Dialogue: Tim League Talks Changes at the Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest, and the Things People Say About Him

Dialogue: Tim League Talks Changes at the Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest, and the Things People Say About Him

Sep 17, 2013


[Photo by Annie Ray]

Tim League does not like being idle. At least that's the impression you'd get from the outside. In the last two years alone he has seen his movie theater, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, expand from four locations in Austin, Texas to nearly two dozen across the nation. He created his own theatrical distribution company, Drafthouse Films, which has 22 indie and international films like Four Lions, The Act of Killing and Miami Connection to its name. He converted an old illicit massage parlor into an exceptional cocktail bar called the Midnight Cowboy. He became a father to twin girls. And not only does he put on Fantastic Fest, the U.S.' largest genre film festival, every year, but this year they've added a brand new film marketplace to the mix.

And somehow he still finds time to shoot little kids in the face with paintballs. The man is the embodiment of the American dream.

Or he just really loves cinema and hopes that he can use his cell phone-hating movie-theater empire - one he literally built with his bare hands - to influence not only the way people in America watch movies, but the kinds of movies they watch.

We spoke with Tim League ahead of this year's Fantastic Fest (which we'll be covering in the days to come) about how he spreads his time between all of the above, how he approaches change with the Drafthouse, and why it means some people think he's a "loathsome, sellout whore"-- his words, not ours.

 

Movies.com: What is a day in the insanely busy life of Tim League like?

Tim League: I'm pretty busy, yes. [Laughs] I don't know if there is a typical day, really, it's more like a typical week. I think the important thing to me is that every day I sort of block out time. So my schedules become much more rigid than they were when things weren't so complicated in my life. I used to just go to work and come home, have dinner, and then work on things some more. But now I wake up around eight, and then the girls wake up around 8:15 and we always block out a little family time. So I don't start my work day until 10, and I'll have meetings usually 10 to noon. And I need to exercise, so I'll block that out from noon to 1:30 Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Then I block out the afternoon to just work on whatever's important, and fill up the rest of the time slots with meetings and touching base with the various teams, whether it's Drafthouse Films or Fantastic Fest or the Drafthouse. Talking on the phone with journalists, that's all time that gets blocked out. Then I make sure I'm done working at a certain time so I can go back home and have some family time. It's probably not any more busy than I once was, but I think the concept of being hard and rigid about blocking out windows for things outside of work is what keeps it flowing.

Movies.com: Are you still looking for an apprentice?

League: Yeah. We've got four or five candidates, but then I went off to Toronto, so this weekend I'm going to pick that back up and do my interviews with them, and we'll figure out what running them through the paces is going to be like.

Movies.com: The Drafthouse appeals to a very savvy crowd, and that crowd also happens to be the loudest. When you announce a change to something, they tend to be the most vocal, so how do you balance what's good for the die-hards with what's best for the majority?

League: Using the new Fantastic Fest ticketing as an example, we knew what sort of feedback we were going to get from the VIP customers about that decision. We knew there'd be a mix of negative feedback from them. And I understand people not being 100% happy with it, but first and foremost, we are listening, which I think is important. Sometimes we will be very open and get a lot of advanced feedback before we do things. Sometimes we'll take a smaller focus group and make decisions based on that, though oddly enough I think we would have ended up at the same decision if we'd follow the democratic will since there's 180 or so VIP badges and over a thousand regular badges.

Just from being in this business so damned long, any change pisses people off. People do not like change at all. I happen to love change, probably to a fault, but I'm always trying to do things better. Sometimes I don't get it right, and when I don't, I have no problem saying, "I didn't get it right, so we're going to change it again." I hope in the long run people do understand that I am listening. I don't want to piss people off, but if you don't like something, it might be that 90% of people do. I think reserved seating is a classic example of it, where all the negatives were coming from an incredible small group and our customer feedback shows that 83-90% of people do like it. So we may do something at events like Weird Wednesday or Terror Tuesday or any time a community does regularly meet in the lobby, maybe we won't do those as a reserved-seating show. We're thinking about rolling that back for those, which is just an example of the feedback loop. Sometimes you have to do it in order to get the feedback of what actually works. In terms of the Fantastic Fest ticketing for this year, I think once it's all done, people are going to think, "Hey, that was pretty cool."

Movies.com: Since you have been in this business a very long time, are you getting bored yet? How do you keep it interesting and challenging?

League: Well I'm definitely not bored right now. We've got lots of challenges. [Laughs] And they're fun challenges. For better or worse, I like to create new things, possibly to avoid boredom. The biggest shift for me personally has been the merger of the company and taking it from Austin to national, and to make my self really excited about that was to tell myself it was a different game with different challenges. There are challenges of being Alamo Drafthouse Austin, but if you take it up to a national level, then you have challenges like, if we do become a big company, can we create an audience for classic films? Can we build an audience for foreign-language films? Can we make a meaningful impact on a national level on the impact of manners in the theater? Thinking about those things nationally instead of just Austin is fun. That's how I spend my time and that's what we're working on as a company. So I've invented a new game and I am very much not bored.

Movies.com: Has the usual location being under construction had a big effect on Fantastic Fest this year?

League: It's not so bad. For me it's not so bad. There are actually some things that are better about having it at Lakeline. The thing that's most important to me is the sense of community. Years ago we dabbled around with going to the Ritz and the Paramount and the feedback was that wasn't as good as having it at one venue. So having it out at Lakeline, where there are fewer distractions, I think it's actually going to be awesome. I hope that people come away from this fest with two things. One, that the ticketing system isn't that bad. And two, that being at Lakeline was awesome and still feels like Fantastic Fest. If I get that, if people say it didn't feel any different at all... that's my goal.

Movies.com: The programming this year does feel like it's more filled with wildcards and unknown films and filmmakers, as it was a few years ago. Was that intentional or just a result of what was available in the marketplace?

League: I don't think our tactics changed, I think this was the marketplace and these were the films we were excited by. Frankly, there weren't as many big studio films that were right for us. Some of the things that are coming out, like Ender's Game and Carrie and Oldboy, they didn't want to participate. And to me, that says, "Well, okay, maybe those movies aren't going to be very good." I don't know, I haven't seen them, but a lot of it is just what's available in our space and time. We looked for those movies, and had we seen them and liked them, they probably would have played. But the core of the festival, what I and Rodney [Perkins] and Todd [Brown] spend our time on is finding the new discoveries. Who knew there was going to be a wave of genre filmmaking coming out of Israel? That's great, that's awesome and unexpected.

Movies.com: Now that it's been over two years since your first release, how is Drafthouse Films performing? Is it meeting your business and creative expectations?

League: It has met my expectations creatively. [Laughs] It's funny, we buy these films for seven or ten years, so it's kind of a long-term play and it's serious, high-stakes gambling every time. We've had some movies that have worked and definitely made money. We've had some that have lost money. We also wasted money in the very beginning. I like to think we're getting smarter with each one, but it's hard. It's a really, really hard business, but we're committed to it. I think we have a ways to go before it becomes a cash cow. The theaters make the money and the label is more of a labor of love at this point. The key is to always improve, and hopefully that means making money.

Movies.com: You guys partnered with Snoot Entertainment on acquiring Cheap Thrills. Do you think that those kind of strategic partnerships are going to become more common in the indie distribution world?

League: Yes, and I love that. And the partnership with them has been awesome, by the way. That team is really savvy and smart. We have our second draft on the trailer for Cheap Thrills and it's just awesome and they have really insightful notes. Keith [Calder] has his own postproduction facilities and he's letting us use them. This is a very low-budget film, and he's letting us use them to do a round of cleanup on the audio on the film, and it makes a huge difference. Things like that, and his savvy and expertise and knowledge of film, plus his sensibilities are the same as our's. It's a financial partnership, so it helps with the upfront costs, but it's having a more expanded member of the team that's adding real value to how you can position a film in the market.

Movies.com: What's next for the Drafthouse? 

League: We're opening Kalamazoo in a couple months. I think the most important thing for me right now, especially since there are now a lot of eyes on us, is that we don't lose sight of why we got into this in the first place. It's a difficult challenge of expansion and it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I certainly read the feedback, and I understand why people think I am a loathsome, sellout whore, and that's fine. People can say whatever they want. I just try to stick to my vision of what this company can be so long as we execute successfully, so I just power ahead. That's all I'm doing.

 

Fantastic Fest runs in Austin, Texas September 19-26. Movies.com will be on the ground to cover the entire thing, so expect plenty of reviews, interviews, features and more. you'll be able to find all of that right here.

 

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