Reel nerds: How two Rice undergrads started an unconventional cinema empire

On a balmy night this spring, Tim League ’92 took the stage at a new theater in North Houston. The latest branch of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain that Tim and his wife, Karrie Smith League ’92, founded in 1997 wouldn’t officially open for three more days — but a sellout crowd had already packed Theater Six. The draw was a screening of the 1998 cult classic “Rushmore,” introduced by Tim and the movie’s star, Jason Schwartzman.

Karrie Smith League ’92 and Tim League ’92

With a beer in hand, Tim bounded so enthusiastically onto the stage that he tripped. “I almost just fell on my face,” he said happily. “Thank you all very much for coming out tonight …. I don’t have any right to be owning or operating movie theaters except for one thing, which is I really, really, really love movies.”

After the film, Schwartzman asked where they could get a drink. “There’s a pub in the basement of the chemistry building at Rice,” Tim suggested. And so the pair ended up at Valhalla, drinking pints and sharing stories late into the night.

It was a surreal moment for Tim. As a Rice student two decades earlier, he’d frequented Valhalla with friends. Now he was there with a celebrity — and he’s become a bit of one himself.

Today Tim is the CEO of a rapidly growing cinema empire. He owns 14 Alamo Drafthouse theaters (with 12 more coming soon), a film distribution company, a film festival and a high-end film poster company.

With locations in seven states and growing, the Alamo is in the middle of a rapid transition from funky Austin attraction to coast-to-coast power player. Entertainment Weekly called it “the best theater in America,” and Wired said it “might just be the coolest movie theater in the world.”

Big entertainment franchises are nothing new, of course. But the national rise of a company as proudly weird as the Alamo Drafthouse is. This is a theater that once offered viewers the option to watch the 2010 suspense thriller “Buried” from the confines of coffins outfitted with LCD monitors. It’s also a full-service restaurant and bar with elaborate themed menus, so moviegoers sip butterbeer while watching “Harry Potter” and scarf nine meals like a Hobbit during “Lord of the Rings.”

The Alamo’s unabashedly geeky vibe is the heart of its brand. It also looks a lot like the culture of Rice University: serious about its work, but also seriously playful, with wacky traditions and pranks. That’s not a coincidence. In fact, you could argue that Rice was the Alamo’s earliest incubator.

Read the whole story here:

About Special to Rice News

The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.