A thick knot of people clustered around one particularly genial man at Mission Bar late Thursday, but not just because he was buying the drinks. Tim League, the center of attention that night, is the founder of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, which will open up a new location in the historic New Mission Theater.
League had sent out a public invitation via social media to celebrate the building permits for the renovation of the New Mission Theater being approved after two years of planning. Around 20 friends, neighbors and old Alamo fans had flocked to Mission Bar to meet, and interrogate, the newest business owner on Mission Street.
Youthful despite a head of grey hair, League nodded, grinned, shrugged and gestured with the air of a regular grabbing some drinks with the guys rather than an entrepreneur celebrating a business victory. To his guests at the bar, League was casual about his business expanding to California.
“It had never occurred to me that an actual human being could just own a theater,” he said. Now he owns several.
Nevertheless, walking the neighborhood walk is likely to be the biggest challenge for the transplant. Tiffany Schoepp, who has lived in the Mission for more than 10 years, came to chat with the soon-to-be Mission business owner. She explained that she’s seen the neighborhood and city change.
“Everyone wants to be local,” Schoepp said. “How are they going to do that? How can you be local if you just moved here from Texas?”
Since establishing the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin in 1997, League and his wife Karrie have enjoyed both business success and critical acclaim (like being named “the best theater in America” by Entertainment Weekly) and have been expanding, with five theaters in various locations throughout Austin. But despite its growth, the Drafthouse is known for its efforts to work with local purveyors of food and beer, as well as with filmmakers, to create a very localized experience.
“We are by definition a chain, there’s no denying that,” League said over a beer during a lull between enthusiastic guests. But he said he likes to think of his Drafthouses, of which there are nearly two dozen now, more like a “loose collection of neighborhood theaters.”
League has also spent some time in San Francisco, his wife lived in the city, and he is a Berkeley native, so he’s not a total outsider. He said the Alamo will source its beer, wine and food from nearby, but also do its best to hire locally and make an effort to pay a wage that allows workers to live in a neighborhood where rent prices are legendary. “We know the rules of engagement in San Francisco,” he said.
Several Mission Bar patrons said they were already fans and spoke fondly of the Alamo’s reputation for offering unique cinematic and gastronomic fare that matches the tastes of the community.
“One thing I liked is that they really tied into local experience,”said Blaise Margherito, who frequented the Alamo in Texas before he moved to Mountain View. He recalled a series of screenings accompanied by wine and cheese from nearby vendors. A self-described film buff, Margherito said he looks forward to seeing the “odd, eccentric” movies that the will be unique to the Alamo.
The theater will join several others in the neighborhood dedicated to independent and sometimes abstract film screenings, like the Roxie Theater, Foreign Cinema, and Artists’ Television Access. Tiffany Schoepp believes the Alamo needs a variety of production levels, from intellectually challenging to commercial, in order to really be attractive. She hopes for “a mixture of B movies and blockbusters.”
League already has some ideas about how to include a wide range of media. With five screens, the Alamo Drafthouse has the means to accommodate different flavors of film as well as potentially offer screening opportunities for non-profits and community groups who might want a place to present their material.
“Ultimately, it’s a cinema,” he said. “Friday to Saturday we need to focus on making money…but on off nights we can support local schools and nonprofits…lots of people have a need for great audio visual presentation.”
A member of Austin’s historical preservation society and a lover of historic buildings in general, League collaborated with San Francisco’s Historical Preservation Society on the renovation of the New Mission Theater, down to the minutest details. Right now they’re in the process of discussing whether a paint chip sample from the old sign is beige or just a primer. Parsing out the specifics has caused some delay, but League insists it’s all worth it.
Though it’s not clear yet how well the theater will cater to the needs of less affluent Mission residents, the owner has a track record of winning people over. Jake Dale worked at the first Austin Alamo, but has lived in San Francisco for 10 years.
“It was nothing and they turned it into a fucking empire,” he said, with admiration rather than a criticism. “I heard [Tim] decided he wanted to do something, and so he just went out and bought a book about business.”
League’s movie theater business started on a similar whim. In 1994, League was an engineer for Shell but one day, on his way to work, he passed a run-down old theater in Bakersfield, up for lease. He went out for drinks that night with his friends and found himself signing the papers the next day. Bakersfield, it turned out, wasn’t the perfect environment for the kind of specialty movie house League was trying to establish, and the project tanked. Trying again in Austin proved a hit.
“Do you think anybody here would meet up with a businessman?” Dale asked, referring to the casual group that had gathered around League.
Despite her initial skepticism, Schoepp shared the same sentiment.
“I love his style. What a great way to meet the locals,” she said. “What we want to bring back is this feeling of radical inclusion.”
The Alamo Drafthouse is expected to open in early 2015.