Alamo Drafthouse Cinema plots a comeback
Six of the classic movie posters that line the walls of the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Far East El Paso came from Tim League’s bedroom. The luchador movie posters, all originals, had hung there for eight years before League contributed them to the décor “begrudgingly,” he says, then corrects himself, “Not begrudgingly. Happily.”
About 24 years after founding the independent theater chain in Austin with his wife, Karrie, League is still intimately involved with the business, which now operates 40 locations and has become known for its dine-in meals and events aimed at cinephiles and geeks of all kinds.
Picking the posters for the movie theaters is one of the more fun parts of the job. League, who stepped down as CEO of Alamo a year ago to become executive chairman, also has plenty of more serious work, like helping the chain navigate its restructuring, dodge pandemic punches and find new ways of making the theaters a destination as studios and streaming services upend the industry.
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, League is hopeful a recovery is on the way. And it couldn’t come too soon for movie theater chains.
League was in El Paso Wednesday for the grand opening of the 10-screen theater at 12351 Pellicano Dr. It is covered in luchador-themed artwork inside and out (turn to The B Section for more on that) and includes an attached bar and restaurant with 45 craft beers on tap.
‘Opening a theater here is a testament to how fast the city is growing and how many movie lovers there are,’ League says.
League sat outside of “The Big Show,” the chain’s large-format theater concept, and talked to El Paso Inc. about Alamo’s bankruptcy, the future of the theater business and board games.
Q: You’ve come all the way out here to El Paso for this opening. What makes it particularly special?
One, it’s a beautiful facility. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. But something really resonates about opening a theater while we are still in tough times.
Just telling people, “Hey, I’m heading out to El Paso because we’re opening up a new theater.” It seems absurd and wonderful. Not absurd, but hopeful that we’re at the tail end of a really bad nightmare.
Q: Alamo opened its first El Paso movie theater five years ago. How successful has it been and what have you learned about the El Paso market?
The first El Paso theater was great. It’s a big success. I don’t think we’d open up No. 2 if it wasn’t a success. We are encouraged by that. El Paso is such a vibrant community, and it’s growing.
Honestly, the Eastside is notoriously underserved with theaters. Opening a theater here is a testament to how fast the city is growing and how many movie lovers there are. That’s what drives me to do this business in the first place: I love movies and I love sharing the movies I love.
Q: I don’t think there are many new movie theaters opening right now anywhere.
No. Our next one is Manhattan, which we had to stop when it was about 95% done.
Q: The Westside location reopened last August with limited capacity, distancing, masking and other safety measures. How has business been?
Now with the rollout of the vaccine, it’s tied linearly to that. There are all sorts of new customers that are ready to get out there and resume some level of normalcy.
We’re real proud of our safety protocols. And then, also, private theater rental constitutes nearly half of our business. People bring their pandemic pod and feel comfortable in that environment. We’re going to continue some level of that forever. It’s been a good experience.
Q: When did you roll that offering out?
As soon as we reopened, within a few weeks.
Q: And it’s now half of your business? Sounds like it was a good move.
Yeah, it was. I mean, it’s relative. We’re operating at 25% capacity. It’s survival until vaccination ramps up and the majority of Americans are vaccinated. That’s when people will gradually return to normal.
Q: With major movie releases on hold, how has Alamo survived through the pandemic, shutdowns and everything else that has come with it?
We hunkered down. I’ll turn it into a minor silver lining. You don’t often get the opportunity to shut down – I mean, shut off all expenses and then rebuild it from the ground up. That was actually a really meaningful exercise. We had to come up with a plan to have a lower operating cost so we could make do operating at 25%.
But for the last four weeks, each weekend has been better than the last. It’s been on this gradual climb. The slate is returning, so there are big movies coming. The fourth quarter looks great. So, hopefully, feeling normal again is on the horizon.
During the pandemic, League has stayed busy by overseeing the board games and puzzles division of Mondo.
Q: I read you auctioned prints from your personal collection to help keep Alamo afloat.
I did for a little bit, yeah. There was a stretch in December and January where it got a little thin. It was a collection of posters from Mondo. Mondo is a part of the Alamo company where we make reimaginings of movie posters. We’ve been doing it for 15 years. It was a nice thing for hardcore fans of those collectables but also gave folks a way to contribute to Alamo and get something beautiful for it.
Q: Was it hard to see Alamo file for bankruptcy protection?
Chapter 11 isn’t the big B. It isn’t Chapter 7; it’s not like the company is going away, and we are liquidating assets. It’s restructuring, getting your balance sheet in order and cleaning up the company so you can get refinanced and go. On paper, we’re probably healthier than we ever have been.
Q: Even so, some locations were closed permanently, including the iconic Ritz location in Austin.
Those were tough. The Ritz was the last theater that I helped build with my own hands. I was the general contractor on that. So many memories there. But the spirit of it lives on.
All of the signature shows that were at Ritz, we are porting them over to the neighboring theaters that are only a couple of miles away. It is sad, but it allows us to be healthier moving forward.
Q: The investor group buying the assets includes you. What gave you the confidence to do that?
I believe in it. I have had plenty of opportunities to walk away. This is what I love. I love the movies.
I don’t think anything dramatic. There are some COVID projects that we’re going to continue on. The order-in-advance didn’t exist before COVID, and we are going to build that out to be quite elegant. You can order food and drink online in advance and minimize the time somebody has to come check on you.
We also built a video-on-demand system during COVID, Alamo On Demand, and that’s going to continue. One of the things we did with it is we have a live music event that we do with young composers called the String Quartet Smackdown. It’s like a Final Four NCAA bracketed competition of composers.
Q: Studios, especially Warner Bros. and Disney, are releasing some of their most anticipated films simultaneously in theaters and on their streaming services. It’s a trend that existed before the pandemic and will continue after. How are movie theaters adapting?
I’ve never really been afraid of that. We always position ourselves as out-of-home entertainment. People have kitchens and still go to restaurants. There’s pressure on us to make sure the experience is awesome.
I’m a good test case. I went to see “Raya and the Last Dragon” in the theater, and then my girls wanted to watch it again so we watched it at home. It’s just way more dramatic in the theater. The experience can’t be compared. I believe in that moment.
At home you might check your email or Instagram while watching the movie. Over my dead body do you do that here. I want you immersed in the movie, and to have the best presentation possible to lose yourself in the story.
Q: How did you all get the idea for founding Alamo Drafhouse?
I was in my early 20s, and I had been working at Shell Oil in Bakersfield, California for two years and didn’t really like it. My girlfriend at the time was up in San Francisco working in a lab as a geneticist, and she didn’t like her job either. So we were just fantasizing about things we might want to do, and on my way to work there was an abandoned movie theater.
One day there was a “For Lease” sign on the marquee, and I just never considered it as a career option. I was an engineer. But a week after I saw the sign, I signed the lease. I had no right to do it. I was just arrogant and stupid and really loved movies.
We both quit our jobs and really disappointed our parents. They thought we were throwing away our educations. But eventually we made it work – not without a lot of elbow grease and learning along the way. It is built on the love of movies – absolutely nothing else.
Q: What’s your next passion project?
During COVID, without the movie theaters open, I’ve been overseeing the board games and puzzles division of Mondo. I’m going to be really sad when I have to let that go. I’m going to be at it for another three months I think.
I love board games. We have a game called Unmatched that we’re doing some Marvel editions. You can be, you know, Beowulf, Medusa, Bruce Lee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Daredevil, and it’s two enter one leaves.
As we’re reopening, we’re trying to work hard with our still small footprint – 40 theaters – to be able to support films as strongly as we can across all locations. We’re rethinking the way we market and have had a lot of time in the lab while things are closed to develop new strategies and digital techniques.
Q: Some people get really into it and go to board game conventions. Do you have any favorites?
My favorite convention is Gen Con. Favorite board games? We play a lot. It depends. There’s a light game that you can pick up pretty easily that has a lot of strategy called Shobu that I really like. And then there’s an elaborate game that takes a couple of hours to play called Trickarion where you play as dueling magicians.
Q: What’s the outlook for Alamo Drafthouse?
The future of Alamo is bright. We’re able to navigate through a really tough time. There is a lot of pain associated with it. We had to furlough 5,500 employees across the brand. That was a tough, rotten day. But we’re starting to build the teams back. It’s unbelievably exciting to be here. This feels like a return to what I love.
Q: What are you watching right now?
Strangely, I just finished in two sittings “Ted Lasso.” It was such a perfect thing for COVID because it’s almost too saccharine. It’s so positive and upbeat and hopeful and I just felt good after I watched it.
Recently, I like “Raya” and “Nobody” that just came out. I’m in charge of my daughters’ film education, I guess, and we’ve been going down the not-very-well-trod back catalogue of Disney. So we did the original Jodie Foster “Freaky Friday,” “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” “Escape to Witch Mountain.” They are all on Disney+, but they are not on the home page. You really have to search for them.
Tim League, right, with other Alamo Drafthouse Cinema executives and luchadores for the opening of the theater March 31 in Far East El Paso.
Photo by Jorge Salgado