APRIL 13, 2018
Episode 13 – Injecting the Magic of Movies into Philanthropy
Tim League from Alamo Drafthouse
On today’s episode, we welcome self-made movie theatre mogul and beloved local philanthropist, Tim League, the CEO and Founder of Alamo Drafthouse. Tim’s vision of a unique, new movie experience took Austin by storm and has since expanded to cities nationwide. Tim now spends his time helping people with more than just a fun night out. He is heavily involved in local philanthropy, supporting organizations like Mobile Loaves and Fishes to help curb homelessness in Austin. Listen to how Tim League has built a sustainable business while also remaining dedicated to serving his community.
Read the Transcript
Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Change The Rules podcast. I’m your host, Lisa Graham. And today we have Tim League in the studio with us. Tim, as many of you know is the Founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse cinema, as well as the co-founder of its subsidiary Mondo and the Drafthouse films distribution company. Tim also co-founded Fantastic Fest, the annual film festival here in Austin. And joining us today also is Dan Graham, fellow co-founder of Notley. And at Notley, our mission is to fund and support businesses, nonprofits, and programs making positive change in the world while serving as a catalyst for social innovation. So thanks for being with us, Tim, excited to talk to you. I think so you went to Rice University, if I’m correct. Are you an engineer by training?
Tim League (00:41):
I never attained my professional engineer status. I did work as an engineer for two years out of college and it was that first day of that job where I realized I’m not going to retire from this job. So I think calling myself an engineer now is a bit of an overstatement, but yeah, former.
Lisa Graham (00:58):
Enginer of fun and entertainment. And so how did you end up in the movie theater business? How did this come about? Has it always been a passion, or?
Tim League (01:08):
Yeah, I mean, movies have always been a passion. I watched a ton of movies in high school really, honestly, to be perfectly honest, a lot of horror, a lot of pretty tawdry movies.
Lisa Graham (01:18):
That doesn’t surprise me based on Drafthouse releases.
Tim League (01:22):
And then when I went to college, you know, different set of friends, and I was at Rice and went to the River Oaks Theater all the time and kind of explored foreign language films – a wider spectrum of movies – but never thought of it as a career. And then, I took a job at Shell Oil and quickly learned that that was not the retirement plan. And my girlfriend at the time and I would, she was in San Francisco working in a microbiology research lab, and neither one of us, like her coworkers would be like reading a Microbiology Today on their lunch break. And Karrie’s like, who would ever read that? So we both needed a change and on my way to work, there was an abandoned movie theater and one day I passed by and there was a for lease sign on it. And then a week later I had signed that lease. So stupid move of a 23 year old. That’s like completely arrogant and fuels in vulnerable. And we were actually very vulnerable. It was a bad idea, but that was the shift.
Lisa Graham (02:28):
Yeah. And what did you do with that lease?
Tim League (02:31):
I opened a movie theater. We just figured it out. I went down to LA and I bought a copy, two copies of Box Office Magazine and Film Journal International. And in the back page, it had phone numbers for all the studios for like where you get movies. So I didn’t know anything about, I mean, I had no job experience at all. So we learned a lot and screwed up a lot and failed. That business failed after two years. And then we came to Austin to start over.
Lisa Graham (03:04):
And how did you choose to come to Austin? What brought you here?
Tim League (03:07):
I moved to Texas when I was 14 months. And so I’ve lived in Texas a lot in my life. And during that time, in Bakersfield’s where we were, my wife now, Karrie, we got married in the middle of that chaotic two years. And so we looked at about four or five different cities where we had a little bit of a family safety net. And just fell in love with Austin. I knew Austin, even though I grew up in Houston more than any other place, but Austin was always the cool town. And believe it or not, Austin was affordable at the time. And we liked that the Austin Film Society was so strong here. We liked the university. It just felt right.
Lisa Graham (03:52):
And after, you know, trying a theater concept and having it not work out, how did you decide to jump into that again?
Tim League (04:02):
Well, I told you exactly how many days that I had spent between seeing that for lease sign and signing the lease and jumping into it. So, we learned a lot of lessons. The location was terrible. It was on, it was in Bakersfield, it was on the wrong side of Bakersfield. There’s crime in the area, cars would get broken into, nobody wanted to come. And we were showing really highfalutin art films. And, you know, we just pray that nobody would show up. Because that means we could go get a coffee or something, but usually like one person would come or two people would come. So we learned that location lesson really well. And we learned the business and knew that we didn’t know anything, but we thought that if we found the right location, that we had learned enough about how to do it, that we could do it better and do it right.
Dan Graham (04:55):
I do like that though. You know where you open a movie theater, it ends up not working, and you’re sitting there saying, okay, what’s next. You’re like, let’s do it again. It’s great.
Lisa Graham (05:08):
And one of the things that I really love about Alamo Drafthouse and growing up in Austin, you know, going to the original location Downtown was you guys were from the beginning doing very different things and showing very different films. And did you feel like it was taking a risk at the time and trying new things or was it fun? And so, you know, let’s serve food or let’s serve beer, or how did all those ideas originally start coming up to try some of these new things?
Tim League (05:35):
Well, when we shut down the first theater in Bakersfield, Karrie and I moved in with her parents in Davis, California for about six months. And then we planned and we investigated and we actually put some thought into what we were going to do.
Lisa Graham (05:52):
So you didn’t just drive down downtown and see another for lease sign?
Tim League (05:57):
And I think in Bakersfield, even though it was failure, we did beta test, a lot of things. Like we did the first kind of food and movie pairings. We partnered with local restaurants. We did silent films with live scores. We did midnight movies. We did kids movies during matinees. So a lot of it was incubated there and we just made it better in the next iteration.
Lisa Graham (06:25):
And as the Drafthouse has grown, I mean, you guys are nationwide. I feel like, I can’t remember last time I traveled to a city and there wasn’t one available for me to go to. Has being able to iterate and test out new programs become easier or harder as you guys have grown?
Tim League (06:39):
I think it’s actually easier now. I have a little bit more freedom because I’m not running everything. You know, Karrie and I have built a team and it’s really satisfying to hire people that are so much better than you it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I had met you five years before.” For example, I’m taking a lot of this past month and this next month to work on an idea that we’ve been considering for awhile, which is we’re opening a video store in Raleigh, North Carolina. And my original movie time when I was first getting exposed to movies was in that mom and pop video store era. Like I rented everything. And then when I found out they weren’t going to check or didn’t care if I rented R-rated movies when I was 13, I was like, yeah.
Tim League (07:41):
But the video stores are obviously closing. There’s only really probably about 20 left in the States. I made that number up, but it’s not many. And you look at the decline in the usage. And so I was interested in figuring out a sustainable model for something that I love, like the curation of a huge archive of movies, and then having something of a community focus to it. So, what we’ve done is we bought this huge collection from a closed video store in San Francisco of 75,000 titles. It’s the largest collection, I think, of like French and Italian foreign language film documentaries. If it’s not the largest and one of the top three in the States. And opening it up for free for the neighborhood for schools and the community.
Tim League (08:35):
And, I know how to, you know, I’m not great at it, but I, we know how to run a bar. And so it’s a bar that has a video store and a retail store, and I think that we’ll make more money at the bar to subsidize this endeavor that is going to be an amazing thing for the community. Just free access to the best archive of cinephile culture out there.
Dan Graham (09:02):
Wow. I’d I’d love to piggyback on that. You know, I think, you know, I’m a big fan of the movie theater as well, but I’m really a fan of how you just continuously are coming up with innovative ways to have community impact and everything ranging from your work with Mobile Loaves and Fishes to looking at this school campus to potentially revitalize. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about community projects, both in relation to your personal passions, but also as a business?
Tim League (09:34):
Sure. I’ll take the example of community first in that when we shut down our first location after 10 years, it was a 10 year lease. One of the things I didn’t understand in the beginning was how to write a good lease. I have better people that do that for me now. And so anyway, I had a skyrocketing lease at the end of 10 years, because the neighborhood got fancy and I didn’t lock it in. And so we moved six blocks basically from 4th and Colorado to 6th and Trinity. And it’s amazing what the movement of six blocks does to your daily interaction with Austin’s homeless community and with the homeless service providers, just a couple blocks away, that’s where people live. And so that gets in your face every single day.
Tim League (10:24):
And I got involved with six street Austin, just kind of the business community there. And frankly, a lot of people were just angry that there were homeless people that were disrupting their businesses. And their solution was well, the solution is we just gotta move the ARCH. So like, that’s all we have to do. And then problem solved. And that seemed like a really asinine thing to say. So moving something that’s an essential service for the homeless population in Austin just to get it out of your neighborhood is not the right answer. And so that’s how I came across Alan, just to kind of dig in a little bit further. And I think I got involved because it was part of my daily life, whereas it wasn’t honestly on 4th and Colorado.
Tim League (11:17):
And I just was inspired by what Alan was doing and I loved his vision and wanted to be a part of a real positive change for making the city better for doing good work to help the most vulnerable people in Austin. We got heavily involved with Alan and then joined the board of ECHO.
Dan Graham (11:43):
Can you quickly describe what you did with Alan? What that partnership was?
Tim League (11:51):
Yeah, well, I mean, we get involved with whatever he wants. We advocate for him. But I just had an idea and I just called him, because I watched him fail twice in a row where he had a property and he was trying to get the Community First! project off the ground, but then got hit with neighborhood opposition. And he was clever the third time around and planned it in different ways.
Tim League (12:14):
But I had an idea for sort of turning that frown upside down in terms of, you know, not in my backyard, like our code word for this was like, yes, in my backyard. What are the things that we could do to make this an asset to the community and not get people up in arms about having Community First! move in next to a residential neighborhood? And so what we did is built an outdoor movie screen, so that they had the facility to show free outdoor movies to the community. And it’s just a great resource. And then worked with Liz Lambert on the idea for a trailer based Airbnb that lines the outside ring of the outdoor theater that would make it this amazing place and a potential profit center for residents of the community to be able to work the drive in and work the residential piece too.
Dan Graham (13:20):
Yeah, very cool.
Tim League (13:22):
So it was a goofy idea and I pitched it to Alan and Alan also loves goofy ideas. And so the break was broken and we just rolled forward.
Dan Graham (13:37):
Yeah, that’s great. And you can go see movies there now?
Tim League (13:39):
Yeah. Alamo programs, several movies every year, and then they’ve hired a really great guy Ed Travis. Yeah, he’s the right stuff guy. It’s just now beginning as the weather’s getting better, pretty regular, usually once a week movies out there. And it’s a nice little revenue center for them too.
Lisa Graham (14:12):
And with this giving back to the community, working with Village First, is this something that your staff gets involved in as well? Have you been able to weave some of this into the culture of Alamo?
Tim League (14:24):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I have charities and nonprofits that I’m actively engaged in and those get woven into work that we do. We pretty regularly do sort of community days out there, any kind of work that needs to be done, whether it’s weeding or building or maintenance. We have a whole team that does outdoor movies and they are deeply involved. They love working with Alan. Every year, there’s a process of just making sure everything sounds good, looks good. We treat it as one of our screens to maintain. And then, I’m also a cyclist. And so I brought MS 150 into the organization, which we’re also a company that sells a lot of beer and queso, and so you can watch for long time employees, like myself included, just start to layer on a little less sort of extra padding.
Dan Graham (15:22):
The Drafthouse 20?
Tim League (15:22):
Yeah, you know, encouraging physical fitness is an important part of counteracting our love of beer and queso. So we usually have about a hundred people that go out and do that ride and do it as a fundraising effort. But then people bring their own loves and passions to the business as well, and try to share it through our network.
Lisa Graham (15:50):
It doesn’t help that the food is actually good. Eating a meat pizza every Friday night when we have date night is probably not the best thing for me, but yeah, it’s so perfect when you’re watching a movie.
Tim League (15:54):
Yeah. But it’s so tasty. I can give you the calorie counts if you need it.
Lisa Graham (16:00):
I don’t know if I want to, but I feel like I should get that from you at some point. So you mentioned then, while describing that, that you guys have an outdoor theater team. So when you guys come up with new ideas, do a lot of those bubble up sometimes from the staff, or is that kind of a top-down approach when you guys try new things for revenue with the Drafthouse?
Tim League (16:20):
Oh, it’s influences coming from everywhere. They come from our customers, they certainly come from staff. I have had a couple ideas myself. But we experiment a lot. And I honestly, a lot of times forget where ideas come from, because it’s, you know, there’ll be a kernel of an idea and then the team kind of works on it and it becomes a better idea. And then we execute that. So I’m usually pretty cautious about claiming that an idea is mine.
Dan Graham (16:57):
There’s an outdoor Alamo movie-watching legend I’m going to settle. Because I know, I think the first part I’m pretty sure is true, which is that when Open Water came out, you guys did a movie showing where you could float in the lake while you’re watching it. But then I’ve also heard that you had divers under the water, like grabbing people’s legs.
Tim League (17:12):
That is correct. So, I’m a diver. I wanted to go and do that myself. So you use a rebreather. And so it allows you not to have bubbles go up. And so people could really sneak up. We had them there because we were freaked out because it’s at night in the lake and they’re like, this seems like a liability nightmare. I can’t believe our insurance company is allowing us to do this. But I wanted to hire a dive rescue team just in case. But since they were down there, I might as well terrorize the audience. Two for one, you know, one price.
Dan Graham (18:09):
Lisa Graham (18:11):
What is one of the more crazy awesome things that you have done that you were like, we’ll just see, and then it was just a huge hit?
Tim League (18:20):
I don’t know if this was like a hit, but I’ll tell you the one that I can’t believe a studio signed off on. Did you ever watch a Ryan Reynolds movie called Buried?
Lisa Graham (18:34):
It’s the one where he’s buried alive. I have not seen it, but it looks pretty terrifying actually.
Tim League (18:37):
From first frame to last frame, it’s just Ryan Reynolds in a box, basically for 85 minutes. And it’s, I really like it. And so Lionsgate, I think, picked it up and we pitched them on this idea that we had. I say we because it was somebody else’s original idea that I kind of worked on for awhile. [The idea was] To run this competition where we take volunteers who the prize would be you get to meet Ryan Reynolds, but in order to meet Ryan Reynolds, you would have to meet at the theater and then we would basically kidnap you, chain your hands behind your back and bury you alive. And we had these coffins outfitted with TVs on the lid. And so we buried these three young women in a field 15 miles outside of Austin, watch Buried, buried alive. And then they got to meet Ryan Reynolds. And so we put them in the coffin and then we buried them and we built the system to have airflow. So we wouldn’t kill them. That was nice. And I tested it. So I actually sat in that field in a buried coffin and watched the last Star Fighter actually, which wasn’t scary at all.
Lisa Graham (19:50):
Are they now available to buy tickets to the coffin experience?
Tim League (19:55):
One time, one and done. But yeah, we pitched this idea to Lionsgate and it’s like, they’re never going to say yes to this. They’re like, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. As long as you videotape it.
Lisa Graham (20:11):
And similar to that vein, how do you, I mean, so many movies, I feel like we go to these days at the Drafthouse, the person at the beginning telling us to put our phone away, or you’re going to kick us out, is in the film. Is it hard to get the talent to do that? Or is it pretty easy and something that they do regularly with their contracts?
Tim League (20:29):
It used to be hard and then we’ve had success with them and we pitched the studios that this is a really interesting, fun marketing opportunity for them. And so now, they come to us. And so it’s, it’s great. I mean, we’re still a pretty small theater. But we have developed. They know that we have silly promotional ideas and they like it. And so, yeah, it’s great.
Lisa Graham (20:56):
I think even after Black Panther, there was even like a post credits, post credits, Alamo Drafthouse, still staring at the camera. Still gonna make sure you guys don’t get your thoughts out. It was pretty clever. So let’s shift gears just a little bit and maybe even go back to the video store that you guys are working on. You started and you now advise a nonprofit, the American Genre Film Archive. Can you talk about what they do and what the mission is of that organization?
Tim League (21:22):
Sure. I have an addiction. I collect. I always have. When I was a kid, I had multiple collections. I thought I’d shaken it. And then I got into film and then I started collecting a lot again. So it started from my own collection. In the Bakersfield days, we were so poor and it was doing so badly that we would drive down to LA and pick up our films, our posters, and our trailers to save the like $80 shipping. And so when I went to go pick up the trailers, I realized, “Oh my gosh, there’s still a warehouse of movie trailers for every movie for the last 40 years.” And so I became buddies with the guy at the warehouse, I was like can you just give me some from the seventies?
Tim League (22:14):
And so I started collecting trailers. Then I started collecting films. And then when the digital revolution happened, people just started dumping film. And America has a terrible history of archiving. Like you look at one of the things I collect is old silent film era magazines. If you look through the ads, 90% of the silent film era movies are gone forever. Like, there’s no copies of them because they weren’t considered high art. And even movies from the sixties and seventies, which is something that I’m very passionate about, it was probably, you know, 30, 40% of those that are gone forever. So we just started collecting, like if there was film in peril, we took it.
Lisa Graham (23:08):
When you say film in peril, do you mean it’s starting to degrade? Or what is that?
Tim League (23:12):
Well for example, Tyson was a Hong Kong based film distributor that when film kind of went away and it became all digital, they just, they moved back to Hong Kong and they abandoned their San Francisco warehouse. And they were going to throw it all away. So in peril meaning it was bound for the dumpster. So we flew out there and drove back in U-Hauls and brought back 400 films. So we’ve done that multiple times. So we have 4,000 films that are one man’s trash, another man’s treasure. Me, I guess. I’m a trash collector. And so what we do is we form the archive. We preserve film and we make it available to film festivals, theaters, anybody that’s screening films. And then we’re now starting to digitize the really rare stuff. And then we also run a film handling academy, if you will, once a year for anybody. Like it’s just a lost art. And so we’re training people on how to preserve and care for projectors and film, because even now, if you want to see a movie, 10% of movies are available in digital format. If you’re really a cinephile, you have to go into the film to get the really rare stuff.
Lisa Graham (24:33):
Yeah. And so the new acquisition, are those types of films that would, I guess a lot of those are probably more digital copies, but is that part of the archive now?
Tim League (24:44):
Well, I’m specifically talking about 35 millimeter film. It’s like, you know, big reels of film that weigh 75 pounds.
Lisa Graham (24:52):
So you did need multiple U-Hauls to bring back that collection?
Tim League (24:56):
Yes. But the video store, it’s also fragile because, a lot of that collection is not available in any other way, and it’s never going to be available on streaming services. And you know, you’re watching Netflix’s model sort of shift and they’re more about original content that they own ad infinitum, and they’re not really building out a library. So, it’s part of AGFA in a way in that if this works in Raleigh, my hope is that we can, through the nonprofit, sort of source and develop archives at all Alamos that are free. If you’re a movie lover and you just went to go see Black Panther, maybe we’ll showcase 60 years of black heroes in cinema. And it’s like, you can just take a couple home and, and return it by mail. Just to make it as seamless as possible process for you.
Lisa Graham (25:53):
And providing access to films that otherwise we really have no other way of seeing? That’s great.
Dan Graham (26:02):
So one question I have, and I’m really curious is the intros to all the films are genius. Who puts all of that together and finds all of those strangely related old clips and things to put together?
Tim League (26:18):
Not a lot of people have had that job over the years. For the first several years, it was me. And I’m the worst at it.
Lisa Graham (26:27):
Did you go through all the trailers that you collected?
Tim League (26:31):
Mostly. So in the olden days, it was basically a VCR and I had a series of either mix tapes or, you know, eye candy stuff that I liked. And I would just sort of pop in a tape and maybe put in different music over top of it, super low fi. And then Lars Nilsen, who’s now at Austin Film Society, he took that job from me and massively upgraded it. And so he’s kind of the architect of what it is now. And there’s been just a couple people that have had it. And so Laird Jimenez who came from Scarecrow Video, the largest video store in the world in Seattle. They’re a non-profit. I’m on the board of Scarecrow Video. And so we would contact Laird, because he just knew all this stuff from the Scarecrow archives, like “Laird, what do we do?” And so then we got him to come down to Austin when Lars was ready to move on and be more of a programmer.
Tim League (27:24):
And Laird has taken it to this great level where, I’ll be honest, I think statute of limitations are over. But, let’s say there was like a legal gray area of what we were doing. Who knows what the reality is? I can’t say. I’m not a professional. But no one here is a lawyer. We don’t know. But so Laird engaged with a couple of different fair use attorneys and restructured how we do it to work within documentary standards for using archival footage in terms of properly crediting sources. And so now we have insurance on that and it’s street legal. Probably was back then too. I don’t know. But so it’s really great. And Laird has a team that works with him to do it.
Lisa Graham (28:24):
Yeah, they do a great job. Definitely get there early. You watch like a mini movie that throughout the whole thing, you’re going to be saying, where the hell did they get this stuff?
Tim League (28:34):
It’s an interesting facet of the business too, because from the get-go we knew, like if you go to a traditional multiplex, they’ve got an ad program that’s obviously for sale for upcoming TV or like, Coke ads or things like that. And it’s a decent revenue chunk. And early in the days, I was like, I don’t even want to know how much it is. We’re just not going to take it. Like having no ads was important. That’s where that pre-show came from. Now we know how much it is. But I think that not showing shampoo commercials when you’ve paid 10 bucks to see a movie is your right as a citizen. So, we’re never going back. And it’s part of our brand for sure.
Lisa Graham (29:14):
Yeah. That’s great. So in September, Fantastic Fest is in its 13th or 14th year in Austin. Can you explain how that got started and what Fantastic Fest is so people can check it out?
Tim League (29:25):
Sure. Well, I’ll try to be brief about it. I’ll tell you what, my wife and I, in 2001, we went to Spain because there was a festival that was having the largest collection of spaghetti Westerns ever. And we’re big spaghetti Western fans. So we took our vacation and we went to this festival and it blew our minds. Like this was a festival of the kind of movies that we like – horror, science fiction, fantasy – just weird movies from all over the globe, lots of foreign language films. And we were so excited about it that it stuck with us. And then four years later, I had time and it was kind of prodded into this, because I wax poetic about this festival Sitges in Spain and Tim McCanlies, who’s the screenwriter for Iron Giant, loves that festival too and said to me, build Austin’s Sitges. And if you lose money, I will just write you a check. You just tell me how much money you lose, I’ll trust you. I just want it to happen.
Tim League (30:37):
And so really Tim, he double dog dared me, and it’s become the largest genre festival in the United States. And our mission there really is to find opportunities for young emerging genre filmmakers from all over the globe to help continue their career. A lot of first-time filmmakers. And we have networking and opportunities and people with checkbooks and we’ve funded movies out of there with genre filmmakers ourselves. It’s a fun week if you love that type of movie. If you don’t like that, it’s maybe your worst nightmare.
Lisa Graham (31:22):
That’s great. Thank you so much for being here, Tim. This has been so fun and really interesting. We really appreciate you joining us. Yeah, it’s been great. We love what you’re doing. And so to check out the nearest Alamo, go to www.drafthouse.com. And to learn more about Fantastic Fest coming to Austin this September, go to www.fantasticfest.com. The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio and the talented Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. That’s C H E Z Boom Audio dotcom. Change The Rules is brought to you by Notley, a catalyst for social innovation in today’s impact organizations and changing communities. And you can learn more about Notley at www.notley.com. The Change The Rules podcast is on iTunes and you can find every episode by searching for Change The Rules. Thank you so much.