The Last Word with Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League
Written by Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League
Photography by Annie Ray
Tim League and his wife Karrie founded Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 1997 with the intention of having “good food, good beer and good films all in the same place.” Moving beyond the multiplex experience, League and his entire crew were passionate about film and provided a different experience for film buffs, which has been adopted and copied by multiplex theater chains. Passion for film, innovative programming, and commitment to classic as well as indie films is what keeps the cinephiles coming. What began with a single screen on Colorado Street in Austin has grown to include dozens of theaters nationwide that host a mix of indie premieres and films as well as mainstream Hollywood films and many special events.
I’ll start off by saying that self-identifying as a “disrupter” feels pretty off-putting. I don’t. I do self-identify as a business owner and entrepreneur, and I happen to dearly love the business my wife Karrie and I built and still operate today.
We opened the first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema back in 1997. Our initial driving force was to build a movie theater we’d want to frequent. Both of us loved movies, but we were far from in love with our cinema options at the time. We began by considering a “night out at the movies” and all the ways the experience could be improved, drastically improved.
Although we didn’t formalize our mission and values at the time, we did come out of the gates at Alamo with a few driving concepts, above and beyond serving drinks and food, that would differentiate our theater from the others:
No advertisements before movies.
Paid “content” sucks in every iteration I’ve seen in a cinema, so we opted to never do it. Instead, we invest resources to create a video preshow that’s fun, funny, and informative. Not all movies are awesome, but if the preshow before the movie is, hopefully the entire experience at Alamo Drafthouse is still worth the time and money spent.
Sharing our love of film.
When we visited standard commercial theaters, we’d find the experience was always sterile — no personality, no love of movies radiating from the staff or from the facility. We love movies. That was honestly our only qualification to start the theater in the first place. We wanted to share our passion for movies, get to know our fellow movie-loving customers, and make the theater available to filmmakers, festivals, and organizations who also loved movies.
No talking or texting.
Plus a new addition — turn off your damned smart watches. It’s just as selfish to inadvertently light up your row with a bright Apple Watch as it is to check Instagram on your phone. Just turn it off and lose yourself in the show. But I digress … This technically wasn’t an “out of the gate” concept for us. About a month into operation, however, I was devastated by a way-too-rowdy audience at a screening of Blue Velvet. We didn’t conceive of this problem until that night but wanted to course correct immediately. The next morning I bought a copy of Final Cut Pro, and our zero-tolerance policy was on screen the following weekend.
The addition of our “no talking” policy speaks to what I suppose is our version of disruption. We started the theater with a drive to analyze and improve. Karrie and I had initial (brief) careers in science and engineering, and the analytical nature of those professions is forever stamped into who we are. This constant pursuit of change and improvement didn’t stop when the doors opened, and it’s one of our core values today.
We’re passionate about providing an awesome cinema experience and aggressively pursue positive change and improvement in all facets of our company. When we make mistakes, we consider them opportunities to improve. Hiring people who share that passion is key. Our team is constantly on alert, receptors open, to find innovative ideas anywhere and anytime that we can incorporate into the business, often from our guests and fellow movie-obsessed co-workers.