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Tim League wants film buffs to remember Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

April 22, 2012|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Tim League, co-founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, outside the 10-theater chain's South Lamar location in Austin, Texas.
Tim League, co-founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, outside the… (Annie Ray )

The gig: Tim League, 42, is chief executive and co-founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. The quirky 10-theater chain has developed a cult following with its special events, themed movie nights and in-seat food and drink service. The Alamo recently launched its own film distribution company and is expanding nationwide, opening new theaters in New York and Denver and eyeing locations in Los Angeles.

Career change: After a two-year stint at Shell Oil in Bakersfield, League quit the engineering profession and opened his first movie theater. "I was on my way back home when I saw this abandoned movie theater with a for-lease sign on it," said League, a movie buff. "It just sounded to me like a more exciting path than working at Shell."

A week later, the 23-year-old engineer signed a lease on the small Tejon theater in Bakersfield. With no prior experience in the business, League struggled. His first cinema adventure proved to be an "unmitigated disaster."

Undeterred, he and wife Karrie loaded up a truck with a movie screen, projector and 200 seats, and moved to Texas. They had both studied at Rice University in Houston but chose Austin as their new home. Borrowing money from their parents, the couple opened a single-screen theater in a second-story parking garage and named it Alamo Drafthouse.

A different kind of theater: "Our only qualification for opening a movie theater in the first place was that we were movie nerds and loved movies,'' League said. "We felt that one of the things that was missing from the cinema experience was any sense of personality or love of the movies. It was more of a commodity. We set out to become a haven for movie lovers."

That meant banning advertising from screenings, inviting filmmakers to talk about their movies and adopting a famously strict no-talking policy. "We were really vigilant about throwing people out," League said. The Alamo did something else that was unheard-of: It allowed patrons to order beer, pizza and sandwiches from their seats, one of the first theaters in the country to do so. (The theaters also host special food nights, with chefs preparing special dishes inspired by scenes in movies.)

League also programmed a mix of films, including slasher movies and art house fare, and offered themed nights with names like "Terror Tuesday" and "Weird Wednesday." He created Fantastic Fest, an annual film festival offering eight days of offbeat cinema from independents, international filmmakers and major Hollywood studios.

Celebrity ties: League's success also has been built around carefully cultivating ties with filmmakers such as director Robert Rodriguez, who often screens his movies at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and Quentin Tarantino, who programs his film festival at the Alamo.

Best advice: Would-be entrepreneurs should plan for the worst when starting out, League said. "Assume everything is going to go wrong and you're going to lose all your money. And if you're OK with the worst-case scenario, then proceed. If not, then think very seriously before venturing into it."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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