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Tim League and the accidental drive home that became Alamo Drafthouse

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Tim League, CEO and founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Photo by Elevated Evolution
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Photo by Elevated Evolution
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Tim League drove home using the same usual route from his two year-old engineering job at Shell Oil in Bakersfield, California. It was 1993, League was 23 years old. The Shell job was his first out of college and it wasn't working for him.

That drive home took him past on old movie theater every day. On this day it would change his life.

"There was a theater on my way to work. I was working at Shell Oil at the time as an engineer and I just knew that I didn’t want to do that anymore so I was looking for other options," League explained. "It [the theater] had a 'For Lease' sign on it and a week later I signed the lease without any planning or forethought or skills or experience.

"I was also a pretty avid movie fan all the way from high school all the way through college, it’s just what we did. It never dawned on me that that was anything more than what you did on the weekends. And so that was the light bulb that went off when I passed the theater — it was like, 'I think I can do this.'"

League says he thought a lot about what would happen if his Tejon theater venture failed. "I was young at that time. I was 23 when we opened up the first theater. I didn’t have any obligations, I wasn’t married, I did come to grips with the worst case scenario. I thought about the idea, 'what if I fail, what would I lose if it went horribly awry.' I think being comfortable with that worst case scenario, as long as you go into it, knowing your OK if everything turns our terribly, then fine, go ahead and do it."

He did, and it did — failed that is, just two years later. But that experience fueled League's innovative side and that little single screen led to the revolution that now carries Austin mythological status — starting with another single screen theater here in 1997.

"The first thought with opening up the 409 Colorado theater was that this was it. We didn’t have any plans or designs beyond opening and operating a single screen theater and being very hands on, very mom and pop." But Alamo Drafthouse Cinema would not stay simple and small. 

"A chain of events happened that almost forced us into expansion in the first place. Once it started then we got to see the potential of what we could do with it if it really did get quite a bit bigger."

That potential grew from League's vision, now augmented by his wife, Karrie. 

"Most movie theaters aren’t run by movie fans. And a lot of the principles and ideas and values of the company are based upon being a movie fan and wanting this place to be a haven for fellow movie fans."

Alamo Drafthouse now boasts 5 theaters in Austin showing films on 27 screens. The newest, Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane, is an eight screen showplace with leather chairs and a small room feel. And Alamo has expanded beyond the city limits with three theaters in San Antonio, three more in the Houston area and one in the Valley. In 2009 the first Alamo Drafthouse opened outside of Texas, in Winchester, Virginia and theaters are under construction in San Francisco, Denver, and New York.

In an era of media proliferation, when nearly anyone can watch a movie on their smartphone while waiting for a bus, opening old-school movie theaters seems almost crazy.

"There’s been doom and gloom spelled for movie theaters since the fifties," said League. "There are a lot of ways people can watch movies now: You can watch them on your phone, you can watch them at home on a giant screen — but people inherently want to get out of the house every once in awhile and as long as we have an offering that’s entertaining, and we make this whole experience for people amazing, people will choose to go here as opposed to going to a skating rink or going to a bar."

Talking to League, one quickly understands how he so quickly became an Austin legend. His quick wit and insatiable creativity, aligned with his love of movies informs everything he does, including his own film festival, Fantastic Fest.

"I like a particular type of movie so Fantastic Fest was built out of my own personal tastes and these are the types of movies I love — the things that Fantastic Fest does — its horror, its science fiction, fantasy, action, just crazy movies. There was nothing like it in the United States, at all, anywhere and that’s how Fantastic Fest was born."

Fantastic Fest led to Drafthouse Films, a film distribution network League started in order to help the films he loves become available to a wider audience. It's that vision that keeps Drafthouse innovating.

"I think back to before I got into this when I was with Shell. That was only a couple years before I embarked upon being an entrepreneur myself. It’s not a casual commitment to follow an entrepreneurial dream but its incredibly rewarding. I could never go back to working for somebody, I couldn’t do it at this point. So if this somehow failed I would have to figure something else out to do."

Last fall the League's became the parents of twins. Tim says he loves being a new Dad, and that the experience has focused him on his home, his family and giving back.

"Even as the company is expanding beyond the borders of Austin, which it is, we’re going to stay here in Austin. This is our home. I love this town so much that spending part of my time to make it better in some way is rewarding."

The Alamo Drafthouse makes Austin better with it's signature quote-alongs, sing-alongs, Hecklevision, Master Pancake, Girlie night and Terror Tuesday. It's a film lovers paradise, just as Tim League wanted it to be back in Bakersfield as he drove home from work.

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