Tim League, CEO and founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, reveals how he turned a failed business and a downtown Austin parking garage into one of the most successful independent movie theater chains in the U.S.
Story by Andy East
Photos by Annie Ray
Styled by Ashley Hargrove
Escape From Bakersfield
The story of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema starts in an abandoned movie theater in Bakersfield, Calif. The year was 1994. Forrest Gump was top- ping the box office and Tim League was in the oil industry, hating every moment of it.
After graduating from Rice University with a degree in engineering, League accepted a position at Shell Oil in Bakersfield.
“I should have been thinking more when I was in high school about what I really wanted to do in life because it sure wasn’t engineering,” League says. “During that whole time [at Shell Oil], I was thinking about possible exit strategies.”
Then destiny struck.
“On my way to work, there was an abandoned movie theater that one day had a ‘for lease’ sign on it,” says League, who was 23 years old at the time. “That was the light bulb. I hadn’t thought that this obsessive love of movies I’d had since I was 13 or 14 years old [could]ever be a career.”
He wasted no time. A week later, League signed the lease. The Tejon Theater was his.
Founded in 1947, the Tejon Theater has led many lives. When it opened, it showed family movies. It the 1980s, it screened Spanish-language films. By the time League took over, the Tejon was a relic of the golden age of cinema.
League began screening the art-house films and cult classics that would become a hallmark of the Alamo Drafthouse. League’s theater also hosted concerts, attracting acts such as the Ramones, War and Korn. But despite his efforts, the theater struggled.
“It was a bad location,” League says. “Bakers- field wasn’t an amazing arts mecca. We were trying to do some pretty progressive things there. During that period, we were thinking about how we could correct our mistakes, mainly, get the hell out of Bakersfield.”
But not everything was in his control. As League plotted his escape, a tragedy would force his hand.
During a performance by Montell Jordan, an R&B singer best known for the hit song This Is How We Do It, a man was shot in the head. The victim’s car crashed into the Tejon’s ticket booth. The photo on the front page of the local paper the next morning showed the murder scene, with the Tejon’s marquee in the background. The business was doomed.
“That was a sad night,” League says. “It was the night, however, that we decided to move from Bakersfield and come to Austin to start over. Those were tough times, but ultimately, the move to Austin ended up being great for us in all possible ways. It was unfortunately born out of tragedy.”
Despite the tragedy, League did not give up. He loaded the Tejon’s screen, projector and 200 seats into a truck and made the 1,400-mile journey to Austin. The Live Music Capital of the World would prove to be the perfect match for League’s style.
From Parking Garage to National Prominence
Austin had it all. League had family in the area. He liked the film scene and he identified with the city’s quirky nature.
“I really love things that are outside the norm, both in my movie taste and in the ideas in which we celebrate movies,” League says. “We fit right into that sort of weirdness of Austin.”
“It was our fourth or fifth choice of locations,” League says. “We would get down the road with somebody, and it just never worked out. They wanted somebody with a good credit history, not just 25-year-olds with a failed business as their only business experience.
“The 409 Colorado location was second- floor space, so it was virtually unusable by any other tenants,” League continues. “So they didn’t really care. They said, ‘Yes, fine. You can take this.’”
The location did not have plumbing, a kitchen or the electrical circuits needed to support a movie theater. League and his wife, Kerrie, would build it from scratch.
“We tore out the ramp,” League recalls. “There was a ramp that would get you to the second floor, and the floor still had parking stripes on it. There are probably still a couple there. There were a couple that we didn’t re- move to show evidence of what it once was.”
After months of labor, the Alamo Draft- house Cinema opened on May 27, 1997. League collaborated with the Dudley & Bob Show on KLBJ-FM to kick things off. The show selected its favorite films, resulting in a double feature of Raising Arizona and This Is Spinal Tap.
“We were happy and it was a fun opening,” League says. “But the next day, we showed the Clint Eastwood movie Absolute Power, which is not a very good movie. There were like two people who came. It was like, ‘Oh God, we’ve done it again. We’ve created another Bakersfield.’ ”
Things would turn around within a month. League credits Austin Powers and positive reviews by the Austin American-Statesman and Austin-based critic Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News with the boost in attendance.
As the Alamo Drafthouse grew in popularity, League began to catch the attention of major players in the film industry. In 1998, the Austin Film Society introduced him to Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. The Drafthouse would later hold several Quentin Tarantino Fests, which included films curated from the director’s personal collection. The famed director would even collaborate with League on confronting a noisy patron.
“We’re known for having a zero-tolerance policy for people talking or texting during the movie,” League says. “I used to be the enforcer and I get kind of upset. I basically went up to this guy during a movie and told him to shut up. If he didn’t, we were going to kick him out. After the movie, he got really aggressive with me. He was pushing me and wanted to start a fight. It was during one of the times when Quentin was in town. He grabbed the guy on the shoulder and was like, ‘Hey man, you’re totally in the wrong.’ He couldn’t process that it was actually Quentin Tarantino telling him to stop. He sort of slunked away and left. He had my back once.”
League’s penchant for innovative programming started hitting its stride. The Drafthouse expanded its programming to movie premieres and festivals, and landed several celebrity appearances.
One of the first celebrities to appear at the Drafthouse was actor Vin Diesel. In 1999, he attended the premiere of sci-fi flick Pitch Black at the inaugural Butt- Numb-A-Thon, a 24-hour film marathon celebrating Knowles’ birthday.
“Vin Diesel has some really nerdy tendencies,” League says. “He’s a board gamer. He plays Dungeons & Dragons. It was before he had built up this kind of Fast & Furious tough-guy persona. He was there just hanging out with nerds. He was strangely nervous.
He basically said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my mom about this.’ It’s not something you would think of with Vin Diesel.”
Other stars who have appeared at the Draft- house include Mel Gibson, Peter Jackson, Seth Rogan and Guillermo del Toro.
Until the turn of the century, the Alamo Drafthouse was a single-screen mom-and- pop movie theater. But League’s wife would receive a phone call that changed the direction of the theater.
“She got a call from the property manager of the Village,” League says. “They were going to lease the Village space out to somebody who does what we do. The manager said, ‘Hey, I like you guys. I’ve been to your theater. How- ever, I’ve written this lease. It’s more or less executed. If you want it, it’s yours, but we’re not going to change a word of the lease and you have to let us know by Friday.”
It was Tuesday.
League was in New Orleans, but spent a bus ride to Austin mulling over the offer with his wife, Kerrie. By the time he arrived, they had decided. The Village would be theirs.
“That was the move that changed us from a single-screen mom-and-pop to having two locations. I think it spurred a lot of the growth,” League says. “Once we had two, we had to hire managers, and we couldn’t be in the venue every single day. I think the growth just started happening organically after that.”
After a decade, League decided to close the Colorado Street location and relocate to The Ritz on Sixth Street. Tarantino programmed the last night at the original location and the first night at The Ritz. The grand opening included screenings of Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, No Country for Old Men and The War of the Gargantuas.
Soon after the opening of The Ritz, new locations popped up throughout Austin. By 2010, League had set his eyes on building a national brand.
“About five years ago, the idea of becoming a national company became really interesting to me,” League says. “That’s when we started thinking about a distribution company and what this company could become if we became a national player.”
The Alamo Drafthouse now has 20 locations in six states and continues to grow. New locations are set to open in downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco and Brooklyn later this year. Visit drafthouse.com for more information.
Time League Talks About His Go-To Movies
“I think my taste has really evolved over the years,” League says. “When you look at the things we distribute, there’s a certain chunk of those that are cause-driven documentaries, which I really like now. I like the power of movies to change perspectives. I like it on both sides.
I like just pure, escapist entertainment, relaxing, having a beer and having a good time and forgetting about the cares of the world. On the other side of things, I like movies that are powerful, that can change people’s perspectives.
“We put together this list last year called the Alamo 100. All the programmers and myself put together the 100 top movies—‘desert-island movies.’ If you’re on a desert island and you could have no others, what are the ones you would bring with you?”
Set during the American Civil War, the 1926 classic stars Buster Keaton as a locomotive engineer who hunts down Union spies who steal his train. Besides being on the Alamo 100 list, the American Film Society named the film one of the 100 best American movies of all time in 2007.
In this 1931 romantic comedy, Charlie Chaplin’s charac ter falls in love with a blind woman and tries to help her medical condition with the aid of an alcoholic millionaire.
The Big Lebowski
Although not on the Alamo 100, League says this is one of his all-time favorites. Written and directed by the Coen brothers, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi star in this cult classic of mistaken identity.
Visit alamo100.drafthouse.com for more of League’s favorite films.
Tim League’s Indie Empire
￼A serial entrepreneur, Tim League has founded many more companies than Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. His companies range from film distribution and festivals to art, and are leaving their mark on the film industry.
Founded in 2010, Drafthouse Films has distributed more than 30 films, two of which have been nominated for Oscars. Here are a few:
The first film distributed by Drafthouse Films is a critically acclaimed jihadi comedy. Time magazine named it one of the 10 best films of 2010.
The Belgian crime drama was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th annual Academy Awards.
The Act of Killing
The 2012 documentary from Executive Producer Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line, tells the story of mass killingsin Indonesia. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th annual Academy Awards.
“We’re releasing a new film for Drafthouse Films at the end of March or early April called The Connection, which is a French film,” League says. “We’re working with Odell Brewery to make a beer to celebrate this movie, and we’re going to release it when the movie comes out.”
Visit drafthousefilms.com for more information.
Mondo was founded in 2004 as a T-shirt shop, but the products have evolved into screen-printed movie posters, vinyl movie soundtracks and much more. Mondo’s gallery is located at 4115 Guadalupe St.
Visit mondotees.com for more information.
Founded in 2005 by Tim League and Austin-based film critic Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, Fantastic Fest is the largest genre-specific film festival in the world, specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and action films. Throughout the years, the festival has hosted a wide range of premieres and special screenings. This year’s festival will be held Sept. 24 to Oct. 1.
Visit fantasticfest.com for more information.￼￼
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Tim League, CEO and founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Drafthouse Films, Mondo and co-founder of Fantastic Fest, offers tips on how to grow a successful business.
“Be really comfortable with worst-case scenarios,” League says. “Assume that everything is going to be a disaster and you’re going to lose all of your money, you’re going to declare bankruptcy, you’re going to lose all of your possessions, with the exception of your house. Are you OK with that? If the answer is yes and you can live with worst-case scenarios, then do it. If not, then don’t.
“I sure as hell wish I knew a lot more about accounting than I did when I got in. It was very much an oversight. Kerrie really saved the day and taught herself during those early years to handle the finances of the business.”
“I saw The Shining when I was really young and it scared the hell out of me. I experienced it on a very basic level, mainly sheer terror. Over the years and after many, many repeat viewings, I’ve grown to love every nuance of the film: the meticulous design, the slow-burn dread, the incredible performances, even the web of conspiracy theories surrounding it. The Shining is the king of all horror movies. All others bow down before it.” — Tim League
John Varvatos navy blue blazer, $398; Vince short- sleeve striped shirt, $95, available at Neiman Marcus, 3400 Palm Way, 512.719.1200.
Jack Spade chambray work shirt, $168, available at Nordstrom, 2901 S. Capital of Texas Hwy., 512.691.3500; Hudson Byron straight-leg gray jeans, $165; Converse John Varvatos multi-lace sneakers, $125, available at Neiman Marcus, 3400 Palm Way, 512.719.1200.
Mondo poster courtesy of Mondo/Tyler Stout. Fantastic Fest photo by Jack Plunkett