The setup could have been a scene from Blazing Saddles: a group of artsy foreign filmmakers visiting a rural Texas ranch to shoot guns for the first time in their lives. They’d come from all over the world—Belgium, Colombia, Canada, and South Africa, among other countries—to attend Fantastic Fest, an eight-day genre film festival held in Austin each fall that’s pure gonzo Texas. Attendees don’t just drink beer and watch movies—though they do a lot of that too—they also have late-night debates in which they argue about their favorite movies (then settle the disputes in the boxing ring) and attend screenings that include audience members volunteering to get tattoos on their butts. Or, in the case of the aforementioned filmmakers and a reporter, pile into a large white van and drive to Bastrop to fire AK-47s at an event called No Prisoners: The Fantastic Fest Machine Gun & BBQ Assault, which is exactly what it sounds like. There’s a lot of barbecue, a lot of guns, and a lot of people who want to believe that the Hollywood-inspired, Wild-West-wide-screen idea of Texas is still out there, waiting for them, just thirty minutes from Austin.
It’s an almost cartoonish Texas experience, and it’s the creation of Tim League, who co-founded Fantastic Fest in 2005 and has been hosting it ever since. League and his wife, Karrie, are best known for launching the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas in Austin, in 1997, a chain that has now grown to 27 locations in 20 cities and counting. At an Alamo, you can have dinner and drink beer while watching the latest superhero blockbuster, an art-house film, or some obscure cult classic from the seventies—and see some of the funniest public service announcements ever made about not using your cellphone in a movie theater. But none of that is what really sets the theaters apart. What League primarily does—at the festival and, especially, at the Alamo—is create fun, silly, and occasionally downright bizarre experiences. If you buy a ticket to see the latest Fast & Furious installment or Marvel movie at the Alamo, you don’t just see a movie, you might also get a curated collection of premovie clips related to the feature, a food and drink menu crafted to match the film, and maybe a Vin Diesel trivia contest or an appearance by a group of super-fans wearing, say, custom-made Guardians of the Galaxy costumes to introduce the movie. You’re not going to a movie, you’re going to an event.
When the van arrives at the ranch in Bastrop, the filmmakers pile out. There’s a makeshift shooting range assembled on the property near picnic tables, where several men who will be our instructors have gathered. Another crowded van pulls up behind ours, and the 25 of us are split into three groups. After the instructors review the rules (keep the safety on until you plan to fire, don’t point the gun at anybody, ever), we start cycling through the different stations, where we can shoot fully automatic rifles, semiautomatic rifles, and semiautomatic pistols.
One of the instructors asks a filmmaker where he’s from, and when he answers Colombia, the guy who just handed him a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun laughs. “We have guns here,” he says. “That’s why we don’t have the same problems they do in Third World countries. The cartels don’t come into Texas because of this,” he nods, patting an AK-47. Staring at the weapon, the filmmaker opts not to argue the point. Instead, everybody goes off for a few hours of shooting. The event culminates in everyone utilizing the lessons of the day to aim, fire, and unleash a holy mess of bullets at a tank of gasoline until it whooshes into flames. The explosion doesn’t look quite the way it does in the movies, but it’s still pretty fun.
This is the sort of scene that you can’t imagine happening at Cannes or Sundance, but it’s perfectly in line with the atmosphere that League is trying to create around Fantastic Fest and the Alamo. He’s also started a film distribution company, a limited-edition poster art firm, and a film news and criticism website and magazine. He’s built the Alamo Drafthouse family of brands around his personality: a brash, loud, eclectic, movie-loving performer whose primary objective is to make sure everybody else is having as much goddamn fun as he is.
League’s approach is especially refreshing during these troubling times for the film industry. The number of tickets sold at theaters has been declining, and the tech industry has been pushing to develop ways for people to stream new movies at home, even the biggest blockbusters. With theaters facing an uncertain future, League has emerged as a key leader in the field, but he’s not your standard executive. After all, he once appeared on Fox Business Network to promote the Drafthouse’s Star Wars marathon screenings dressed as Princess Leia.
At a time of bland multiplexes, when the silver screen is slowly giving way to the tablet screen, when we’re all tempted to stay on the couch and stream Netflix, Tim League has dedicated himself to bringing us back to the theaters, turning us on to great cinema, and, most of all, helping us have fun at the movies again.
The Alamo Drafthouse wasn’t the first movie theater that Tim and Karrie League opened. They’d met as freshmen at Rice University, and after graduating, in 1992, they both took jobs in California—he as facilities engineer with Shell Oil in Bakersfield, she with a biotech company in San Francisco—and continued dating long distance.
One morning in late 1993, Tim was driving to work and feeling down. He missed Karrie and hated his job. He glanced out the window and saw that the Tejon Theater, an abandoned forties-era art deco–style movie house, had a For Lease sign out front, and he had a burst of inspiration. He’d always been a film buff, and he had a notion that running a theater might be fun. So almost on a whim, he signed the lease and spent his life’s savings to renovate the place with two friends over the next four months. After opening the theater, League worked at Shell during the day and ran film screenings at night. His friends soon moved on, and Karrie quit her job in San Francisco and moved to Bakersfield to help him.
The business struggled, though. “It was on the wrong side of the tracks, in the wrong city,” says Karrie, who married Tim in 1995. “But we knew we really liked the movie theater game. We’d heard that there were theaters that served alcohol and food, and we thought that maybe this would do better if we could do that, but we couldn’t get the licenses we needed to do it in Bakersfield.” The theater closed in 1996, and the Leagues began looking for a place to try again.
They knew Austin from their time in Houston, and they had family and friends nearby. They found a real estate agent to lease them a run-down building at Fourth and Colorado streets, in the heart of downtown. It had been a parking garage, then a storage facility for state records. They began renovating, doing most of the work themselves, since they didn’t have much money. “We read a lot of books about construction,” Tim says.
During their first building review, the inspector told them that they had their sheetrock on backward. He passed them anyway. They left one of the old parking stripes in the hallway—either as “a little remnant of days gone by” or “because we were really tired of scraping paint,” depending on which of the Leagues you ask.
They didn’t know anything about food service, so they had to get some firsthand training. Karrie took a job as a waiter at the Red Lion Hotel, and Tim worked at a pizza place near the University of Texas campus. Karrie pilfered some of Red Lion’s management paperwork to see what a manager is supposed to do every day. They eventually secured a no-collateral loan as part of a special program that got their project rolling, and they opened the first Alamo Drafthouse on May 25, 1997.
The first night, a double feature of Raising Arizona and This Is Spinal Tap, sold out, in part thanks to a special radio promotion, but just three people showed up the second night. In the early weeks, the Leagues could expect maybe fifteen or twenty people in the theater on a good night. First-run movies were expensive to screen, so they were mostly stuck with dollar-theater fare—and the first major-release movie they showed was Absolute Power, a Clint Eastwood thriller that tanked. Two months in, they had just enough left in the bank to make payroll for their small staff for the rest of the month, even with Tim and Karrie taking on everything from projection and marketing to kitchen operations and accounting. And then Austin Powers happened. “The first Austin Powers was a phenomenon, and even in second run, people wanted to go back and drink a beer and watch that kind of movie,” Tim says. Suddenly, thanks to a Mike Myers romp about a spy with bad teeth, they had themselves a thriving business.
For a few years, the Alamo Drafthouse was mostly a second-run theater, with special-event programming on the weekends and late at night. They hosted a small touring animation film festival, the Spike & Mike Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation. They created Mr. Sinus Theater (now called Master Pancake), an homage to Mystery Science Theater 3000, that featured comedians making fun of movies as they played on the screen. An impromptu purchase of a huge stash of old film reels in Missouri was the catalyst for Weird Wednesdays, free late-night screenings for audiences who liked to watch bizarre stuff with titles like Samurai Cop and The Sex Thief. Weird Wednesdays and Mr. Sinus Theater helped build the Drafthouse brand and the community that would eventually emerge around Fantastic Fest; the Alamo wasn’t just a second-run theater, it was a home for movie fans who wanted a unique experience.
By 2001, things were going well enough for the Leagues at the downtown location that they actually hired managers. “We weren’t there every single day. It was comfortable and nice,” Tim recalls. “That was the entire intent. We had no plan beyond that. We wanted to run a single-screen theater forever and then retire.” But they soon got some bad news: a four-screen theater in North Austin was being leased, and another company had plans to open in that location with a similar concept—movies plus food and drink. They had one chance to stop it. “The property manager called me up and said, ‘If you want this, it’s yours, but the lease is done. You have to sign this lease, and you have to sign it by Friday.’ ”
Suddenly, they had to decide what to do: they could expand to a second theater, despite having no plans to do so, or they could risk being driven out of business by a new competitor. They went for it. “We were basically motivated by fear,” Karrie says. “And rightfully so, because after we opened the Village [theater], downtown suffered terribly for a while.” They found a balance. The downtown location became a destination for special screenings and unique programming, while the Village location showed first-run movies. Then, in 2003, a similar thing happened. “Another theater closed down, so we were still operating out of fear with that third one,” Tim says. But it was also working for them. They had started making good hires, and they wanted to give their best staff a place to advance. By 2005, when the Leagues built the South Lamar location, which plays host to Fantastic Fest, expansion stopped being about fear of being swallowed up by a competitor and became more about seeing how big the Drafthouse could grow.
Marcus Loew, a film industry pioneer, once said, “I don’t sell tickets to movies, I sell tickets to theaters.” Seeing the film was only part of the overall experience. Though Loew died in 1927, the companies he built—Loew’s Theaters and MGM Studios, which he helped found so he’d have more control over what played on his screens—were at the forefront of a movie boom that followed the Great Depression. With the coming of the Second World War, many Americans turned hopefully or desperately to the cinemas as a source of news and escape. In 1940 the Big Eight film studios made a $20 million profit; by 1942, that number had soared to nearly $50 million.
When the movie palaces first appeared, they were often owned by the studios that produced the films. Theaters across the nation, including in Texas, were called Paramount because they were operated by Paramount Pictures. In the late forties, though, this system came under fire from the U.S. government, which settled an antitrust suit that split studios from the theaters showing their films.
The movie palaces of old wouldn’t last after that. By the early sixties, the multiplex trend had begun. Why show one movie when you could build a wall in your theater or add a floor between the balcony and orchestra sections and convert the space into one that could accommodate different films on multiple screens—all without having to dramatically increase the size of your staff?
The rise of multiplexes through the seventies and eighties dovetailed with changes in how Americans lived. Downtown movie houses became less convenient as people increasingly moved to the suburbs, and by the eighties, multiplex chains were building their theaters near big-box stores and shopping malls. “When the shopping mall came around, that’s when the multiplex really started to boom,” says Matt Lambros, the author of After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater. “When that happened, you had all these downtown theaters that had survived and that suddenly no one would go to. [At a multiplex,] you could send your kids off to see one movie while you and your partner went to see a different one.”
The number of movie theater screens in the U.S. spiked by 61 percent during a twelve-year span. But the pace of building was more than the chains themselves could manage or ticket sales would support. By 2001, Carmike, Loew’s, United Artists, and Regal Cinemas had all declared bankruptcy.
Theater chains may have been entering Chapter 11 that year, but that didn’t mean their product was no longer in demand; 2002 may have been the best year the movie industry ever saw. Theaters sold 1.6 billion tickets to Americans that year, as audiences flocked to Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Things coasted along for several years after that, but Americans weren’t buying as many tickets and profits dropped, from $9.38 billion in 2004 to $8.84 billion in 2005.
The decline coincided with the rise of BitTorrent and high-speed home internet, and Hollywood looked for ways to respond. Using technology developed by James Cameron, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez revived the 3-D format with Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. The rest of the industry followed Rodriguez’s lead shortly thereafter—by 2006 and 2007, even movies like Superman Returns and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which weren’t filmed with 3-D cameras, were converted to 3-D for their theatrical releases, in an attempt to both lure audiences to theaters and charge more for tickets. It helped. Avatar, the James Cameron film that employed groundbreaking use of 3-D, smashed records previously considered unbreakable, and the industry topped $10 billion in a year for the first time.
In recent years, box office receipts have been high—2015 shattered the previous record, nudging past $11 billion—but much of that profit is based on people paying higher prices. The average cost of a movie ticket has spiked by more than $2.50 since 2004; it is now $8.84. But the number of tickets sold—the number of people going to the movies—has been declining. Except at certain theaters, like the Alamo, which are consistently selling out.
All of which highlights what Tim League and the Alamo Drafthouse are really selling. You can see a movie anywhere, but anyone who’s had to buy tickets weeks or months in advance for the opening night of a movie at the Drafthouse, a movie that will also be playing at every theater in town, knows that, like Marcus Loew, League doesn’t sell tickets to movies, he sells tickets to theaters—to an experience.
“When it first started, going to the movies was an event you dressed up for. You were there for four or five hours. There would be newsreels and a sort of vaudeville performance,” Lambros says. “With the Alamo Drafthouse, it’s more of an event experience. Maybe there isn’t an orchestra playing every time, but if they have Back to the Future playing, they’ll have a DeLorean there. That makes it feel more like a special event.”
Balancing that “I don’t sell tickets to movies, I sell tickets to theaters” mind-set with the desire to build more and more theaters has been one of the challenges of growing the Drafthouse as a company beyond Austin, and the Leagues didn’t get it right the first time they tried it. There were executives within the company who wanted the Alamo to explore franchising before the Leagues were ready. In 2004 the two sides reached a compromise: the Leagues sold the brand, the intellectual property, and the rights to franchising to Alamo executives John Martin and David Kennedy, who then licensed back the rights to the Village, South Lamar, and downtown locations in Austin.
The plan soon went south. Having two companies called Alamo Drafthouse with differing visions turned ugly, and the Leagues ended up suing Martin and Kennedy in 2009. “It was frustrating for both sides,” Kennedy says. “We just never talked to each other. It was like an East versus West Germany kind of thing. We were both operating under the same brand name, but it was interesting for us, because we were like, ‘Wow, those guys are doing some really cool stuff,’ and I think it was the same for them looking at us like, ‘I wonder how they did that.’ ”
League and Kennedy both like to operate on handshake agreements, and the lawsuit’s outcome was downright friendly. During depositions, everybody involved was forced to sit and listen to one another for the first time in years. Kennedy heard what League had to say about the issues involving the company and asked him if he wanted to talk it out over pancakes the next morning.
“He had the idea to invite me to breakfast and say, ‘Hey, this might work out better if we stop fighting and just crush it all back together,’ ” League recalls. “At that point, I’d spent enough time apart from it, and I feel like, without the burden of growing the business, I had really dug into what the brand means and what was important and special about it—while they had, in a separate vacuum, built great growth infrastructure and an operations team.”
They quickly settled the lawsuit and went back into business together, with League in charge of the unified Alamo Drafthouse as CEO and everybody on board with the same mission: to build a national company, using the “make going to the movies an event” concept that League had developed. At this point, there are Alamo Drafthouse locations in New York City and San Francisco. There are six Alamos in Austin alone. The company has a team in Los Angeles, and they’ve announced plans for a theater in downtown L.A. that League expects will be open before the end of 2018. They’re also in Denver, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Omaha. And they have seventeen theaters in ten Texas cities, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Lubbock, Laredo, and Corpus Christi, with more theaters in the works. Not bad for a small local chain in a supposedly struggling industry.
The danger, League says, is becoming too corporate. He doesn’t want the Alamo to feel like a cookie-cutter chain, the Walmart of quirky, independent movie theaters. So he and Karrie support microlending programs that help small businesses get started; they view it as paying forward the kind of no-collateral loan they used to launch the Alamo, which isn’t available to new entrepreneurs twenty years and one financial crisis later. In the summer, they host free kids’ movies at their theaters, screening older films early in the day on weekends on a pay-what-you-like basis, with all the proceeds going to youth charities.
League also tries to fight the corporatization of the Alamo by continuing to run it with a “maybe we should just talk about this over a beer” approach to business. After all, the Alamo didn’t thrive because of some jargon-filled and risk-averse monoculture. Rather, the Alamo and its corporate culture are very much products of League’s own values and personality. When the Alamo expands to a new city, it hires a creative manager, a community manager, and a chef. They learn the ropes in Austin, but then it’s theirs to operate. “I want to make it difficult for people to see us as a big chain,” League says. “I want them to question it. I want San Francisco to be known as [Alamo Drafthouse New Mission creative manager] Mike Keegan’s theater.” The beers are local, the chefs get free reign in the kitchen. Each region runs its own social media accounts—the @drafthouse Twitter profile is just for Austin, while other regions get @alamoDFW or @alamoNYC—so people in each community are speaking to their neighbors. Perhaps the theater he’s most proud of isn’t the glamorous one in San Francisco’s Mission District or the downtown Brooklyn location that opened last year. Rather, he likes to talk about the theater in Winchester, Virginia, a town of about 27,000 in the Shenandoah Valley, much closer to West Virginia than Washington, D.C.
“It’s a very small town, very conservative,” League says. “It’s a franchise location, and it’s a really wonderful family that runs it as a family business. They’re super-connected to the town, and they do a lot of charitable work—and they built a film club. Twice a week, they’ll bring in the craziest of the crazy, deep-dive art-house movies, independent films, documentaries, and foreign language films. And people are driving from, like, forty or fifty miles away to come and watch.”
The Winchester Alamo brought out 120 people to watch The Tribe, a Ukrainian film that uses sign language instead of spoken language. “That’s magnificent,” League says. “They’re not going to do an open-ended run of The Tribe, but they’re building out a cinephile audience in their community.”
Ultimately, the lesson League seems to have learned after reuniting his Drafthouse with Martin and Kennedy’s is that he wants to expand nationally by going local. And by doing that, he’s helping build appreciation for less popular kinds of films in places that might not have had room for them before. That matters in places like Winchester and the smaller Texas cities. If you’re a film lover in Laredo or Lubbock, you might have had a hard time connecting with other people who wanted to dig a little deeper into cinema until the Alamo came to town. In Lubbock, film buffs have screened movies like Abigail Disney’s gun-violence documentary The Armor of Light; in Laredo, they’ve been able to revisit Jane Campion’s 1996 adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. “I want to be a part of building the next generation of cinephiles who love everything from classic Godard to the new Yorgos Lanthimos film to whatever Rian Johnson is doing with Star Wars. That’s what keeps me marching.”
At times, League has made quite a difference in the industry. In December 2014, The Interview—a farce about a pair of TV journalists tapped by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un—created a surprising political controversy after North Korean hackers leaked a huge collection of embarrassing internal emails from the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures. The hackers also implied that any theater that screened the movie would be subject to terrorist attacks. Within 24 hours, Regal, Cinemark, AMC, and Cineplex all declared that they wouldn’t be screening the movie, and later that day, Sony executives said that, because there were so few theaters that would support the film, they’d be pulling it from release.
That angered League. So he announced publicly that the Alamo Drafthouse would show the film. Other theater owners from around the country quickly joined him. Soon, hundreds of theaters—including art-house theaters that would never normally screen a Seth Rogen comedy—had signed a petition, which Rogen then took to Sony. The studio relented just before Christmas, and the Drafthouse began selling out screenings of the movie for Christmas Day. As League put it, “People started buying tickets because they felt it was their patriotic duty to say, ‘I’m going to watch this dumb boner comedy for America!’ ” True to form, League showed up at the first screening in a skintight red, white, and blue bodysuit and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”
But that’s just a sliver of the wider impact that League is having on the industry. In 2010, League saw a film called Four Lions. He loved it and was surprised to learn that, six months later, no one had bought it. So he put the Drafthouse team to work distributing the movie. Brandy Fons, who handles PR for the Drafthouse, vividly recalls learning that she was suddenly also working for a brand-new distribution company. “I remember being called down to the conference room to tell me that this was what he was going to do,” Fons says. “I was like, ‘Cool, how much time?’ They were like, ‘Next month.’ ” The plan for Four Lions—a dark comedy about a bumbling group of aspiring jihadi suicide bombers (the plot helps explain why the film had a hard time finding a distributor)—was a multicity tour for director Chris Morris, the launch of a new website, and the initial unveiling of the Drafthouse as a distributor. “It blew my mind. I was like, ‘How will this ever be possible?’ It was a great path to take, but sorry, the timing of how fast that happened was just amazing.”
Drafthouse Films grew quickly—the third film the company picked up, Bullhead, ended up being nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—and over the next five years, the firm acquired more than forty films. Bullhead and Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries about Indonesian genocide, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, were Academy Award nominees, but none of them were dominant at the box office. The highest-grossing Drafthouse Films title earned just under $500,000.
In 2016, Drafthouse Films was folded into Neon, a new distribution company that League launched. The plan for Neon is to build a bigger, more flexible company, one that filmmakers can work with for their entire careers, even as their earnings and ambitions grow, a company that can handle both art-house films and blockbusters. The launch title from Neon was the Anne Hathaway–Jason Sudeikis monster movie Colossal. The film grossed almost $3 million after two months in limited release, and the company went on a tear at Sundance in January, acquiring films starring Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Mahershala Ali, and others.
“I’d like to be able to do small films—foreign language and docs, and I always want to be involved in discovering filmmakers with their first film—but if one ends up being a really big up-and-coming director, I would like to have a relationship all the way through,” League says.
Drafthouse Films frequently picked up titles that were too weird to live at other distributors, but Neon has already been involved in more than one seven-figure bidding war, and the competition now includes zillion-dollar enterprises like Amazon and Netflix and perhaps companies like Google and Apple in the future. “I’d only been able to do things on a very low-budget level, because I’d been self-financing everything with Drafthouse Films,” League says. “This is a big step for us, to actually raise some capital to be able to spend what we need to spend.”
And he’s as political as ever. During the 2016 primary season, League appeared on television to talk about the Alamo Drafthouse while wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt. “Who does that during a CNBC interview?” Kennedy, who still maintains a substantial ownership stake in the Alamo Drafthouse, laughs. “He’s on Wall Street with a Bernie Sanders shirt. I’d never have the cojones to do that.”
Most recently, the Drafthouse announced in May that it would be hosting women-only screenings of Wonder Woman; when some men began complaining online that it was unfair to exclude them, the company scheduled additional women-only screenings and responded to angry tweets with gifs of Wonder Woman punching men into the ocean.
League loves the idea that he can use the power of movies to effect change. He says that distributing Oppenheimer’s documentaries—and the impact those films had in drawing attention to mass killings in Indonesia decades ago—were among his proudest moments. “That’s a bar that’s set that I think I’ll maybe always be chasing: how you can be a part of a movement that’s meaningful,” he says. “There’s a power to film. I’ve had some of my most visceral emotional experiences through documentaries that get me super-charged and make me want to get involved. Maybe I’m a closet activist. Maybe I’m not that closeted.”
That, ultimately, seems to be what connects all of League’s various endeavors. When he returned as CEO of the reunified Alamo Drafthouse, he wanted to use the Alamo brand to do something he cared about. He started Birth.Movies.Death, the film news and criticism website and magazine, and continued the expansion of Fantastic Fest. He started Drafthouse Films, and later Neon, so instead of just screening movies, he could make sure that movies he believed in got screened at all. Maybe what Tim League is franchising isn’t actually his movie theater but his love of movies. “We’re trying to build a community around like-minded weirdos,” he says, “who just love storytelling and love movies.”