The pandemic has decimated the global box office, forcing theaters to shutter and delaying film productions.
U.S. ticket sales in 2020 were down about 80 percent compared to the previous three years before the pandemic, according to Gower Street Analytics. Alamo Drafthouse dealt with a lot of those repercussions, including having to declare bankruptcy at one point but finding enough investors to stay afloat. Still, CEO Tim League sees some positives during the experience.
"There were some silver linings," League said. "You don't often get the chance to shut your business down and build it from the ground up again."
The theater chain is ready for the film-going public to return. It recently opened its 36th location in Manhattan and is trying to expand its brand of curated experiences for movie lovers across the country.
"Watching movies in a movie theater has always been this huge joy for me," he said. "And I think I appreciate it even more in the modern era, where we're plagued with these devices that are rotting us away."
League started in 1997 in Austin, Texas. Although he had studied mechanical engineering in college, he decided his real passion was cinema.
"On my way to work, there was an abandoned movie theater," he recalled. "I was 24 years old. And one day there was a for lease sign. And I gave it a full week's thought and then signed that lease and just never looked back."
Over the last few decades, Alamo Drafthouse has made itself known as the place to go for die-hard film fans. It's main rule involves no talking or texting during the movies, or you will be thrown out without a refund. It notoriously has annoyed some customers, including one who left an irate, seemingly drunken voicemail complaining about her experience. In addition, people aren't allowed to enter the movie theater after the film has started. But as a reward, theatergoers are treated to the ability to order food and drink, including local beers.
The chain plays a wide variety of films, ranging from the biggest blockbusters to curated repertoire selections. League himself has eclectic tastes, so he wants to make sure there's something for anyone and everyone.
"We had a Terror Tuesday audience leaving, and we had a show called Girlie Night, which was female-centric cult classics," League recalled. "Two pretty different audiences coming down the stairs at the same time, all feeling 'This is my theater.'"
The challenges of the pandemic are still here, League said. Furloughing over 5,000 workers was one of the worst days of his career, and steadily he's been able to hire many of them back. But the theatrical box office is only slowly recovering. Gower Street Analytics is estimating it will reach $21.6 billion, about 49 percent of 2019's levels. League remains optimistic for 2022.
"It's not just the box office numbers," he said. "It's just seeing joyous people, like really emotional about coming back to the theaters and having a great time."