The world was a very different place when Shelli Taylor began the series of conversations with Alamo Drafthouse that would land her in the exhibition industry, even if it was just 10 months ago, in late December 2019.
Only one month later, cinemas in China would close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In February, northern Italy followed. Within weeks, the bulk of the world’s theaters—including those in the United States—had stopped in-person operations. And on April 30, 2020, Shelli Taylor was announced as the new CEO of cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse.
“The goal of the role was very different” when she first signed on, says Taylor, with classic understatement. Covid-19 crystallized her number one responsibility—nothing less than keeping her company afloat through a frightening pandemic and confronting its ripple effects on the exhibition industry: closures, wobbly theatrical exclusivity windows, and a film slate that can’t seem to stay put.
When Covid hit the U.S., “I decided to leap anyway,” says Taylor—inspired by the community spirit, customer service, and “incredible presentation” that first drew her in as an Alamo fan when she moved to Austin, Texas, and began taking her then-13-year-old son to the movies there. Conversations with Alamo co-founder and now-former CEO Tim League (still involved with Alamo and its sister companies, Mondo and Fantastic Fest, as executive chairman) took her from an appreciative fan to a full-on enthusiast, someone who “fell in love with this entrepreneurial, scrappy, just really cool team that’s following their passions and created an incredible business out of it. I was just like, ‘How can I pass that up?’”
In looking for a new CEO, League said, in a statement at the time of Taylor’s hiring, he wanted someone “with a strong voice and battle-tested leadership skills.” In Taylor, Alamo found someone who had honed those skills outside the exhibition industry. Before being hired by Alamo, she served as president and CEO of Austin-based United PF Partners, a conglomerate of Planet Fitness franchisees. In 2010 she started a brief tenure as V.P. of Disney English China, working to deliver English-language experiences, products, and services to children ages 2 to 12. But her longest pre-Alamo role was at Starbucks, where Taylor was instrumental in the company’s expansion in China from the late ’90s through the first decade of the 21st century.
Joining Alamo as its new CEO would be like “my early days of Starbucks. I wanted that again,” she says. The timing, admittedly, was “crazy, [but] I’m still glad I did it. My first few weeks were shell shock. The team was amazing, really welcoming and supportive, even if I was meeting all of them via Zoom or Google Hangouts.”
During her time with Starbucks, Taylor developed an understanding of what she calls scaling snowflakes: building an infrastructure that allows for company growth while holding on to the “specialness and community touch” that existed when the company was smaller. “How do you allow each Alamo to be a snowflake—but scale? In some ways, people might argue Starbucks has not done that, because now it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. But Starbucks has [done so],” she argues, in terms of the culture they’ve created and “how they take care of their people and how they connect with their community.”
Taylor’s hiring fits in nicely with the growth story of Alamo. Founded in 1997, the dine-in chain made a name for itself with innovative, offbeat programming, mixing mainstream Hollywood titles with indie/art house fare and repertory selections, often from horror, sci-fi, and other genres with strong cult followings. In the years since, it’s grown to 41 locations, some operating under a franchise model. In 2016, Alamo opened its first New York location in Downtown Brooklyn. In 2019, it came to Los Angeles. Additional locations, as of September 2019, were planned for Lower Manhattan and Orlando, Florida.
As Alamo grew from a one-screen theater in an Austin warehouse to the 13th largest exhibitor in North America (as of February 2020), it developed its own company culture. Taylor wants to “amplify” and direct that culture, in part by building diversity within the organization. At the same time, she says, “It’s no secret that we’ve had some internal problems with sexual harassment and such”—specifically, allegations that arose in 2016 and 2017 (against the editor-in-chief of an Alamo-backed publication and a co-founder of Alamo’s genre film festival, Fantastic Fest) and others that resurfaced earlier this year.
“I think growth overtook [Alamo],” Taylor says. “The structure that needed to be in place to take a culture that was already pretty darn great and amplify it” was not there. Moving forward, the questions to ask are, “How do we prevent any more bad actors getting in the door? And if they do, how do you eliminate them as quickly as possible?” To that end, Alamo has revamped its reporting procedure, introducing a “Speak Up” platform designed to improve the process of tracking, reporting, reviewing, and analyzing workplace allegations. Further updates aimed at improving Alamo’s culture include workplace health surveys, interactive training, a new learning management system to improve internal communication, and a concern resolution process.
Taylor is confident that Alamo’s growth will continue in the wake of the pandemic, even if it comes partially as a result of industry consolidation. “I hate saying this, because it’s horrific, but there are going to be—unfortunately—a lot of theaters that don’t make it. … [That’s] not the way that we want to win. I’d prefer to win through competition and all of us doing our best. But we’ll be the beneficiary of that, as well.”
“Right now, it’s just survival,” she adds. As of the first week of October, Alamo stood between 5 and 20 percent of prior year sales, with private cinema rentals serving as a “bright spot” in a period when the industry is hampered by a lack of new studio releases. Alamo may play a lot of independent and art house titles, but, Taylor says, “We won’t survive off indies.” Tentpoles remain a necessary way to draw people back into cinemas. The way things stand now, “basically, you can break even before rent, but not with rent. We’re open because we want to be there for the films, and we want to be there for our guests. But it continues to cost us quite a bit of money to remain open.”
Still, Taylor looks to the post-Covid future, noting that the past few months have given the Alamo team new insights into things like “how to be more effective and efficient within our theaters and improve [our] unit economics.” A robust, consistent film slate, when it does arrive, will open up new opportunities for the chain, including for franchisees. “That’s important to us, to expand our footprint. If we’re going to [support] filmmakers and studios and maximize the life of a film, that footprint matters. We want as many people to have access to the movies as possible.”
That phrase—the life or life cycle of a film—is one that Taylor comes back to several times. As a newcomer to exhibition, she is not, she says, married to the tradition of three-month theatrical exclusivity that’s long been the standard in our industry: “I don’t have an emotional attachment to the model.” Before her tenure at Alamo began, the chain screened Netflix titles, including Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. After their theaters shut down in March, Alamo joined many other exhibitors in switching to the virtual-theatrical model, under the brand “Alamo-at-Home.” In May, they launched their own VOD platform, Alamo on Demand, which, like the cinema proper, mixes mainstream titles with more niche offerings. In August, several Alamo locations were open in time to screen Bill & Ted Face the Music, which distributor United Artists shifted from an exclusive theatrical release to day-and-date several months into the Covid-19 pandemic. (Alamo SVP Steve Bunnell noted in an August press release that the chain was “the first theater company to show Bill & Ted Face the Music,” inviting audiences to free screenings early in the week of its official bow.)
Going to the movies is about community, Taylor says. It’s a core part of Alamo’s brand and something that’s “never going to go out of style,” even if the culture of moviegoing has taken a big—and, Taylor believes, temporary—hit. “I think about the filmmaker who had a vision and a passion and brought a story to life that was meant to be on a big screen. That was meant to have 200 people sitting together, experiencing that experience, leaving the theater talking about it—being impacted,” she says. “I can’t imagine going through that and developing that and putting my life into it and then not having that opportunity.”
But there are opportunities, too, outside the relatively brief period in a film’s life when it plays in theaters. Alamo wants to be involved in those other stages, all the way from “help[ing] emerging filmmakers have a voice” to streaming. “People, from my perspective, are entrenched in what they need to win, versus what the ecosystem needs. … And from an Alamo perspective, that’s the conversation that we want to engage in. What does incredible presentation look like? And how do we have great theaters, so when filmmakers are making movies that absolutely should be out on the big screen … we can create that experience for our guests? We believe that there are a lot of films that deserve that.” At the same time, shortened widows will provide an “opportunity for more diversity of titles within the theater.”
What shortened windows won’t do, she says, is stop people from going to the cinema once Covid passes, tentpoles return, and the industry returns to a new normal. “We’re not going to be cocooning. We’re going to be like, ‘Get us out!’ So now is not the time for us to be squabbling. Now’s the time for us to say, ‘We’re all struggling’”—exhibitors, studios, filmmakers, and vendor partners alike. “The community is struggling. What are we going to do to survive? And then what do we do to make the best possible experience to [reach] moviegoers wherever they’re watching a movie?”