A career in the movie business was not originally in the cards for Tim League, founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
Before starting the Austin-based movie theater chain, League attended Rice University, where he graduated in 1992 with degrees in mechanical engineering and art history. His engineering career started and ended with a two-year stint at Shell Oil in Bakersfield, Calif., the same city where he eventually opened his first movie theater.
The short-lived Tejon theater closed in 1995, at which point League and his wife, Karrie, packed up and moved to Austin to start Alamo Drafthouse. The initial start was not without risk, as the couple cobbled together $250,000 in startup money, part of which came from their parents. In addition to Alamo Drafthouse, League is also the co-founder of Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. He also operates a new distribution venture called Drafthouse Films, which helped distribute the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Act of Killing," among other movies.
How did you start the Alamo Drafthouse venture?
That goes back to Bakersfield. I was working for Shell Oil as an engineer, and I knew pretty quickly—my first day on the job, honestly—that this was something of a mistake. I shouldn't have done this. So I started with an exit strategy in mind. On my way to work, there was an abandoned movie theater, and one day there was a 'For lease' sign on the movie theater. It had never crossed my mind that one could just lease a movie theater and get in the business of showing movies. A week later, I signed the lease. This was just an impulsive decision—I was 23 years old and thought I knew everything. It was quite the opposite. I didn't know anything about business. So we took sort of a crash-course MBA for those two years.
Did you have doubts about running a movie theater?
We knew if we got a better location, we knew in our hearts what we were trying to do there we could do successfully somewhere else like Austin.
How did the dining experience while watching a movie come about?
There was a theater in Portland [Ore.]that did beer and food service in the theater, and we really liked it. So, yeah we completely blatantly ripped it off from another theater.
Why do you think the cinema eatery concept has been so popular?
Traditional movie concessions work for a certain group—sometimes you want a Coke and a popcorn. But our audience is a little older just by the nature of what we do, and so it's a great date experience where you can compress eating and going to a movie into two hours and minimize the babysitting time.
How did you start the whole concept of making themed nights in which the food reflects the movie?
I think that just comes with me being a movie fan, and I like to throw events and parties. So it just seemed a natural fit. ... The idea of making the experience special and offering people something they can't get anywhere else was very early on part of our marketing strategy to build loyalty.
How have home entertainment options affected business?
I don't think it does. People have been forecasting the demise of the cinema industry since television was invented. The reality is, when you think about it, say on a Friday or Saturday night, there is really only one decision you make: Are you going to stay home, or are you going to go out? We compete against going-out options, so we compete with bowling, roller skating, going to a bar—not so much roller skating. Those damn roller skaters. I think that's true of the '50s, and I think that's true of today.
How have some of these similar concept ideas affected your business?
I don't have a problem with it. I already said I'm a notorious sampler of ideas myself, so I think having more quality offerings just kind of raises the profile of people wanting to go out to the cinema. I also think it's healthy to have competition to keep us on our toes and make sure we're trying to stay ahead of everybody.
As CEO, what do you do?
There's no real set day. We have other companies that are not just brick-and-mortar theaters. We're acquiring and distributing films, and it's almost like that's a startup. It's a five-person team that should be a 20-person team, so I work a lot on that. But when it comes to the theater itself, I see my primary job as just making sure we don't lose track of who we are. We're expanding. We opened eight theaters last year—we only have 18 theaters—so that's doubling our size last year. So when you do that, there's challenges with growth to make sure what we're offering doesn't get diluted and doesn't turn something that was once great into something awful or mediocre.
How did the decision work out to relocate Fantastic Fest?
Well, it wasn't really my decision. There was a 60-foot gaping hole where our theater used to be, so you can't really do a festival there, so we just worked with what we had. It turned out great, actually. What we found at South Lamar, we would lose people sometimes to go have fun in Austin. But by putting it up in Lakeline, it created an even better community experience because everyone knew everyone. I really liked it up there because by the end of the eight days, it felt like everybody was way more a part of what we were trying to do.
What tweaks and features are included in the new theater at Lakeline Market?
We haven't pulled the trigger on it yet, but there's some new sound formats I'm interested in. Dolby has come out with this thing, Dolby Atmos. Atmos has 46 isolated speakers. When you sit down to watch the movie, it automatically re-equalizes the room based on how many people are in there, so it's supposed to be perfect sound but very few movies are fixed in this. We're waiting to see if it sticks before we make what is a pretty massive investment. ... At the Lakeline facility, we moved the kitchen upstairs above the lobby ... which meant we took all the food service out of public view. It's more expensive to build, but I think we like that model.