Tim League was working as a mechanical engineer for Shell Oil in Bakersfield, California when, one day on his way to work, he came across a “For Lease” sign at a 1940s movie theater. “Literally a week later, I signed the lease,” he said. “I was 24 years old and didn’t know anything about the business, other than really loving movies.”

Tim went on to create Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theater chain with 40-plus locations across the country. Below, he discusses his path to Alamo, the ups and downs of 2020, and his dive into home viewing.

As told to A.frame

Learning (and failing) on the job

I got a degree in mechanical engineering because I was good at math. But, two years into working for Shell Oil, I realized that I hadn’t put much thought into my career path. I loved movies. I didn’t really love being a facilities engineer for Shell.

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It was a beautiful 1940s single-screen, thousand-seat theater called the Tejon Theater—which means either badger or gold ingot, depending on how you use it in a sentence.

The first year of understanding how to run a cinema was really quite challenging. I could have used a few more business classes. My girlfriend at the time [now wife, Karrie] was working at a genetics lab in San Francisco, and as my effort at the theater was failing miserably after a month, I wept and begged and she quit her job and disappointed her parents—like I disappointed mine—by joining me in the endeavor in Bakersfield.

Tejon Theatre in Bakersfield, CA

We ran it for two years as an art house theater. We did some classic films and silent films. We did cult movies late at night. Our core was just art-house staples: foreign-language films and American indies. Oftentimes, we would just hope that nobody would come, but inevitably, one couple would, we’d sell two tickets and we’d have to stay open and play the movie. It closed because nobody came. It was a failure.

So we packed up the projector and moved to Austin to start Alamo. Second effort, second iteration. 

Moving to Austin

Our first order of business was to solve that location, location, location challenge. So after six months, we found a space in the entertainment district in downtown Austin, a smaller facility with 200 seats. We looked at our failure and made some course corrections.

The first night, we did a promotion with a radio station and let the DJs choose a double feature: Raising Arizona and Spinal Tap. We sold out opening night. Day two was terrifying because we didn’t have much cushion, financially. We picked up this pretty mediocre Clint Eastwood thriller called Absolute Power. And again [as in Bakersfield], like four people came—but this time we had a staff. In Bakersfield, it was me and Karrie. We just lived in the theater and didn’t have any employees. There was more on the line here.

Initially, we did second-run $2 movies during the week and cult movies on the weekends, with some classic movies peppered in. We liked building a community around shows that we love. You’re there every single day and you get to know the regulars and build up this kind of family relationship, especially with a single screen. That’s driven a lot of our expansion. In restaurants and entertainment, I seek out local things, but I’m driven by this idea that the larger we can become at Alamo, the more we can support filmmakers that we love, and in particular, independent, small foreign-language films.

These competing principles are the basis for developing local social media, and having a local community liaison and creative manager that are the personality and spirit of every theater. The theater in Raleigh is a reflection of the creative team in Raleigh and the theater in Brooklyn, the same. And so, the construct of Alamo is the same, but it’s more of a reflection of the local personalities.

A year we never imagined

As [the coronavirus] was developing in China, in my mind, I was sort of downplaying what could happen if it came to the United States. “Here’s the worst case scenario,” I thought—and we’re so far beyond the worst case scenario. 

It’s been a crazy year. We only have 15 of our 41 theaters open now. And our goal during this time, at 25 percent capacity reopened, is not to hemorrhage money. It’s to try to break even without considering rent expense. We’re still in this mode of “hunker down and survive.” All that I just mentioned about local advantages—everybody’s been furloughed, so we are doing uniform programming in this down period.

There are still a couple of folks that do some local programming, but we’re largely in unison so that we can try to break even and then reemerge. I think the only sort of positive thing about it is that you don’t often get the opportunity in regular business to pause and to deconstruct and rebuild. We’re trying to be more efficient. We’re trying to look at how we can be better at promotion and supporting films that we do love across a bigger footprint.

Our core community understands the difficulty of the situation. We have a subscription service we love called Season Pass that’s been really popular, and obviously when we were shut down, we automatically turned those subscription programs dormant. But we set up a nonprofit to provide small grants for our furloughed employees, and as one of the refunding mechanisms, anybody that had a Season Pass membership could keep it on and we would flow that money into the nonprofit. And we had a lot of people just do that. They’ll take their $20 a month and contribute to the fund. I think that speaks to the sense of community that has been built.

Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX (Photo: Heather Kennedy)

There’s still a small group of us that brainstorm ideas on what we’re going to do for content that’s not Tenet. The movies that we kind of yearn for are fun and escapist movies, so we didn’t want to go too heavy. So we took a lighthearted approach to something that’s entered our lives in a strange, ubiquitous way with masks. It seemed like a fun entry point [for a curated series]. And then the other, “Manipulation of Time,” was what we like to do a lot of times is if there’s a big movie that we’re excited about, and we’re all excited about Tenet. So we show not direct influences, but in the weeks building up to a big movie, [we show movies to] get yourself geared up by getting into that head space.

I think our biggest differentiator as a company has been that, starting with me and Karrie, our only qualification for being in this is we’re totally obsessed with movies. We love movies to this day. We spent our 20th wedding anniversary at the Lumiere Festival [in Lyon, France]. We still take most of our vacations at film festivals, particularly ones that have really good food. We hire people that are like-minded, that are onboard with the same mission for what we want to do as a company and the films we want to support.

See also: Tim’s top five film festival finds

Enter Alamo on Demand

Alamo on Demand is certainly a COVID project. We were starting to see virtual cinemas pop up and it’s similar to the path for us to build our own subscription program in-house, instead of going with a Movie Pass. We want to have a direct relationship with [customers]. What was going through my mind, and I’ll use Parasite as an example, we went to the mat trying to promote Parasite and build an audience throughout its run. And we did a great job. But we have a lot of data about how people interact with the website and what they see in terms of trailers, and we saw that there’s probably about 35 percent of people that intended to see Parasite, but never got around to it.

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The idea of being a good partner with the studios, with the independent distributors, is to have a relationship for the life of a movie—to get involved at festival time with movies we love, orchestrate a theatrical plan, and then continue to have an offering for our guests post-theatrical, and sharing in that revenue.

It’s been great. It’s been one of my primary obsessions for the past three months, to build up the library and follow the same ethos of everything that’s on Alamo on Demand: One of our programming team members really loves it and can stand behind it. We have about 700 movies on the platform.

Down the road, I see it as a more substantial part of the business when theaters are open and we have more of that Parasite example, of having a robust theatrical followed by a strong offering in home entertainment where people can transact with us as opposed to a giant behemoth. I’d like to believe that people in our community are going to make that choice provided that our offering is solid.

In select titles, they’ll have our Alamo pre-show as part of the content. There are also quite a few films on the site that are only available on Alamo on Demand, folks that largely went through Fantastic Fest and didn’t ever get U.S. distribution. We’re reaching out to individual filmmakers and building out a library of films that have played the festival before.

It’s a lot of work and it’s not a ton of revenue, but it’s a meaningful collection, especially in the Fantastic Fest category. We’re also reviving some of our old shows from days gone by. Things that we produced in the ’90s and 2000s are going to start popping up into the site for the next few months. So I’m also treating it as something of an archival record of things that we’ve done. 

On the subject of home viewing …

I didn’t get into this to become a home video guy. I got into this to become a cinema company. I got into this because I love the distraction-free big screen, the energy you have from a crowd. But what I love most is you’re in it. It’s so easy at home to be distracted and to press pause and go to the bathroom or, God forbid, check your email. It’s pure in a cinema. I am going to put all my effort into Alamo on Demand being a success, but not the only success.

Still, I watch a ton of stuff at home. I have a solid home viewing setup that has gone through various iterations over the years. We’ve had projectors, but my TV is currently a flat screen and something I bought five years ago, so it’s not as big as they can be now. And we always have big sound.

I think people get really fancy about the surround matrix, which I don’t really care that much about. I mean, 5.1 and above is fine. The two elements that are important for me are a really dialed-in and meaty (but not too meaty) subwoofer, which gives you the energy of the sound, and a really good, well-placed center channel. Most serious home entertainment systems of days gone by are left-right centered, and center is an afterthought. And 70 percent of the sound is coming through that center channel. So, invest in a strong sub and really watch some YouTube videos about dialing it in and get a really good center channel.

If you’re going to go projector, then treat it like a cinema room. Have the ability to black out that room because if you don’t, projectors just are so sensitive to getting washed out and that’s really frustrating. That’s why 3D has always failed, because it’s supremely underlit. The two things that kind of pull you out without really realizing it in a movie theater are anemic sound and not enough light on the screen. So, I guess if you’re going to go the projector route, which is the better route, go big. Build a cinema in your house. If you can’t do that, then get as big a flat screen as you can.