You can be forgiven for being foggy on the name Alamo Drafthouse, especially if you've never spent time in Austin, Texas. The movie theater picks up accolades from all of those who pay a visit: Entertainment Weekly called it the "#1 theater in America"; "coolest movie theater in the world" from Wired; "Best Theatrical Experience Award" from Fandango.
Going there isn't just about sitting in a dark room and watching a movie; it's an event. Food is served. Attendees are engaged not just with what's on the screen but with the people around them. Weekly special showings have themes that foster audience participation and raucous behavior. While nationwide chains struggle to keep theaters full each week in the face of Internet-streaming and VOD releases, Alamo Drafthouse succeeds simply by staking out territory as the place to be for movie fans in Austin (and beyond).
Behind it all is Tim League, founder and recently returned CEO of the company. Tim and his wife Karrie sold the brand in 2004, stepping away from expanding operations while maintaining control of the original Austin locations. Tim came back in June of this year, on the eve of major, still-unfolding expansion plans; just this morning, the company announced the creation of a film distribution arm, Drafthouse Films. Tim was kind enough to take some time out earlier today to chat with MTV about the founding of Alamo Drafthouse, Mondo and Drafthouse Films, and what the future has in store.
"It's something that just sort of happened," he said of his early days as a theater owner. "My wife and I got into the movie exhibition business accidentally. We were both in different careers -- I was an engineer at Shell Oil and she was actually doing microbiology research in San Francisco -- and neither one of us liked where we were. So without much thought at the age of 24 [we] decided to open up a movie theater."
If Austin, Texas seems like an odd location for such an ambitious endeavor -- event-driven theatrical experiences -- it's nothing compared to where the dream actually started. Tim and his wife Karrie opened their first theater in Bakersfield, California. "I think [it happened] just because I was there," he explained. "That theater ended up being a huge mistake. It failed, really. It just didn't work out. So then we started looking for where to go next."
"We chose Austin for a number of reasons," he continued. "It was a cool town, it had a big university, real estate at the time was relatively affordable and there wasn't anything like it, but there was still a really receptive film audience. I had some family... in Austin, so it was easier to start there [than in] someplace like New York or LA, but it was still a pretty cool scene."
The Alamo Drafthouse as people now know it didn't happen overnight. For Tim and Karrie, it was an idea that evolved over the years. "[We were] always trying to find an advantage that we could offer that other types of movies theaters couldn't," he said. Event-driven theatrical experiences, such as Sing-Alongs and Quote-Alongs, themed screenings pair with food service, all manner of wacky ideas, really. "It eventually became our identity and we started doing it more and more."
Tim and Karrie sold the Drafthouse brand in the summer of 2004, stepping away from the growing business while maintaining control of the three core theaters they'd established in Austin, as well as the touring Rolling Roadshow, which presents summertime outdoor screenings across the country. During that time, the company started building up a franchise model, which would allow entrepreneurs in other parts of the country or, conceivably, the world, to open their own Drafthouse establishment.
The first such non-Texas expansion opened last October in Winchester, Virginia. Tim wasn't closely involved in that opening, but he knows the story. "They found a franchise partner that was interested and these guys are kind of the kings of Winchester," he explained. "It's a family. They've lived there for a long time and they had a development that they were doing and really wanted a movie theater anchored in it. They knew about the [Alamo Drafthouse] brand and so it was... a group that sought us out."
The success of that first distant expansion is telling for the brand's potential in other markets. Tim explains, "It's interesting, because I've been up to Winchester now and it's a small town, it's relatively close to Washington, DC. By all accounts it wouldn't be the greatest market in the world for us, but they do really great business."
Now that Tim is back on board, there's a two-pronged expansion that he's spearheading. "We're looking to have franchise partners like we have in Winchester," he said. We probably are going to have several new locations open up in the next year; we have a strategy for expanding every year." The company also has designs internally for getting into the major markets that Tim and Karrie initially avoided in favor of Austin. "Myself, I want to move into New York and LA and hopefully in relatively short order have Alamo Drafthouse locations open up in those major markets."
In addition to the Drafthouse brand, there's also Mondo, a boutique art house connected to the company that specializes in limited edition, hand silk-screened movie posters from a range of artists. "The very first incarnation of Mondo was maybe 8 years ago in our original [Austin] location downtown," Tim said. "We had a storefront retail space that was initially our ticket booth but we ended up not using it."
"We had traffic that was walking by the theater and we weren't really doing anything with the space," he continued. "It was more of a T-shirt boutique at the time, it had more of a retro type of feel. It was there just because we had un-utilized streetside retail space. Even the URL is 'mondotees.com,' so that was our focus."
"We go by Mondo now, and we still sell a few shirts now and again, but the... identity has been crafted over these hand silk-screened movie posters. Its just been an evolution; over the past year, year and a half really its really taken off. Justin [Ishamel], who is the creative director of Mondo, it's his voice, his vision, where it's going now."
Of course, now there's also the company's freshly born newcomer, Drafthouse Films, which kicks off with a fall release acquired and ready to go. "It's a movie called 'Four Lions' by Chris Morris," Tim said. "Chris Morris, if you don't know him, he's a longtime BBC comedian/television producer. His film debuted at Sundance, it was a closing night film at South By Southwest and it was also the Audience Award winner at LA Film Festival. It's been sitting on the shelf for a little bit because it's a bit controversial."
"It's basically a slapstick comedy about Jihadist bombers, suicide bombers," he continued. "It inherently, because of its subject matter, has potential controversy and I think that's why it sat there for awhile. So we have acquired it and are going to be releasing it this fall. It's under the banner of Drafthouse Films, so we'll be opening it in theaters that are not Alamo Drafthouse. It's a pretty exciting time for us. Mondo will definitely be involved, they're already looking at poster concepts to help spur on the release of that... maybe in about a month or so."