Interview: Founder Tim League Ensures You’ll Remember the Alamo (Drafthouse)
by Luke Y. Thompson on May 11, 2012
If we could run our ideal movie theater, it would be free from all the crap that makes most modern multiplexes a nightmare. There would be excellent projection and sound, parents would be barred from bringing toddlers into R-rated movies, beer would be served and people who like to text in the dark would get tossed out. Turns out we don’t need to create that theater, because somebody already did. Tim League’s Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas is even more than a movie theater these days — it’s now a chain, a distributor (of Four Lions, Bullhead and The FP), a movie website (Badass Digest), a collectible art boutique (Mondo), and more. What they probably don’t have is a theater near you non-Texans, but League is looking to change that as soon as he can. We sat down with him for a lengthy discussion about the Alamo’s new “Summer of ’82″ programming series and a variety of other hot topics in the movie world today.
Nerdist: For years, most of us knew of the Alamo Drafthouse as Harry Knowles’ favorite theater, and then all of a sudden it seemed like there was this massive expansion: opening theaters other places, there’s a poster business, a separate website, there’s a distribution arm – did you guys just suddenly get a big influx of capital? What happened there?
Tim League: No – we are starting to expand the theaters, and I think all the other companies worked together to create an entertainment brand, if you will, so it’s all been pretty organic growth up to this point. We haven’t really gone for outside capital; we’re all doing this out of our own equity from the business.
N: The movies you’re going after distribution-wise are pretty amazing, but they also seem like big commercial risks. How is that playing out for you – are you finding that there’s money to be made in these films nobody else wants to take a chance on, or are they low-grossers?
TL: Nothing’s really broken out, but we’ve only really put three films out so far and we’re reasonably happy with the performance. But these are movies that we think are quality movies, so we’re out to build a brand based on movies that we love. We’re kinda looking at it more long term, so that if we look back and say okay, here’s a catalog and here’s a brand that really speaks to quality, then these movies that we own for quite a long time, up to ten years – there’s a longer life for them.
N: At the same time it seems like the brand that you’re building is “these are the movies that are ballsier and edgier than anyone is going to want to pick up.” Is that a conscious thing, or does that just happen to coincide with your taste and what’s available?
TL: It’s a direct reflection of the curators. Those are the movies that I love, and we built the Drafthouse Films team around people who have similar taste, and we like edgy material. We like seeing things that we haven’t seen before, and start going into territory that other people may or may not be comfortable going into.
N: I can’t be the only one who went “Holy shit” when I saw the Klown trailer (highly NSFW link HERE).
TL: Yeah, that’s a good one. I really think that movie is kinda special. It’s got a strange, warm heart to it, despite the somewhat reprehensible things that they find themselves doing.
N: So how long has the original Drafthouse been around?
TL: We opened up in May of 1997. It was definitely a big risk at the time; we were actually coming off a theater venture we did in Bakersfield that was a total, unmitigated disaster – it just didn’t work – and we thought we knew what went wrong there. It was mostly a function of the location: Bakersfield at the time wasn’t the greatest market for what we were trying to do. So we picked up everything we had and rolled the dice again in Austin, but for sure it was a gamble; we risked everything we had to do it. But, I guess, knowing full well that if it didn’t work we could just go back with our tail between our legs to our normal jobs back home.
N: What was that normal job?
TL: I was an engineer for Shell and my wife was a microbiology researcher.
N: Back in the ’80s I remember seeing Crocodile Dundee at a theater in Florida that serves beer, and it seems like it’s taken years for people to catch up to the idea that that’s a good concept.
TL: That Florida one might have been the first one. I never went to it, but I heard about it. And there have definitely been others. We got inspiration from the guys up in Portland who run McMenamins – we checked out their facility and thought it was pretty cool. It’s definitely coming on strong now as a concept – some are doing it reasonably well, too, but it’s still a very very small percentage of the overall screens in America.
N: It gets really frustrating as an L.A. writer to constantly get press releases about what awesome combination of food and movies the Alamo Drafthouse is offering up, and going, “Dammit! I can’t get to Texas!” So what are the plans for L.A.? You’ve got to have it in mind.
TL: We definitely want to be out in L.A. It really dovetails into what we’re trying to do with the distribution label. We just haven’t found the perfect location yet. In big cities, real estate can be kinda tough, but that’s my number-one priority right now: to find a good spot in Los Angeles.
N: You’re opening in New York, right?
TL: Well, we announced it. We’re wrestling with the city on permitting issues.
N: Has the expansion been well-received generally?
TL: Yeah. Last year was a great year for the company. Everything was profitable, and we’ve got several things on tap to open up this year. We’re pretty optimistic.
N: It seems like you’re one of the originators of the whole film-critic karaoke trend. Is that correct?
TL: I feel like I’ve been a part of it for a long time. We started with Fantastic Fest, maybe back in 2007, and then every time we went to a market like AFI, Cannes, Berlin, we’d always bring a karaoke party. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like festival programmers and film critics, they have this, maybe not a deep dark secret but a true passion for karaoke – good and bad. And so, yeah, that’s a pretty significant posse that are karaoke addicts.
N: So what’s your signature tune?
TL: Oh man… I like to mix it up a little bit, but I do rather like songs sung by women about either female empowerment or having their hearts broken by men. So I like a lot of Loretta Lynn, Helen Reddy, old country. Whatever suits the mood.
N: You guys are known for having strict policies about distractions like talking and texting. As a new parent, when do you plan to introduce your children to the movies, and how do you deal with crying babies and things like that?
TL: We have one showtime a week where it’s kind of a “baby day” where moms can bring their kids. It’s during the day at off-peak times. That would be the only time we could take them to the Alamo until they’re basically six years old. I think my wife has already taken our girls to Haywire – that was their first movie – and they apparently got all riled up when there were action scenes going on, so I don’t know if it was the music kicking in, or if they’re like their old man and they like action movies.
N: Tell us a little bit about your “Summer of ’82″ retrospective. Some of the picks are pretty straightforward, like, Conan and Wrath of Khan, you’d expect. But were there a lot of people clamoring for Vice Squad?
TL: I loooove Vice Squad, so I don’t care if anybody’s clamoring for it. They’re gonna get it. That’s an amazing movie. So, we started out the series with some big blockbusters – that was what drew us to the series in the first place, that this was an amazing summer of blockbusters. And then once we publicized this, we went back and said you know what, we’re celebrating the year anyway; why don’t we look back and pick out our personal favorites from the lesser-known movies, and there’s some amazing stuff on there. So yes, Vice Squad may not be the best-known movie of the summer of ’82, but I love it and more people should see it.
N: Is it harder to get people to come out to the more obscure movies, or is the branding of the event enough to carry it over?
TL: I think for the bigger titles it’s going to be a lot easier to bring people out, but we show a lot of oddball cult movies, like some of these really fit what we do on a weekly basis. Vice Squad is actually one we’ve played a couple times in the past for a series we do every week, called “Weird Wednesday” which is just exploitation film. 35mm prints, every Wednesday at 10 o’clock, and we’ve been doing that for the last eight years. So it’s speaking to an audience that already exists and likes that kind of product. Pink Floyd The Wall has also been part of our music programming series, stuff like that.
N: You’re probably aware of the whole series of conversations right now going on about “the death of film” and its effect on rep houses. Is that something that’s going to affect you guys at all?
TL: We made the conversion to Sony 4K digital a couple of years ago, but we also keep changeover 35 and we love film. I love digital as well, but for classic titles and certain things… It’s gonna take a long time for a DCP to be made of Q, The Winged Serpent, for example, if ever, so we’re gonna be sticking around with film for as long as possible. I know it’s disappearing from the industry, but there’ll still be archives, and there’s still going to be a desire to see some of the more obscure stuff that you can only see on film.
N: Do you think the studios are going to make prints available of their older stuff any more?
TL: They’re making it less available. So the big dividing line is going to be whether you have changeover 35 versus putting it on a platter, because changeover 35 is much more kind and gentle to archival prints, so unless you have an archival presentation system, it’s going to be a lot harder to get prints, yeah.
N: I’d like to ask you a question now just about a personal favorite movie of mine that I asked a projectionist here in L.A. about and he said would be tough to show, so I wanted to see if you’d ever tried it. The Talking Heads movie True Stories – apparently Warner Bros charges so much for the print that it would be prohibitive in terms of what it would recoup. Is that one you’ve ever looked into?
TL: I don’t know if we’ve ever played it. I know the movie – I really like the movie – and I dunno, Warner Bros. charges a fair amount for all their repertory titles – I don’t know why that one specifically would be high. Sorry I don’t have a good answer.
N: It’s only available on DVD in full-frame pan and scan, and is one of those ’80s movies I’d totally pay to see on the big screen again.
TL: Well, I might just write down that idea. And maybe you’ll get a press release and be peeved by something you can’t see.
N: Nah, I’ll go to Austin for that one.
TL: It’s a deal.
N: So what other cool things do you have coming up?
TL: Every summer we do an outdoor series, the Rolling Roadshow, where we take famous movies and show them in famous places, like Close Encounters at Devil’s Tower, Escape from Alcatraz in Alcatraz, so we’re plotting that series right now and hope to announce a lineup in the near future.
TL: That’s an annual event at Fantastic Fest, the genre fest we do in September. It’s called the Fantastic Debate, and the premise is that we take actors, directors, bloggers, industry professionals, and it’s a formal debate: point, counterpoint, counter-argument, closing argument. And then we add a final round: the debate is taking place inside of a boxing ring, and everybody’s already got boxing gloves and headgear strapped on, so we remove the podiums and there’s two rounds of full-contact boxing. Every year I take part in that. I’ve boxed Uwe Boll, Michelle Rodriguez, and last year I boxed James Quinn McDonagh, the star of Knuckle – the documentary about Irish bare-knuckle boxing.
N: So in every case, you’re boxing celebrities who’ve had actual training – do they take it easy on you?
TL: So far so good. I’ve hurt my neck a little bit, but no broken bones. I was really worried with James Quinn McDonagh, because he could have hurt me quite a bit, but he was rather kind – he only knocked the wind out of me.
N: Boll has a reputation for knocking out his critics.
TL: I know. Luckily, I’m on his good list. He actually really hurt a couple of movie critics, but they stepped into the ring willfully. I guess I did too, but I’m on pretty good terms with the guy. I plan on boxing somebody this year, but we haven’t lined up the bout yet.
N: You’ve come out very militantly against texting, which we applaud you for – it can be worse at industry screenings, with all the assistants. How do you serve food and not have that be a distraction also?
TL: We’ve worked very hard to train our staff. Most of the food service happens before the movie starts, and then once the movie starts it’s non-verbal communication: you just write down what you want on a piece of paper, and a waiter sort of sneaks in below you and picks up the paper, reads it, and then 5-10 minutes later delivers whatever food or beverage you want. There’s always going to be a certain amount of…I remember Cinemania, the documentary about movie enthusiasts. There was somebody going on about how the most horrible thing that ever happened to the movie industry was the introduction of popcorn, and he just can’t stand listening to people eat popcorn, so there’s going to be some level of audible sound from people eating, but it’s pretty minimal, really. And we compensate by not having teenagers, not having little kids, not having babies, not having cell phones and really enforcing our policy strongly. Yes, it would probably be a more pure environment if we didn’t have food at all and still had a vigilant no-talking policy, but that doesn’t work for us.
N: How do you deal with the particularly belligerent offenders? You had that famous incident you turned into a trailer, with what sounded like a teenage girl cursing you out, but what if you had a big dude who’s built like a wrestler, on a cell phone – how do you deal with someone like that?
TL: We’ve had to call the police a couple times – not very often. We have a lot of staff, so we usually have someone that’s got some security experience, but it’s pretty rare that you get into a confrontational situation.
N: Your staff is clearly more specialized than that of most theaters.
TL: Yeah! We have a lot more of them, too, so the theater’s constantly being monitored.
N: Is that level of quality going to be harder to maintain as you expand into being a chain?
TL: No harder than enforcing any other policy. It’s part of our training; it’s part of our core values as a company, and we monitor the feedback, so if we get comments about a situation getting out of hand, then we pay special attention to that venue to make sure the problem gets righted. I think we’re on top of it now, and it’s certainly my plan to continue to be on top of it. It’s just a matter of training.
N: One of our pet peeves at major chains is when theater employees don’t close the auditorium doors when the movie starts.
TL: They’ve had them available for years – I don’t know why they wouldn’t have them now – those little magnets that are tied into the projector, so that when the projector starts, the doors automatically close. That’s the best way to do it.
N: What steps can theaters take to ensure the best projection?
TL: One: make sure you have optical glass on the port glass. It’s a lot more expensive, and some people opt for the $2 pane of glass as opposed to the $200 pane of glass, and that changes the light quality and you can lose a lot of light through it. And then the other thing is making sure your projectionist has a light meter; there is a spec for how much light should be on the screen. If people started doing that, it’d be a vast improvement.
N: Do you use union projectionists?
TL: We don’t, actually. We train our projectionists well, but the whole concept has changed a lot because union projection as a model was built around 35mm presentation, so a projectionist now honestly doesn’t have as much to do as he or she used to. We just don’t do it because we use them for AV techs with a lot more hosted shows with microphones. We use 35 mm too, but if it’s a multiplex that’s going all-digital, and most of the big houses are running it where the starts are all automated anyway, it’s becoming a bit of a lost art.
N: We recently had a big debacle here in L.A. that you probably heard about, where at an Avengers press screening the shutter-synced 3D glasses were not working. What should the theater have done in that circumstance, and what do you think they didn’t do that led to that kind of thing happening?
TL: If there’s a big, important press/industry screening, I would question whether they checked the presentation, basically putting it up onscreen and making sure everything was correct before they had a live audience.
N: How much of that is the theater’s responsibility, as opposed to the studio doing the check themselves?
TL: It’s always going to be on the theater side to make sure the presentation is right. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but if someone rents out the facilities and they’re showing something with our equipment, then we have an obligation to make sure it’s in functioning order.
N: Do you feel like maybe that’s a novel stance, compared to some of the other companies out there?
TL: I don’t know. There’s got to be a certain pride in presentation. It’s one of the things we try to do. Obviously having 3D that doesn’t work is catastrophic, but even just having the sound level right and the brightness correct…it certainly happens if you don’t check things.
N: Do you think casual consumers care about these sorts of things? We as cinephiles do, and bring it up a lot, but it sometimes feels like the average moviegoer doesn’t give much of a damn about the details.
TL: Well, they might not be able to pinpoint it, but I’ll bet you if you were to do a case study of two different audiences watching The Avengers, and had one where the screen was dim and the audio was low, and another where the screen was popping bright and the audio was crisp and perfect and loud, the audience with the poor presentation may not know why they didn’t get into the movie as much, but I guarantee you that the audience that had the great presentation would be much more excited about what they’d just experienced.
N: Do you find that that works to build word of mouth among people who can’t necessarily articulate that stuff?
TL: I don’t know. It’s one of those things where it’s just a gut feeling. We have a lot of competition in the industry, with lots of other ways for people to watch movies, so we have to pay lots of attention to the details and make the experience of coming to a movie theater really special.