ended, I worked for the Chicago International Film Festival and then at the Battle Creek Enquirer. After writing a blurb about Alamo Drafthouse’s upcoming opening, I was contacted by Alamo through LinkedIn. After a lot of interviews with all sorts of people there, I joined Alamo.

What exactly is it that you do for Alamo?

It’s a very multi-faceted job, but the key elements are making sure we have movies to show. I consult with our film buyers in Dallas and decide ‘this is great for us’ or ‘this we can pass on.’ Then I look at how to promote these movies through special events like Cinderella’s Royal Ball, which we did to promote Cinderella. We will be doing something for Pitch Perfect 2 when it comes out because people here love Pitch Perfect — we held Pitch Perfect sing-alongs last fall and they all sold out.

What do people say when you tell them what you do?

I hear a lot of “I want your job.” To which I say, “I’m sorry. You can’t have it.” I’m not ready to give it up. It’s really fun.

There are a lot of people who don’t understand what I do or have a simplified idea of what I do, like there is some magic movie vault in the sky and I just float up to it and pick movies out to show. For a lot of the stuff we show there’s detective work involved — finding out who has the rights, where to get it, negotiating the price and then finding what media it’s in and how we can convert that to a digital print.

Did any of the reactions to your events surprise you?

I didn’t think anyone would ever drive two hours to see Xanadu, but we had people from suburban Detroit that did.

Both our Potter Day (when Alamo showed all the Harry Potter movies) and Bonday events were more successful than I thought they’d be because in both cases they appeal to a niche audience.

And I kept waiting for the Pitch Perfect to die off and it never did. We finally just had to stop doing it.

What keeps you up at night?

This is so sick, sad and strange, but I dream promotions. Bonday came to me in a dream where I was watching a trailer and I saw the M drop out of the word Monday and be replaced by a B. Sometimes movies I didn’t even know I wanted to play will come to me in a dream. I’ll see a wall of movies and one falls out and it’ll be Mr. Limpit and I will think, “Mr. Limpit? Oh, yes, I have to play this. It would be perfect for our Transformations theme.”

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I love to go to the lakeshore, which I find very refreshing, and spend time with my family. As I get older I realize how essential that is. When I first started out as a movie theatre manager, I saw every movie that came out because I wanted to be the go-to guy for movie information. I saw between 300 to 400 movies a year and it was very time-consuming. But I finally realized that a lot of the time you spend watching movies that aren’t crucial to your work could be time spent doing something else, like having interactions with real humans.

Is this the perfect job for you?

It really encompasses a lot of the things I was doing up to this point. And I have to say I still find it funny that I get to do something that I never thought anyone would ever pay me money to do.

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