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Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League Talks L.A. Opening, Streaming Competition and Vegan Concessions

Independent movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse has had its Downtown Los Angeles doors open for barely a month, but it’s already become a vital part of the outdoor entertainment space called the Bloc.

With locations in markets like Austin and Brooklyn, the chain run by CEO Tim League has always enjoyed a brand of casual cool thanks to an unpretentious dine-in menu and film programming that looks to indulge American cinephiles instead of speaking down to them. The recent opening of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” for instance, broke attendance records for 35mm and 70mm print screenings at all of Alamo’s 19 locations, and sold out through opening weekend in L.A. Instead of the historical-skewing retrospects on Tarantino and his many influences mounted by their competitors, Alamo Drafthouse built a month-long curated film program about legendary Hollywood stuntmen in tribute to Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth.

With the box office down roughly 6% from last year however,  and consolidation like Disney’s acquisition of Fox dramatically affecting the release calendar, opening an indie movie house in 2019 is bold to say the least. Variety caught up with League to discuss moving into Hollywood, streaming competitors and going after the lucrative awards campaign business.

This is a tough time to be in the movie theater business, even for corporate chains. What do you see as your greatest challenges? 

I remain pretty optimistic. Yes, the industry is down but it’s still projected to be approaching flat by the end of the year. There have been enough high points and surprises that I remain pretty optimistic. I’ve been in the business now 22 years, which is still pretty junior, but I’ve heard countless tales of woe and doom and gloom. We’re having a great year and people still love to come out to the movies. I think streaming has an effect — but maybe more on how many days people are willing to go out for entertainment versus staying home for entertainment. People still go out to restaurants, shows, comedy and movies. We see ourselves as an out-of-home entertainment space.

But you also work with Netflix, as one of the select chains that shows their original films in limited runs.

We had a nice run with “Roma.” We have a pretty decent relationship with Netflix, and a partnership that works. We can raise awareness and market their films. I feel sorry for people that watched “Roma” on their laptop, that’s not what it was intended to be. We’re not going to play every movie from streaming services, but we’re open to all manner of partnerships.

There’s a lot of talk that theater owners will give a significant run to Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” this year. Does that include the Alamo? 

Yes. We’re not on the bleeding edge of the window question. We’ve supported a bunch of day-and-date movies. I’ll say something about Netflix they might not get enough credit for, is building up an audience for documentaries. I think they’ve grown that audience. Last year there were four, one of which was Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers,” that grossed over $10 million. That’s never happened in the history of cinema. They help in that regard.

You’re about to launch a ticket subscription service across the country, which has been fatal for companies like MoviePass and saw mixed results for other chains. Why now? 

We started talking about it the moment MoviePass made their move to the $9.99 price point. Similar to the windowing conversation, where there’s doom and gloom, I saw opportunity. I was excited about their approach to analyzing customer behavior, so we immediately put it in development. We felt the model worked better doing it in-house rather than hiring a company to come between us and our customers. We’ve had it in beta test for almost a year,

The idea is to ensure we find a model that’s a real value to our customers and it doesn’t bankrupt the company. To me, the most exciting thing about it is that it spurs on incremental visits to the movie theater. If folks buy a subscription, they use it. Films like “Eighth Grade” and “Booksmart” saw great success with our season pass holders. It happened again with “Midsommar.” We have also committed to sharing our data with the content makers. We’re rolling this out across the country in the next few months.

The L.A. theater has a big dining component — will you guys go after some of the awards season screening-and-reception business?

Yes. Flat out yes. We have big screens and a wonderful bar attached, so it’s tailor made for a nice screening followed by a gathering. If I were a filmmaker with a contender I would want to utilize that.

Since it’s Los Angeles, did you modify the concessions menu for our particular dietary restrictions? 

There’s a decent-sized gluten-free menu, vegan menu, yes! We have 80 taps of beer and the majority are local. We also have a cocktail program tied into our video store. The L.A. Drafthouse has a free-rental video store, so we have cocktails associated with classic films and new takes on classic cocktails as well. We call them “rewinds” or “fast-forwards.” 

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