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