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Austin Made: Alamo Drafthouse’s journey from small cinema to a national brand

Tim and Karrie League’s 1990s vision led to a national cinema chain, specializing in dinner service and an event-like movie experience.

The front of the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse location.

Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar was recently remodeled to have new recliner seating and a 10th auditorium.

Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy

Sit down and settle in. Order a burger, some chips and queso, or a themed cocktail. Take in the pre-show entertainment. But whatever you do, no talking.

You probably already know the business we’re featuring today: that’s right, Austin’s own Alamo Drafthouse. We’re talking about the story of this cult cinema’s rise to widespread success.

Fast Facts

  • The first Alamo Drafthouse opened at 409 Colorado St. in 1997.
  • In addition to offering a dinner-and-a-movie experience, the chain is known for hosting themed showings, premieres, festivals, and a range of films from art house cinema to Marvel blockbusters.
  • Alamo Drafthouse has a zero-tolerance policy for talking or using a cell phone during screenings. You will be kicked out.
A crowd of people sitting at chairs with a movie screen in the background.

The first Alamo Drafthouse was on Colorado Street, downtown.

Photo courtesy Alamo Drafthouse

Cannibals and parking garages

When Tim and Karrie League opened the first Alamo Drafthouse, Austin was seeing a strong — but still growing — film scene.

That first theater set up shop on the second floor of a parking garage with a handbuilt screen, showing second-run titles at a discount. Thanks in part to word-of-mouth marketing and a welcoming for the weird, the theater quickly became a local favorite.

Alamo Drafthouse’s dinner service — in part inspired by hosting Quentin Tarantino’s meat-centered Cannibal Film Festival in 1999 — was a rarity for cinema-goers at the time. Over the years, Alamo maintained its experimentation with innovation and technology, even becoming one of the first theaters in the US to offer digital tickets.

Alamo’s original theater was torn down last year. Today, the longest continually operating Drafthouse is its Village location, which opened in 2001.

A hallway at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, with side decorations to look like scenes from "The Shining."

The remodel to Alamo Drafthouse’s South Lamar location added easter eggs from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” just in time for Halloween.

Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy

Still expanding

Alamo Drafthouse now has five locations in Austin, 18 in Texas, and 39 in the US, plus soon-to-open theaters in Massachusetts, Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida. The chain’s South Lamar location was recently remodeled, to add a 10th auditorium and recliner seating.

The theater is now showing Halloween-themed films and new releases, including “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” premiering this Friday, Oct. 13. Plan a trip to the movies.

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