Q&A: Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League on his pandemic passion project
Tim League says he’s had some time on his hands lately. And like a lot of us, he’s been going through old stuff. Mind you, League is the founder and executive chairman of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and you are not. The past he’s unpacking is likely more entertaining than the karate trophies in your crawl space.
League wasn’t going out to the movies for a while, which you already know, because the coronavirus pandemic shut down Texas movie theaters in March. Gov. Greg Abbott allowed them to reopen in May at limited capacity. Alamo Drafthouse (which has enacted layoffs during the pandemic) held off for a bit and formulated a detailed safety plan, which the company unveiled with great fanfare. In late August, the Slaughter Lane location was the first of its Austin-area theaters to reopen. The Lakeline and South Lamar Boulevard cinemas have since followed, screening new releases and repertory titles.
And in April, former Disney exec Shelli Taylor succeeded League as Alamo Drafthouse’s CEO, as he stepped into the executive chairman role. The company’s official announcement said that he would continue to guide and develop creative initiatives.
Which brings us back to League’s current passion project: resurrecting one-of-a-kind silent film scores performed live at Alamo Drafthouse in days long past. One of League’s favorites was created by Austin band Brown Whornet to accompany silent horror classic “Nosferatu.” Fans first enjoyed it a week before Halloween 1998 at the original (and since closed) Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado Street. That theater had been open just a little more than a year on the night in question.
“Nosferatu” — featuring a remastered version of Brown Whornet’s score assembled from three recording sessions — will rise again from the crypt on Sunday, both at the South Lamar theater and the virtual Alamo On Demand platform, which launched earlier this year. And there’s more film score madness on the way, including some new ones.
We caught up with League by phone on Tuesday to talk about his passion project, the state of the movie theater world and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: I was wondering if revisiting the live scores in the archive has been in the back of your head for a while.
Tim League: I was kind of a champion of the live scores with silent films back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. I'd put them all together. And once I stopped programming regularly at the theater, nobody else really picked up the mantle. I've occasionally put some together. ... So, yeah, it was in the back of my mind. I’ve always been thinking about it. I just hadn't had much time for programming, really.
Why start with the Brown Whornet score for “Nosferatu”? What makes that the perfect one to kick off this revitalization?
You know, there's lots of them that I love. There’s this one with Kamran Hooshmand, who passed away a few years ago (and) who did one for “The Thief of Bagdad.” We’ve had a long relationship with Graham Reynolds, with Golden Arm Trio.
But something about this one — if I had to name a favorite child, which you're not supposed to do, this is it. It's the one that has stuck with me over the years. It's the perfect silent film accompaniment.
Do you remember what the reception was like when it was performed in real life for the first time, that gave you a sense of it being a fan favorite?
Brown Whornet was always this pretty weird band. I think that was in their heyday, when they were becoming pretty popular. I had seen them at Emo’s and approached them after the show. So, they had a built-in following, and it sold out. It was really successful back then, and we revisited it. I think we did it outdoors one time at McKinney Falls. We did it the year after during Halloween.
One of my favorite things about this is that a lot of people just don't have any patience or time for silent films. You can pair up this incredible music with a film, and it's revelatory. It becomes so electric. The (“Nosferatu”) score, those guys poured their heart and soul into it and made one of the greatest musical works of a pretty great band. And somehow, the synthesis with the visuals, which is one of the most arresting, visually stunning movies of all time, it's just ... I don't know, I left with goosebumps. I think a lot of people left with goosebumps.
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You’ve alluded to some other blasts from the score past coming. What else might be in the pipe?
The Invincible Czars. We're remastering a couple of theirs.
There’s a really interesting story with Graham Reynolds. So, Graham did several for us, but so far, he's not been super happy with the recording quality of stuff we did in the ’90s. But there’s one (“Arsenal”) that I have recorded really well. It involves Peter (Stopschinski) from Brown Whornet. Peter was signed up to do a solo piece and got horrible food poisoning. He called Graham two hours before the performance and said, “I can't go, I can't perform. Can you do this for me?” Graham said, “I've never seen this movie.” So Peter explained what the movie was over the phone, and then Graham just walked over to the theater and improvised a score live to a movie he had never seen before.
We're working with Austin Classical Guitar, because they did a couple of scores. I think the first one that we're going to be relaunching with them is “The Lodger.” And I've been reaching out to other bands we haven't worked (with), and my hope is in December, we're going to launch a handful of new ones.
When you transitioned out of the CEO role, the company said you would continue to guide and develop creative initiatives. Is this a taste of the projects you want to take on in this new era?
Yeah. I mean, I'm every day very, very committed to the business. I think a lot of what I'm doing now is more project-based. There's nuts-and-bolts survival stuff that's happening right now, to ensure that we weather the storm and reemerge.
But I was heavily involved in the creation of Alamo On Demand. And this (revival) of the silent films is another. I’ve been deeply involved in (Alamo Drafthouse merch and art brand) Mondo on board game development. Overall, I'm leaning into things that I think are aspects that make the brand and the experience special and cool.
How has Alamo On Demand been going?
Fantastic Fest is when we first started doing events through Alamo On Demand, and those have been the most successful things that we’ve done. … We’re up to about 800 movies on the platform that are all curated. They’re loved by somebody on the Alamo team.
Now, we’ve got Master Pancake running through Alamo On Demand. I tuned into the last two live Master Pancake events. It was pretty wonderful to feel the audience, because there (were) 250 people there. They're all chatting on the chatroom. … It's definitely a live event, and you're feeling that energy. And it's funny as hell, so that's great. It feels exactly what I miss most about going to my own theater.
This has been a hard year for everyone, certainly for movie theaters. What are your thoughts on where the theater industry is now? Release schedules are in chaos and some people don't feel comfortable going back.
However long it is — but unfortunately, we're really not going to get to the end of (the pandemic) until there's a vaccine that brings back some level of normalcy — we're going to return. What I'm seeing is, there's going to be pent-up demand for getting out of the house and having experiences with others. I try to stay positive about (the fact that) there are these weird silver linings of the pandemic. We refuse to let this destroy us. We're going to figure out how to come out of the debt hole that we're in from closing the theater.
But it's not often you get a chance to pause the business and reflect upon it and improve it. That's a rare opportunity, and we're not going to squander it. From making the events and the experience and the food and the technology better, but also working on the overall culture of working at the Alamo, we know it's a rare opportunity. ...
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A huge chunk of our (business right now), maybe above 30%, is on personal theater rental. You rent it for your pod, for your family. I think some people, if they're not comfortable going out and sitting with strangers, they're more comfortable sitting out, but still very socially distanced, in the theater with friends. And that's been a nice blessing during this weird time.
On a personal level, what have you been watching? I assume someone who founded a movie theater chain is watching just as many movies at home as the rest of us.
It's funny, because a lot of times it reflects what I'm working on. I've interestingly been watching a fair amount of silent films, because I want to provide options for the bands.
I've got twin 9-year-old girls, and I am very much in the mode of watching things with them. So we're currently two seasons into the old Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie “Jeeves and Wooster” series, which is a very odd thing for 9-year-olds to watch. … I keep pace with a bunch of stuff that's happening on Alamo On Demand. There was a cool cycling movie called “The Racer,” which I really liked, and an awesome movie from (film studio) Oscilloscope that they re-released called “Billy the Kid” that we're gonna try to put some energy behind.
If there's anybody that did a silent film (score) for me back in the day, email me. … I'm on the hunt.
Want to watch?
“Nosferatu” with remastered original score from Brown Whornet
In-person screening with Q&A: 12:35 p.m. Sunday at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar; go to drafthouse.com for more information
Virtual screening: Special performance at 7 p.m. Sunday, with main show at 7:30 p.m., at ondemand.drafthouse.com