Apr 16 2014, 1:56pm CDT | by Forbes
Sometimes things don’t turn out how we expect them to. Just ask Alamo Drafthouse owner, Tim League. The now film-famous Austin resident started his career with Shell Oil after graduating from Rice University with a degree in mechanical engineering and quickly started to seek exit strategies for a more long-term occupation.
It wasn’t until he saw a for sale sign in an old movie theater in the city of Bakersfield, California that a light bulb switched on for him. One failed attempt and a move to Austin later, the Alamo Drafthouse has now taken Tim everywhere from Austin’s multiple locations to film distribution and most recently, to the Oscars. Tim took the time to talk about his career journey with the Alamo Drafthouse – where it all began, what he has learned along the way, and where he sees it going.
The Alamo Drafthouse wasn’t your first step into theaters, was it?
No. A lot of people don’t realize that I had tried to run a theater originally in Bakersfield, California. I was working there for Shell Oil and was trying to find a way out. One day, I saw a for sale sign on an old theater. I talked it over with my friends at a bar, bought a book about business, and decided to go for it. The theater was called the Tejon and was a big failure. I was learning as I went and it wasn’t the right market at the time. It’s funny looking back because if I would have gotten approved for my beer and wine license in Bakersfield, it may have been different. Instead, we packed up and decided to try again in Austin.
There were a lot of factors. For one, it was cheap. I was trying to start a business again and so low risk was my focus. We (my wife and I) had also gone to Rice University in Houston so we felt a connection to Texas. Having family close by finally sold us on the decision.
I feel like that’s many people’s initial reactions to Austin. What did you bring with you?
It’s funny what you can live off of when you’re young and don’t have children. We didn’t have much. In terms of the business, I had a projector that I had bought off of a guy for $2,500 when I had started the Tejon, we also had chairs and other materials. In terms of a structure, we found a parking garage on 4th and Colorado. We actually looked at several options (including unfortunately, an old porn theater), but the second floor of a parking garage seemed like the right idea.
What is your ideal situation in owning your own business?
When everything works. As an entrepreneur, you are constantly testing out new ideas. If it doesn’t work, change it. But sometimes, it works and it feels great. Seeing success with movies [like recent film, The Act of Killing] is great too.
It was great. This was our second nomination, but I was really excited about 2014 because a lot of people actually thought we were going to win. We had worked hard for a year and a half on [The Act of Killing] and it was great to hear the responses from people in such a tough category. The Oscars is a networking business. Think of it as politics, but in film. With 6000 people in the Academy, you have to make it a long-term game to impact each one of them. But, a lot of people have seen The Act of Killing and the government in Indonesia is now talking about the genocide for the first time since 1965. For me, that is a win.
Would you want to continue finding more humanitarian efforts in the future?
Definitely. I like finding a purpose behind everything. My newest venture is finding impact through movies by fundraising and raising awareness. The first test is with one of my local passions — affordable housing and homeless charities, especially around 6th Street (Alamo Drafthouse Headquarters). We just acquired a film at Sundance called The Overnighters and will be donating a percentage of the box office revenues to affordable housing in the local markets where tickets are sold. There are ways to make an impact with film distribution than just the message in the movie. This is just our first venture, but we hope to do more.
With the Alamo Drafthouse now managing theaters, distribution, and producing, how do you find balance?
I don’t do everything myself anymore. I have a tendency to work too much, but with my twin daughters being born, I had to cut back. The thing that helped me is the realization that when you get to a certain point, you need to see that it is impossible to touch everything, every day. When that time comes, the best thing you can do is hire people that love what they do just as much as you do. We weren’t always lucky with recruiting, but now we are very rigorous when we hire someone on. Gary Keller from Keller William Realty helped me to develop a structure for our search./>/>
Does it ever get old?
Never. But I do have a low tolerance for bad movies. I won’t name names, but we all know they exist.
Do you have any favorites?
It changes. Every year I put together my Alamo 100 list. They always rotate depending on my mood, but this year my #1 is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. I also really enjoy watching There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
What is the most valuable thing you learned as an entrepreneur?
Looking back, there are two things I found especially valuable.
First, I realized early on that I knew nothing about the industry I became involved with, but it didn’t stop me from continuing. I bought a book about business when I first leased the theater in California. I majored in engineering instead of film. But I was excited about my venture and I got really good at faking it because I believed that I could break down big problems into a series of smaller, solvable ones. I didn’t know the lingo, but I didn’t let that drop my confidence. The very nature of engineering is problem solving. Where most people saw engineering as a hindrance, I saw it as a perk.
The second was not being arrogant about success. My wife and I were very levelheaded when we started. The way that we coped with business vs. real life was by asking ourselves, “If we lost everything in this venture would we still be okay?” We kept going because we knew we would be. We were content with what could happen and that kept things in focus. As an entrepreneur, you have to become very comfortable in that “worst-case” scenario and realize it could happen.
Do you have any final advice for people aspiring to get involved in business?
Try to outsmart the situations that you cannot change. This is especially true for discrimination. Whether age, gender, ethnicity, or political views – It stills exists. When I was 23, I looked 16 or 17 and was trying to get a beer and wine license for the Alamo Drafthouse. It didn’t work in California, so when I came to Austin I hired a middle-aged lawyer in a suit and received the license easily.
Find what areas are worth investing in and outsmart the situation every time. It puts you one step closer to success.
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