Adam Roberts sounds almost short of breath as he says this and then disappears behind the bar at Screenland Armour. Keeping up with him on this Sunday night behind the movie house's bar is Brent Miller, his new brother-in-law and business partner.
The room is choked with 20- and 30-somethings, here for tonight's Breaking Bad season premiere, which is about to be projected in the historic 1928 theater's 275-seat auditorium. They're buying microbrews and stuffed burgers. The "Jesse's Dirty Mac," named for the cable series' meth prodigy Jesse Pinkman, comes filled with bacon and cheddar.
Tallgrass Brewing Co. is sponsoring the screening and giving away samples. That has been good for business behind the bar; Armour has sold out of its Tallgrass supply.
"It's the biggest one we've ever done," Roberts says later of the event. "We never just sell out of everything."
When the beginning of Walter White's end is over, everyone leaves with the phrase "tread lightly" stuck in their heads. Roberts interrupts the trance with a quick sales pitch for the theater's Arts & Crafts Festival — 12 bands, 15 artists, eight films and 60 different craft beers — August 23 and 24.
"It's pretty much the best fucking thing since Breaking Bad," Roberts announces.
To Roberts, this isn't hyperbole — it can't be. The festival is a risk for Screenland, the latest in a dicey recent past.
"Arts & Crafts is, for sure, our biggest gamble yet because it's almost $10,000 that we're going to be spending," Roberts later tells The Pitch. "And on top of that, we're going to be giving a lot of the profits away. Hopefully, it does well. I want to do it again next year. It's an event that I think can keep growing and hopefully grow out of these four walls."
Over two days, Arts & Crafts is putting a lot more than the usual local beer fest inside the Armour. Starting Friday evening and picking up Saturday afternoon, the music lineup includes the Dead Girls, the Cave Girls, Hidden Pictures and the American Life. Artists will have tables at the festival, and the projector lights up for screenings of Prince Avalanche (starring Paul Rudd), Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drinking Buddies (with Olivia Wilde), Grabbers (which Roberts describes as an Irish Shaun of the Dead), Good Ol' Freda (a documentary about the Beatles' secretary), Évocateur (a documentary on the life of "trash TV" innovator Morton Downey Jr.) and two midnight mystery movies.
Some of the proceeds from ticket sales are marked for six charities: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City; Resources for Human Development Missouri; Cancervive KC; Thank You, Walt Disney; Mid-America Arts Alliance; and Midwest Music Foundation.
"People have been excited about it, but I think they're waiting to buy them [tickets] that day," Roberts says. Two-day passes are $60 (or $25 Friday and $50 Saturday). "Most people know that we're not going to sell something out."
The next day, Roberts and Miller are still riding the Breaking Bad high.
"We had a crazy weekend," Roberts says. He has curly black hair, a scruffy beard and dark-rimmed Elvis Costello glasses. "It was awesome. I think a lot of people will actually be back for it [Breaking Bad]."
That would be good news for Armour, where drawing regular audiences has been one of the biggest hurdles for Roberts and Miller.
"Our hardest struggle is getting people to realize that we are open seven days a week," Roberts admits. "Hey, we do have the best equipment. We do have the coolest programming. And we're not a basement theater. So come check this out. And that's ongoing. Being the small guy, you're constantly making sure people see you and are checking you out. I think Arts & Crafts is definitely going to help us do that."
Roberts and Miller took over the Screenland Armour in September 2012. The previous operator had given up trying to draw that elusive regular audience. Screenland founder Butch Rigby was preparing to take over the business again when the theater's manager suggested Miller and Roberts, who had been running the theater's trivia night.
"It kind of just landed in our lap," Roberts says. "Butch kind of just took a chance on Brent and I."
Roberts and Miller met 10 years ago, when both were involved in the Kansas City skateboarding scene. A couple of months into their friendship, Miller started dating Roberts' younger sister, Amanda, and the couple married in late July this year.
"We've kind of had that brother relationship for a decade," Roberts says.
Roberts had worked in bars and restaurants, and he and Miller talked about co-owning an establishment someday. Then the Screenland opportunity came up.
"He was in it, but really it was convincing my sister to let him do it," Roberts says. "It's a big risk of starting your own business, and we're both 26, 27. It's been easy because it's like working with your brother — a brother you don't fight with. We also have a fight club downstairs. That's why we don't argue. We beat the hell out of each other once a week."
Neither man had worked in a movie theater, but Roberts spent a decade making his own short horror movies (Method and The Cramps), hard-to-stomach films in the tradition of David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
"I love movies," Roberts says. "If I can't make movies professionally, I can show movies professionally."
On this August Monday, the day after Breaking Bad, Miller does some accounting as Roberts updates Armour's Facebook page. Miller handles the business side at Armour, while Roberts focuses on creative ventures. Miller is mahogany-tan from his Cancún honeymoon, and he has already been up for hours. He works a 6 a.m. construction shift, then heads to Screenland for an afternoon and an evening behind the bar. By next year, he hopes to narrow things down to just the Screenland full time.
"Working for somebody else has never really appealed to me," says Miller, who wears a white V-neck T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops. "Now everything's coming together."
"Keep in mind that he had to pay for a wedding and buy a house," Roberts says. "That's really why he has two jobs. I didn't get married and buy a house and a car in 12 months."
"Two of the things came before the business," Miller says. "But then the house came after, but that was necessary. I didn't want to live here, although sometimes I feel like I do."
Their work the past 10 months has yielded visible results. "If you saw a picture of what it looked like in here until now," Roberts says, "it's so different."
They've replaced the giant chalkboard behind the bar with a pair of LED screens to display their menu and prices. Roberts points to the bottles behind the bar. "When we took over the bar, I think all of those were mixers," he says. "There were, like, 10 bottles of real booze."
"That fridge didn't work at all," Miller says.
"Bottled water and bottles of domestic beer — Bud Light, Miller Lite — and Boddingtons, Boulevard and Stella," Roberts says of the previous offerings. "No drafts."
The cooler is now stocked with 90 varieties of craft beer.
The men have hung paintings of iconic movie characters and scenes: Darth Vader, a Simpsons-ized Nicolas Cage from Raising Arizona, the Reservoir Dogs cast, the DeLorean from Back to the Future. A Gremlins doll lurks above the bar. A block of classic arcade games — Tetris, Ms. Pac-Man — bleeps in the lobby. New recliners and chairs have been installed in the theater.
"It's the same four walls, the same robot, but a little different," Roberts says. "It's exciting to completely design and build something up the way that we want."
Last October, they booked a string of horror movies to appeal to a younger crowd. They also did free showings of The Walking Dead on the big screen.
"Every weekend having The Walking Dead was huge," Roberts says. "And we did Doctor Who, and that was really big."
They've also recalibrated what retro means at Screenland: less Casablanca and more The 'Burbs.
"We've changed it from old, meaning '50s-style theater, to '80s-style theater," Roberts says. "It's kind of retro but not old-timey. It's re-creating the experience of seeing something like Labyrinth at that time or Willow, our biggest movie ever."
Roberts is serious.
"Willow, to this day, is our biggest movie ever."
They started doing Sunday movie brunches. Some (The 'Burbs) worked. Some (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) bombed. There have been directors' series. Some (Kevin Smith) worked. Others (Wes Anderson) didn't. They started a Girls' Night Out. They threw an Oscar party for an overflowing crowd. They brought in 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander in February and the Whitest Kids U'Know in April.
"They both went over awesome," Roberts says.
Still, Roberts can't help a nagging thought: Would their new venture have been an all-out bonanza if the Alamo Drafthouse hadn't come to Kansas City just as he and Miller made their investment.
"Screenland, as Butch has always done it, has been, 'Let's take the risks, let's be the weird ones, let's have those failures so we can be Kansas City's Alamo Drafthouse,' " Roberts says. "Now they're kind of the corporate guys. They're amazing guys, but they're not as weird as they are in Austin. We're still weird here.
"The idea behind Screenland was kind of the Alamo style, but it was never executed the way it is now," he continues. "We're still pretty different from Alamo, but the same crowd likes it."
For now, Roberts is convinced that the Armour is finally reaching a 21-to-40 crowd, one that wants to watch the same horror movies and R-rated comedies that he likes.
"Those are the ones that are going to come here and bring people with them and drink and stay after and play video games," he says. "Hopefully, we grow to be most people's theater of choice.
It has been a bumpy year for the Screenland brand. In February, Roberts put up a Kickstarter drive with this plea: "Help Armour go digital before we go dark!"
Rigby and Friedlander were among those who helped pitch donors. Armour needed enough for a down payment on a digital projection system, upgrading from film.
When Screenland Armour opened in May 2008, it was state-of-the-art. Within a year, the theater was outdated.
"It was built to top-notch specs in '08," Roberts says. "Unfortunately, by early '09, digital started taking off very quickly. And by 2010, it's, 'OK, digital is happening.' "
He adds: "If we didn't get digital in here, I don't know if we'd be here right now," Roberts says. "We'd probably be a second-run theater, I'd bet."
"Probably down to a dollar theater," Miller says.
"Yeah, probably down to a dollar, two-dollar theater," Roberts says.
When Roberts and Miller took over, getting 35 mm prints of new films was already tough, as it can be for operations not centered on a bustling array of screens.
"We couldn't get anything," Roberts says. "We couldn't get Paranormal Activity. We got Taken 2 because it was a bigger movie. And it wasn't a huge movie for us. It was like, crap — we just got here and we don't know our audience yet.
"We were running, like, a second-run theater," he adds. "A lot of times, we'd have to wait until an AMC that was still on film ran it for two weeks in three theaters and didn't need two prints anymore. So we'd get it two weeks later."
And by then, the film had made all the money that it was going to make.
The Kickstarter exceeded its $20,000 goal; 587 backers, including actor and director Matthew Lillard, donated $30,231.
"It was totally worth it," Roberts says of the digital upgrade. "It does sound better. It does look clearer. It is brighter. I love film, but digital is what everyone is used to now."
And it has helped business.
"There were times, for sure, before digital, where there were zero dollars rung in," Roberts says. He recalls Hansel & Gretel turning Armour into a "ghost town." Now, he says, "that never happens."
But on May 17, Screenland took another hit. The Crossroads theater (1656 Washington) closed, following a dispute with its landlord, who wanted to triple the theater's rent. Rigby vowed to open another location, but the where and the when were fuzzy.
"I certainly pondered the possibility that there might not be the Screenland name on a screen for some time," Rigby admits of the brand's earlier woes. "I always knew that we could figure out a way to get the Armour digitized. And, fortunately, Adam and Brent made that a much quicker reality. Also, fortunately, I don't ever want to forget that we have a terrific operator of the Screenland Crown Center.
"I knew we'd figure a way to keep Screenland out there," Rigby continues. "At one point out of the 10 years did I imagine Screenland as a large circuit, maybe. But what I really envisioned it as, was just part of the Kansas City landscape."
Rigby says he's content to manage the Screenland name and its real estate while leaving the day-to-day operations to others.
"It's hard to meet a great movie nut like all of us and be an extraordinary businessperson," Rigby says. But he feels that he has found both in Roberts and Miller. "They love the movies, which they have to, and they're really quite extraordinary in their business acumen."
And Rigby believes that Roberts and Miller can lead the brand's future Crossroads location.
"I feel confident in their ability to handle two locations," Rigby says. "This will be their show to run."
The next Screenland Crossroads location will be "in the heart of the Crossroads," Roberts says. Roberts, Miller and Rigby don't want to give away the exact location until the paperwork is finalized. But they say the next Screenland Crossroads will open in 2014. And Roberts and Miller are going to build the new location almost from the ground up.
"It's four walls right now," Roberts says. "It was never a theater."
The plan is to put art-house, indie and retro pictures into two smaller auditoriums. But they also want to book live events: trivia and music and comedy shows. And, of course, they mean to serve good beer on draft — more of it, they say, than any other place in the Crossroads.
"Our idea down there is to have close to a hundred draft beers," Roberts says. "Our food is going to be very different, too. It's going to be a very West Coast wrap or burrito-type stuff."
But don't expect to see servers in the theater.
"I'm not crazy about servers in theaters," Roberts says. "No matter how hard they try, it's still distracting. What we've talked about is in-service only until the previews start."
Roberts says the Crossroads theater should fill the hole left by the last Screenland's shuttering.
"That's what we're pushing: 'Hey, we're the original cinema badasses. We're the renegades in Kansas City. We'll do whatever. We'll show whatever. You suggest a movie to us; if it's good and we can get it, we'll absolutely show it here,' " Roberts says.
"That's a beauty of having a small local theater. We can do what we want."