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Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League on Allegations of Company’s Racism and Sexism: ‘I Take Responsibility’

Last year, workers at the chain's Kansas City location went public with a new round of allegations that detailed a litany of abuses at the theater.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Kansas City, MO

Alamo Drafthouse

After allegations of sexual harassment, racist attitudes toward customers, and other abuses were leveled against management at Alamo Drafthouse’s Kansas City location last year — charges that had allegedly been previously ignored by corporate brass — the theater chain’s brass have largely been reluctant to discuss the matter publicly. But co-founder and executive chairman Tim League recently opened up about the allegations on a New York Times podcast, saying he takes responsibility and that the company has implemented changes with a goal of preventing abuses in the future.

In a 35-minute, wide-ranging interview with Kara Swisher on “Sway” this week, League briefly discussed the fallout from the expose published by Kansas City alt weekly “The Pitch” in August 2020. Among the claims: managers sexually and physically abused employees and were never disciplined; employees who were injured on the job and were never properly accommodated; and reports that managers targeted predominantly Black audiences when enforcing its signature “no talking” rule.

“I take responsibility. I lead the company,” League said on the podcast. “You look into yourself, and your failings are pointed out, and you realize that you can do better. And so it was an opportunity to face that criticism and work really hard to try to be as good a company as we can. And perhaps I was more focused on the customer journey and maybe not the company culture journey, and maybe I took it for granted.”

“The only thing you can do is say, we didn’t do as good a job as we should have. I want this to be the best possible company just for customers and for our teammates, and I do believe that we’re on that path,” he continued.

In February 2018, a deep-dive report from Splinter alleged that Texas-based theater chain had long minimized a variety of sexual assault and harassment allegations made against both patrons and employees. In September 2017, IndieWire reported on allegations from five women against former Drafthouse associate and Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles. Following that report, League pledged actionable change and a new board of directors.

League stepped aside as CEO in April 2020 to assume a new role as executive chairman. Former Starbucks and fitness executive Shelli Taylor then took his place as CEO.

While that change happened before the newest round of allegations surfaced, League said one of Taylor’s “main roles is to build exceptional company culture.” In an internal memo sent by Taylor following the Kansas City report, she apologized and promised that those who violate Alamo’s code of conduct will be held accountable. The policies in that code were adopted in 2018, after the earlier round of abuse allegations.

Taylor also said that the results of meetings, roundtables, and employee surveys would help “strengthen and improve reporting structures.” League did not detail the outcome of that in his podcast interview, but an interview published by Vulture in June detailed some of the changes: expanded harassment and discrimination trainings taken by every Drafthouse employee, workplace health surveys, and the implementation of a new reporting system.

Alamo filed for bankruptcy in March and emerged two months later. It shuttered several underperforming locations, including the theater in Kansas City. That came after, like many theaters, Alamo closed all of its locations temporarily amid the pandemic before fully laying off more than 80 employees on the corporate side. In September 2020, employees of the chain’s Brooklyn location circulated a petition for hazard pay during the pandemic.

The restructuring means that private equity firms Altamont Capital and Fortress Investment are now in control of the company, though League said he was part of the investor group that bought some of Drafthouse’s prior bank debt. “They own a majority of the company, so I guess technically they have total power, right?,” League said on “Sway.” Altamount, which has owned some of Drafthouse since 2018 has been “extraordinary partners and helped close the deal with Fortress … they’re patient, they like the brand, they like the business.”

League said he doesn’t “lose sleep over” the idea that Alamo could become another private-equity horror story and close down for good. He expects a “slightly smaller” exhibition sector to emerge from the pandemic noted that the company is planning on expanding to New York, St. Louis, Virginia, and Washington D.C., and is “bullish” on opening even more theaters. League said he has a controversial opinion on changes that the industry has undergone over the last year, including the breaking of traditional theatrical windows.

“I think what’s happened over the past year is ultimately, in the long haul, going to be a positive experience for this industry. Because the 90-day window of exclusive content for movies did allow the cinema industry to be on its heels, right? We have this guaranteed exclusive product window, ergo you can maybe not deliver the most perfect amazing experience every single time, but people have no other choice,” he said. “I like that there’s now newfound pressure on this industry to deliver an exceptional experience, because we can, and that’s the goal. And if we’re going to survive, we have to make sure from the idea of leaving the house to returning to the house, that we deliver on that ‘Cinema Paradiso’ ideal.”

Listen to the full interview with League at The New York Times.

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