SHOWEAST 2018 Bingham Ray Spirit Award: Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse

Among cinephiles, it’s common knowledge that a passion for the movies can have a big influence on major life decisions. In Tim League’s case, that passion drove him to take a big risk that would eventually change his life—and help popularize an alternative to moviegoing in the United States. In his mid-twenties, only several years removed from degrees in engineering and art history at Rice University, League traded in a fledgling career at Shell Oil to lease a movie theater in Bakersfield, California. That risk didn’t pan out, but he didn’t let that keep him down. Together with his wife, Karrie, League regrouped and decided to try his hand at exhibition one more time—this time in Austin, Texas. That theater has grown to become a fixture in American moviegoing, and today the Alamo Drafthouse brand stretches from exhibition (named the 22nd largest circuit in the U.S. & Canada in our 2018 Giants of Exhibition ranking) to film festivals (Austin’s Fantasy Fest) to film journalism (Birth.Movies.Death) and theatrical distribution (Neon). Boxoffice caught up with League ahead of ShowEast, where he will be receiving this year’s Bingham Ray Spirit Award. He talked about his beginnings in the industry and how he helped establish Alamo Drafthouse as one of the most recognizable circuits in theatrical exhibition.

Alamo wasn’t your first foray in exhibition; can you tell us about the first theater you opened in your career? 

That would be 1994. I was 24 years old and had previously been working for Shell Oil in Bakersfield, California. On my way to work was an abandoned movie theater that I passed by every day. One day, the marquee with red old-fashioned letters said “For Lease.” I had never thought of that as a career path. I wasn’t really happy with my first choice of careers, being an engineer, but I loved movies. So that weekend I had the idea of signing that lease. I spent most of that whole week putting a rough business plan together. Literally a week later, I signed the lease and entered exhibition, with no real right to do it. I just loved movies and wanted a change. I was close to L.A., so actually one of the first things I did was I went down to L.A., went to a good magazine shop, and bought a copy of Boxoffice magazine. They had all the distributor contact info in the back. That’s how I started to figure out how the whole system worked. 

One of the things I’m most excited about for this award is that it’s named after Bingham Ray. He was one of those figures, my first year in operations at Bakersfield, who really took me under his wing. He was so kind to me. I obviously didn’t know a damn thing about what I was doing. We were late on payments and we didn’t even know how anything worked. He took the time to walk me through the steps, gave me films that he didn’t have to, like Killing Zoe and The Last Seduction. He was one of those kind human beings that helped me understand the business that I had embarked upon. I met him for the very first time, face to face, at Art House Convergence—literally four days before he passed away. I was so excited to be able to say thank you personally. It was such a strange ball of emotions, because he was so important to me in those Bakersfield years. 

What were some of the lessons that you took from that first experience that are still with you today?

I was really wide-eyed and optimistic. The theater failed. We ran it for almost two years, running it as an art house theater. It wasn’t in a great neighborhood; there was a lot of crime in the neighborhood. We just couldn’t get people to come. So that resonated, having a process for determining what is important about a location. I didn’t go to business school, but that’s what you hear: the “location, location, location” mantra was driven home to me by failure. So we take that very seriously now.

On the more positive side, my only qualification for getting into the business was that my girlfriend at the time, Karrie, agreed to marry me in the middle of that two-year stretch in Bakersfield. She also quit her job and went into operations, and helped basically stabilize the theater that I had started. We both loved movies, and that’s the core of our company now: we go to great pains to make sure that we hire people that love what we’re doing, love our mission, love going to the cinema.

You weren’t deterred after that first rough experience in the business. What brought you back to exhibition, to Austin with what we now know as Alamo Drafthouse?

We learned the business in Bakersfield. We also learned from some of the things we did wrong. We knew in our hearts that we could make it work if we started all over again. So we basically shuttered the Bakersfield theater, reupholstered a bunch of seats, bought a used projector, a used screen, packed everything up. We actually stayed at Karrie’s parents’ house for six months and started to look at other markets, to develop a more serious business plan. Eventually we landed on Austin and found what we thought would be a great location. It was a cool film town, with the Austin Film Society and a big university.

Was it difficult to sign a lease this time around?

Everybody was turning us down. We had one failed business to speak of. It was one of the growing boom times of Austin, in the late ’90s. Somebody agreed to lease us a second-floor space in a burgeoning entertainment district. We raised a bit of money, mostly from our parents. We had this business plan. If we fail again, we won’t ever talk about it. We’ll go take our science careers back and pay it back slowly over the course of the next seven years. We built the first single-screen theater in Bakersfield for about $200,000, just us doing all the construction ourselves and a pretty poor job of it. We introduced the food component, we didn’t really have any experience with that either. I got a job at a pizza restaurant; Karrie got a job waiting tables. 

Cinema dining was an integral part of the renewed concept once you got to Austin. How did you come upon that? During that time the concept was very far away from what it is today.

In Bakersfield we did some tests. We had some shows where we would partner with local restaurants and would show largely classic films. We showed The Bicycle Thief with an Italian five-course meal, but we had it catered. They would bring a catered operation into our lobby and serve it this way. We really liked that synthesis of marrying food to film. Then when I actually proposed to my wife and we got married in the middle of that two-year stretch in Bakersfield, our honeymoon was a working honeymoon; we went up to Portland to go see how the McMenamins team did it. We were certainly inspired by what they were doing in Portland and built our own take on what they were doing, created our own system.

A big part of the identity that you guys have grown has really come through programming. Curation might a better way to put it. It’s something that permeates the brand: your film festival Fantastic Fest, digital publishing with Birth.Movies.Death, and now theatrical distribution with Neon. Why has this curatorial component been so central to the Drafthouse brand?

I think they all stem from the same idea: that we’re for movie lovers, by movie lovers. We love a wide swath of films. In particular, I personally love very strange films and genre films. So we bill Fantastic Fest as a celebration of those and to provide opportunities for young genre filmmakers. Helping them find distribution, helping them find press and word of mouth for really amazing films that were flying under the radar. It’s certainly similar with what was first Drafthouse Films and is now Neon, being a distributor that can bring really interesting and amazing stories to as many people as possible. It’s a nice synthesis between the brick-and-mortar theater, our repertory programming, the distribution, and the editorial side. They’re all serving the same idea, to get people excited about really awesome movies.

Another big part of the Alamo experience is the no-talking, no-interruptions policy. How did that policy evolve? 

We had to make a decision in terms of our identity really early on: are we a restaurant where there’s a movie on the wall, or are we a cinema that offers upgraded concessions? We chose the latter. We want to have great food, beer, and wine—we want to deliver on that side of the promise—but, first and foremost, we love movies and want it to be a respectful environment where people can go to enjoy movies. I’m very particular about that.

We didn’t have a policy for the first couple of months; we just opened up. Then at this one particular screening, a midnight screening of Blue Velvet, we had a very cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon special. You could get six for the price of five. There were a few people in the audience who were enjoying it too much. They started shouting at the film, acting up. I went in and it was out of control. I was almost physically sick. This was not what I had signed up for; this is not what I’m trying to build.

So we got a copy of Final Cut Pro [software], and by the next weekend we had a video of the “kick your ass out” policy. Don’t talk during the movie. We tried that policy, launched it with live introductions and the video that we’d cut. And we enforced it. Once we started enforcing it, we became known for it. The audience expected it and became part of the enforcement squad.

Do you remember the first time you had to enforce it? 

I don’t remember the exact first one, but I was in charge of throwing them out initially. I wasn’t the best at it. We got much better systems and policies. I was a little ham-handed about the enforcement but got the job done. We don’t usually kick that many people out—though now that we’re bigger, by numbers, we do. But generally, you stop having an issue if you warn somebody one time and say, “If I have to come back again, I’m going to kick you out.” I’ll never forget the time I did that to a guy and he was quiet for the whole movie, but he was apparently brooding. After the film, he came up to me and was obviously angry. I thought maybe he was going to punch me. It just so happened that Quentin Tarantino was in town—shooting a movie, I think—and this guy is up in my face, waving his finger at me. Quentin walks up behind, taps him on the shoulder, and says “No, man, you’re in the wrong.” Then he just wandered off, amazed.

There was a period between 2004 and 2010 when you stepped back from leading the company. 

I’ll tell you, when I stepped away, I wasn’t stepping totally away from the company. I was nervous about growing; my headspace wasn’t wrapped around it. So we sold the company to somebody who did want to grow it. They started building up this infrastructure for operations and accounting, kind of building the growth engine. At the same time, I pulled back. My wife and I were just managing and overseeing the original three Austin locations. During that time, I really focused on the idea of being a part of a community. In that same time, we built Fantastic Fest in 2005. It was really dialing into building out the special local Austin-based brand. Then years later, these two companies—Alamo Austin and the Alamo that was growing—we didn’t always see eye to eye. We were in a bit of conflict. Then something amazing happened. Instead of going to war, we sat down and talked about how we could potentially work together. That’s when I became really interested in this idea. We’re doing something that feels a little bit outside of the norm in terms of exhibition, but what if we replicate that across the country? That would be a meaningful way to support independent films, like I was saying we were doing but were only really doing it in Austin. I got really excited about changing my job to grow that, in service of supporting independent film. The other folks at Alamo had built this great expansion team. Then we really focused on building the brand, and really needed their expertise and operations. Our expertise in brand dovetailed perfectly. 

There are very few, if any, other companies in this industry today who have been able to build a brand as unique and recognizable as Alamo Drafthouse. How did you get to that point of establishing and building this level of brand loyalty, this connection with your audience?

A lot of it was accidental, especially early on. Karrie and I were just at the theater every day, so we got to know our locals, our regulars. The lines blurred between friendship and customer. It’s easy to do on a single-screen 200-seat theater. As we started to grow, my biggest panic and fear about it was not to screw it all up. Not to grow and make it generic, death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of thing. One of my primary jobs is to make sure, as we grow, that we don’t dilute that experience. We didn’t want to just stamp these things as we grew. Every time we go into a new location, we hire a community liaison, we hire a creative director, we hire a beverage director, we hire a chef. We give them a lot of freedom to curate to that particular audience, whether it’s the film tastes that are reflective of the personality of the manager, the social media voice that’s local. So you’re not getting a social media voice from a brand, you’re getting it from Christina in Brooklyn or James in Dallas. We worked on support and training and developing some national initiatives, but largely each individual location has a lot of freedom to express their own passions and local beers.

Where do you think our industry is today? What are the challenges and opportunities facing our business in the coming years?

I’m pretty bullish about exhibition. It’s been a great year, not just for the blockbusters but also for independent films. We’ve had three documentaries that grossed over $10 million—that’s pretty unheard of. I’m excited about where we are. I think there’s a lot of fear about the unknown, about viewing habits of a younger generation, what is the effect of this transition to streaming. But what I’m seeing is we still offer the same value that we always have as an industry. It’s a relatively affordable indulgence and it’s a magical time. When you go to the cinema and you see a great film, it’s not comparable to a home experience. I believe very strongly that no matter how good your home entertainment system is, no matter how deep the streaming options are, every once in a while you want to get out of the house and have an experience.

The biggest challenge we have as an industry is to ensure that the experience stays awesome. You look at some of the multinational players—I like seeing the innovation that other exhibitors do; it keeps us on our toes. From my perspective, I want everybody to be focused on having a great experience and making sure it’s magical when people come to see the movies. If we all do that, then I feel very confident about the future of cinema. I feel confident about encouraging younger viewers to come and experience the movies, because it’s special.

Talking about multinational circuits, is an international expansion in the cards for Alamo Drafthouse?

I feel like we have a lot of work to do in the U.S., so we’re focusing there right now. I can’t say what the long-term future holds, but for now we’re a U.S. company. We like to think of ourselves as a brand that’s stayed nimble on many fronts, I think evidenced by us plowing past our subscription alternative that’s in beta right now. We’re a pretty small company to be able to dedicate the technology resources, but I didn’t want to be on my heels. If there was something that could potentially change the way people engage and transact with movies, we felt it was important to spend the money and get out there.

What makes the subscription model so alluring for your circuit?

It was interesting, when MoviePass dropped their price to $9.99, a lot of folks were saying it was impossible, a crazy business idea, that it was never going to work. Obviously it had a turbulent time, trying out a bunch of different things, but it was a very intriguing idea. We’re well aware of the European models at a slightly higher price point that are working and are successful. Our thought was, “Hey, why don’t we test this out, share our results and findings with the studios, and have conversations about how this might be a positive?”

The argument is that by lowering the barrier of entry to make impulse decisions on movies, then you could potentially build up an audience that sees more than just the blockbusters. The vast bulk of our audience really only comes to see movies three or four times a year. So what if you can encourage them to double that? What if you could encourage them to come out and see BlackKklansman or The Favourite or what have you? That’s an exciting idea to me.

I think there’s a model out there that will work for everybody, will be a value to customers, will not bankrupt us, and will be a benefit to the studios. It will also be in alignment with our mission of building up an audience that loves a wide swath of films, including independent films, foreign-language films, and documentaries.

Daniel Loria

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