An Interview With Tim League and Karrie League
The founders of the Alamo Drafthouse chat about how the indie movie theater got its start.
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You both went to Rice University, in Houston, but after graduation ended up in Bakersfield, California, running a movie theater. How did that come about?
Tim League: When I was a sophomore at Rice—where I was a mechanical engineering student—I got a summer internship at Shell Oil, in Bakersfield. That first summer I was really gung ho. I was invited back after my junior year, but I was less gung ho about mechanical engineering. After that, they offered me a job to come back after my senior year. But I had this realization that I’d just spent four years studying something that I didn’t, at the end of the day, really like. But for a lack of any other opportunities, I went ahead and accepted the job at Shell and ended up working as an engineer for two years. The whole time I was thinking of what I was going to do next. I started applying to art schools—I also had a fine art degree from Rice—so I could get a master’s degree. Then one day I was having a conversation with some people who I barely knew at a coffeehouse about how cool it would be to run a movie theater. There was a theater for lease on my way to work, and without much thought at all I just signed the lease and said, “This is what I’m going to do.”
That was brave.
Tim: It was stupid is what it was. I had saved about $40,000 from working at Shell, and I spent all of that to renovate the theater, which had been closed for many years. It was kind of an art deco theater built in the forties, and it had a single screen and seated a thousand people.
Did you know anything about film projection or how to run a theater?
Tim: No, I had no idea about anything, projection being the least of it. I never took any business classes at school, so I didn’t even know what a balance sheet was. I bought a projector from a former theater operator in town, and part of the purchase price was that he had to train me. I was mechanically inclined, so I learned fairly quickly. I opened the theater with the two people I met at the coffeehouse, after renovating it for four months, but three weeks later they both left. I was still working for Shell during the day, and I would come home to the theater at night. At that point I basically convinced Karrie, who was working as a microbiology researcher in San Francisco, to quit her job and come bail me out because I wasn’t able to keep up with it.
The two of you met at Rice, right?
Tim: Yeah, we met freshman year. We were just dating when she moved to Bakersfield, but we eventually got married after spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a year at the theater. We figured we weren’t going to kill each other after that.
So how was business?
Tim: It’s kind of miraculous that it didn’t fail more than it did. It was a financial disaster, but we had little spurts of money that would come in. We showed first-run art house programming, and we would do occasional special events. It was kind of the incubator for the idea that became the Alamo Drafthouse. We did our first food-themed events—in those cases we’d bring in a local restaurant to prepare a meal that was themed to a movie—and we’d do cult programming at midnight.
Karrie League: We’d heard about the concept of these theaters that served food and beer and wine, and we checked one out in Portland. We realized that it’s the greatest idea in the world. So we tried to do it in Bakersfield, but we were unable to get a beer-and-wine license.
Tim: I’m pretty thankful that the license didn’t go through because it probably would have been just enough revenue to make a go of it in Bakersfield. I was 23 at the time, and I looked young for my age even. I walked into the equivalent of the TABC office in California and said “I want a liquor license.” So I shot myself in the foot. Plus, it wasn’t in a great neighborhood and the district wasn’t interested in awarding any more liquor licenses in that part of town. The problem was that it was the wrong side of town—and really the wrong town. When we came to Austin, the very first thing we did—I guess we were 25 or 26 at the time—was hire a firm to go see the TABC for us.
So why did you choose to start your dinner-and-a-movie enterprise in Austin?
Karrie: We were considering Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Austin—places like that. But a lot of our college friends were in Austin, and Tim had some family there. We just liked the town.
Tim: I still like all of those cities—I think they’re still viable—but Austin didn’t have anything like this at the time. And we were familiar with the town because we had spent a lot of time here on weekends when we were going to Rice; we knew what kind of an entertainment scene it had. And the University of Texas was a big factor in our decision. Austin had everything we were looking for, and it had a comfort level that the other cities didn’t.
It’s been ten years since you opened your first location. How has the Alamo Drafthouse evolved?
Karrie: When we started we just showed second-run Hollywood movies and every once in awhile we would do something special just to keep ourselves entertained. We always enjoyed doing those special events, and Tim is just this gold mine of ideas—his brain never shuts off. But at first we were limited by the amount of time we had and by budgetary constraints. The two of us did all the work: We were full-time managers and we did all of the bookkeeping, programming, and advertising. Then we opened Alamo Village, in 2001, and at that point we started to pull away a bit more from the operations.
Business was booming, but I get the feeling it was too much too soon?
Tim: Yeah, a little. It was never my idea or Karrie’s idea, but we were convinced by some folks within our expanding organization to go ahead and embrace the franchise concept. For us, that phase of it grew really, really fast. After we opened up our first franchise—that was the Lake Creek location—Karrie and I were of the mindset to pull back and make sure we had everything in order.
Karrie: We had people coming to us saying, “We love your idea, we really want to franchise,” so we did grant franchise rights. But then we were spending all of our time in lawyer meetings and dealing with franchise issues, and we realized we weren’t having fun. There’s an obligation that you fall under once you’ve started franchising. You’ve basically made a promise to those people that they can hold you to legally, so we couldn’t just stop. If we didn’t want to keep expanding, the only thing we could do was to let somebody else continue to expand. So our only option was to sell off.
Tim: There was another force within the company that wanted to go bigger and bigger and bigger, and he was the guy who basically brokered the deal to sell the expansion side of the company.
Karrie: So basically, we sold all of the intellectual property that they’d need to start new stores, and we licensed the intellectual property rights back to ourselves.
So, in July 2004, after you sold the franchise rights, you only retained your first three locations. Is it strange to see the company you created expand into San Antonio, Houston, McAllen, and elsewhere and not be a part of it?
Karrie: It’s a little weird to have this other company with our name that we don’t have anything to do with. People don’t really understand the sale and don’t realize how we don’t have anything to do with all these new locations that are opening. People will call and want to know what’s happening with the new location in San Antonio, and it’s kind of embarrassing to tell them, “Well, I don’t know.”
Tim: It is strange, but it was a great relief not to be constantly expanding. Our business has fully matured in the last three years, and we’ve been able to focus our energies on making sure that the three locations that we’re still running are doing everything exactly how we want them to. We’re refining our model and refining our process on all fronts, so I’m happy with that decision. The other locations [that we don’t own] do a really good job too, but our locations are a little bit different because we are so tied to the Austin community and really understand our core audience. What I love about the business is having a direct link, a real presence within the community. I’m much more an event creator and promoter than I am a businessman trying to maximize the profitability out of a packet of ketchup. The financial side of the business was never my strong suit. That’s why Karrie bailed me out in the first place.
Your big project right now is renovating the old Ritz Theater building on Sixth Street, in Austin, which will be the new downtown location. When will that be ready?
Tim: Construction’s been challenging. I’m serving as the general contractor, and I’m realizing I’m not a very good contractor. If nothing major goes wrong, we’ll open in September, but I’m really excited about the space. We’re spending a lot of money and we’re doing things right and I think it’s going to be a legacy location. It’s going to be the nicest one out there for sure.
The Alamo Drafthouse’s quirky programming has earned a loyal following. How do you come up with ideas?
Tim: Over the years we’ve assembled this core group that makes up the programming office. There are five of us now, and we collectively do all of the special events for the downtown location, for the Rolling Roadshow Tour, and for anything that’s crazy or over the top. We’re all movie-obsessed nerds, and we’re into the idea of having a fun experience. We always have receptors out no matter where we are. I’m constantly making notes about a nightclub I’ve gone to, a movie I’ve seen, even current events. Anything can be an idea because we look at the space as more than just a movie theater.
One of the biggest hits is the Rolling Roadshow Tour. How did that get started?
Tim: I remember the moment very distinctly. Back in 2000, Karrie and I were coming back from watching an advance screening in Dallas, and we were listening to the radio. There was some Earl Scruggs/Lester Flatt, banjo kind of song on, which got us to talking about the movie Deliverance and what sort of event we could do with it. So we came up with the idea to go on a canoe trip and then screen the movie in a remote location. We wanted it to be a very intimate setting with a small number of people. It was basically an extension of what we were trying to do at the theater with our themed screenings, but taking it to the next level.
So we rounded up as many canoes as we could, enough for seventy people, and we rented a U-Haul trailer. We pulled one of our projectors out of the theater, which was a fairly significant task, and we set it up inside the U-Haul, and we built a big wall of scaffolding, which we put the screen up against. We had such a good time doing it that within a year we went ahead and bought a truck and new projectors and built a permanent, mobile projection room inside the truck and bought a big inflatable screen.
After several years of screenings in and around Austin, you decided to take the tour national in 2005. What was the impetus for that?
Tim: Once we had the system down, we started to do more and more of these outings—it was a natural evolution to go from showing Deliverance on the banks of the Colorado River to saying “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to show it on the actual river where it was filmed in Georgia?” I don’t know when that leap came, but we thought, “Hey, we should do a big tour of extreme movie events,” and we loved the idea so much that we just went out and did it.
How do you choose the films, and thus, the locations?
Karrie: We have a master list of movies for which the locations are really important, and that list continues to grow as ideas come up. We decide how far we want to go and what kind of a route we want to take and then we consult our master list and pick certain movies. The first year we wanted to do the West Coast. And the second year we wanted to go coast to coast. And this year we’re doing a big loop all around the country.
What are your favorites this year?
Karrie: There’s a bunch of them, but this is the year we’re doing Deliverance on the “real” river in Georgia, which is just tremendously exciting because that was the first Rolling Roadshow event we ever did.
But you’re starting off with a caravan from Austin to San Elizario, where you’ll show Fandango. What’s the appeal of that movie?
Tim: Fandango starts off with five buddies, a group of long friends that just graduated from UT, who decide they’re going to have one last, grand road trip. So they set off across Texas and have this crazy, reckless adventure that takes them all over the place. The spirit of what happens in that movie resonated with us. And it grounds the tour in Austin.
What’s been your favorite location to date?
Tim: Locally, my favorite was the screening of The Descent, a horror movie about four girls trapped in a cave, that we did at Longhorn Cavern. We did a sneak preview at the bottom of the cave and afterward the VIP folks got to go on an extreme caving adventure through extremely tight passages. It was sensory overload, and the perfect example of what we’re trying to do.
What dream locations are on your master list?
Tim: I always thought it would be really cool to do a tour of Italy and show our favorite Spaghetti Westerns because a lot of those towns are still there. I haven’t made any arrangements to even start thinking about that, but that’s certainly a pie-in-the-sky one.
Any ideas for Rolling Roadshow Tours in the nearer future?
Tim: For now, I am happy just doing something a little different each year. We’ve never repeated a location. There are a couple of concepts we’ve thought about: Maybe we’ll do a Cannonball Run type of cross-country car race starting in New York and ending up in Los Angeles, with driving challenges each stage of the way. I think that might happen next year. Our mantra is if we’re having fun participating and taking part in it then we’re going to keep on doing it.