CEOs who take the reins of running a company from the founder know that the transition can be challenging. It takes a lot of patience on both sides and alignment. Shelli Taylor, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, knows this to be true. In this episode, she joins David Metz to tell us her experience, along with her thoughts and dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Shelli then shares her thoughts about the movie industry, the challenges it’s facing, and how they are creating great experiences in their theater. What is more, she lets us in on the importance of adversity to successful people and leadership.
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Shelli Taylor: CEO Of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
We have the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Shelli Taylor. Welcome, Shelli.
Thank you, David. I’m excited to be here.
I’m excited to have you. The format is pretty simple. I’m going to ask you six questions. Those who are reading can get a sense of you and hopefully learn from your experiences. Question number one, you took over as CEO of Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema from the founder of the company. Taking the reins from a founder versus another outside CEO, do you think that’s an easier or tougher situation to be in?
It’s tougher. For founders, they want someone to come in and take over the day-to-day and the pieces of the business they no longer want to run, but they don’t want to give up their baby. Watching someone come and take over their baby is difficult. It’s a special relationship that takes a lot of patience on both sides.
As a Founder and CEO, I can see that. I often wonder about this. Do you think there’s a difference between an entrepreneur and a CEO? Do you think it’s a different DNA makeup? I always joke. I am more of an entrepreneur than a CEO. I don’t necessarily wake up in the morning, “How do I increase margins by 1%?” I’m much more, “How do I disrupt in scale?” Do you think there’s a difference between the two?
I hope there are more commonalities, but the difference comes in at the stage of the business. Most founders are excited at the beginning, the stages where it’s all about creativity and what could be. Usually, they’re looking for a CEO who should have some of that in their DNA because it’s a miss if you don’t. They are thinking like, “We’ve got this great idea. How do you scale it without losing its soul and start making that long-term sustainability, whether through profit or the ability to expand?” There are some differences, but there should be some similarities. It’s a miss when there’s not.Founders are looking for a CEO who should have some creativity in their DNA. Click To Tweet
Do you consider yourself a bit of an entrepreneur?
Yes. I’m always dreaming up and could kick myself for not chasing one of my first early ideas because I still think it would’ve been amazing. I’ve taken the safe path, and I’ve always been great for someone who has a great vision that I can sink my teeth into and help them.
Are you always having new ideas in your head that you have to tamper down and be like, “I’m focused on this, but it would be so cool to do this?”
Yes. My goal is to finish this role. There are goals that we’ve put out there that we want to attain. I am going to take that leap and do my own thing. I’ve got a couple of ideas that are brewing. In the second half of my life, I’m going to be an entrepreneur.
What was that original idea that could have been huge?
Here it is. It sounds simple. For the men out there, you may or may not relate to this, but bras, I don’t care what they say, still don’t fit. People’s bodies are not perfect. They’re not symmetrical. There are all sorts of things that go on. Even in the early days, I was like, “If you could get a photograph and they could customize a bra in a scalable way to your exact body, how amazing would that be?” They’ve gotten closer in some aspects, but the right or left half fits, and the other half doesn’t. There’s always something wrong except for that 1% of perfect bodies. Technology is finally there. There’s something here in getting the perfect fit. Half the world’s women, and 100% want a better bra. It’s a big market.
Would you envision it as when you get fitted for suit measurements? Have you ever done Warby Parker, where they fit you for the glasses? Do you envision something like that?
Probably something in between. There’s technology now where you can go in front of a camera, and it can take a full-scale measurement of your body and shape. You can use that technology for the fitting. You don’t have to have a person. Yes, you can do the Warby Parker, where you start to see the results, but more importantly, it’s getting that measurement down. It’s the ability to say, “I want more lift. I want more of this.” Technology is finally there. The materials for bras and the actual textile part are finally there.
Have you experienced the perfect bra yet?
No. That’s why I still believe in this idea. Back in 1994, I got it in my diary when this came. I wish I had done it. Technology wasn’t there. Now’s the time. No one can go out and take that idea. If you’re working on it, please call me. I’d love to help.
Question number two, the movie industry has faced challenges with companies like Netflix disrupting the status quo. How does the movie industry turn the table and become the one that is disrupting? Do you think there’s an opportunity for that? If there is, what do you see?
I find this such an interesting question because everybody is at extremes, “The movie industry is dead. Streaming is it.” Over the last few weeks, we saw the correction of Netflix. Netflix is not dead. It’s not going away. That, too, is extreme. The question is and will always be, “How do we continue to produce the type of content people want?” Like your show, “How do I do digestible quick hits versus hour-and-a-half commitments?” If you think about content, it’s the same. How do we have this range of content broaden our genres and the way we think about it? Quite frankly, we should have even more vehicles in how we want to consume it.We should have even more vehicles in how we want to consume content. Click To Tweet
More vehicles help us cut down noise and find what we want. Is it going to be disrupted? I don’t know that it’s disrupted as much as it evolves and starts to figure out and stop the binary conversations, but how do we all serve a need? For us, it’s about creating great experiences, super clean theaters, super friendly people, and projection sound seats that blow you away. That’s what we’re going to continue to double down against, making your night out fantastic.
It’s like when I go to the grocery store, I can order it through Amazon or many different ways to get my groceries, but there’s an experience when I go to the grocery store. There’s the smell. There’s sound. I get inspired by it. I love movies. I probably go to the movies 4 to 5 times a month. It’s that experience. If I’m going to do a date night, I want to do something different. Sitting on that couch and watching TV is not special. Leaving and sitting and experiencing something is. To be honest, if I’m not in the theater, I’m going to be on my phone or my laptop, and I’m not going to fully enjoy it. The movie theater forces me to get off it. For that, I value that a lot.
If you haven’t seen everything everywhere all at once, it’s a mouthful. It’s a must-see. This is not a spoiler alert, but when you go see that movie and have special hotdogs with hotdog fingers, you can’t do that at home. You’re not even going to know to think about that. We can create these magical moments you do not understand until you’re in the moment. Nothing better than getting off your couch and getting outside.
Question number three, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve met more people who have achieved extreme success. I’ve noticed with many of them that they’ve experienced a ton of adversity in their life, particularly early in their life. How important do you think having experienced some type of adversity is important to successful people and in leadership?
We all have adversity. If we don’t, it seems impossible. The question is, what do you do with that adversity? Adversity along the way teaches you those life lessons. Usually, you don’t learn it at the moment. It’s afterward with hindsight. I can’t imagine having gone through bankruptcy, the challenges of COVID and the pandemic without having had some personal hardships with finances, personal experiences, and professional experiences with health and things like that. The skills we needed during these last couple of years and the interpersonal stamina came from earlier experiences.
Especially when you’re young, it could be small things. It feels like the end of the world. Think high school or whatever, like, “My life’s over.” If you could look back on your younger self, this is nothing, but you survived it, and you’re fine. This is the worst-case scenario, and I’m okay with it. It strengthens you.
It will pass. That’s the lesson you don’t learn until you’ve been through it a few times. It’s like, “I’ll get through this and be here tomorrow.”
You never know that adversity could spawn a new opportunity you would’ve never had if it wasn’t for that adversity. At Prizeout, the company I’m CEO of, we often say people have either one or a combination of three things. We call it IQ, which is Intelligence, EQ, which is Emotional Intelligence, and BQ, which is Business Intelligence. If you could have 2 of those 3, IQ, BQ, or EQ, what would you choose?
It’s EQ and BQ.
I am in the same boat. I’d be curious if you went out on the street and asked the common person that. IQ probably would be one of them. I don’t think people realize that going back to your younger years and stuff like schooling is not everything. Mark Twain said, “I never let school get in the way of my education.” There is so much to learn about people in the world and how things operate. That’s important. Question number five, since taking over as CEO, what is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your theaters? It’s like taking a pet to a theater, which is okay to say on this show. What is one of the craziest things that have happened in your theaters?
There were a lot of crazy things before I arrived. We haven’t been open that long since I’ve been in position. People are on good behavior. The funniest thing is that a gentleman on the East Coast in one of our New York locations decided to rent a private theater and propose to his girlfriend. He cut his own PSA. If you know our theaters, we do the whole no texting and talking before the show. We do a lot of fun around that and try to make it light, but the rule is real. We will kick you out. He did this whole PSA for her and used a lot of curse words. I can’t sing it, but I can send it to you. It’s one of the catchiest darn songs. Everybody in the company was dancing around for about a week going, “We got to hire this guy because he is brilliant.”
It’s more the energy that our guests bring and the creativity. The movies come to us, we add in our self and character and bring the movie up a launch, and then our guests come and take it to that next level. It’s all three combined that make the movies amazing. It’s no one individual or group that owns it. It takes all of us.
Did she say yes?
Yes. Thank God. It was so sweet.
Did he post it on social? Did that go viral?
I’m going to have to look because it’s internally viral. I don’t know if it went to social, but I’ll look. If it does, I’ll send it to you.
That’s probably gold for you as well. “Can we use this? This is pretty amazing.”
We’ve done that. If you haven’t seen one of our PSAs, we had a guest call us and cuss us out for kicking her out. We turn that into our next PSA. It’s frequently played in our movie theaters like, “Don’t text.” We love it. I’ll send it to you. We’re like, “We told you we have rules. They’re for you and everybody. If you don’t like them, that’s okay. There are other theaters that don’t have rules. Go to them.”
When I go to a movie, I want to enjoy and not hear conversations or phones going off. I respect that. Question six, if you could get a ticket to any show or event in history, what would you want a ticket to?
Probably one of the earlier concerts of Elvis Presley that ended in a riot. People don’t understand his story and that he was changing society and how we think about human relations and race and all of that in his own way. I would love to have been at one of those shows. It was sex and exciting songs and all of that, but it was so much bigger.
How do you know that about Elvis? Were there riots that happened at the concert?
There was a protest and an outbreak in the police. I know because I am a fan. I am excited. There was a movie about Elvis coming out on June 24th, 2022. It explores more of his personal ethos and how he showed up in this world, not just as a performer but as a human. He wasn’t perfect, but his story is pretty damn good. It’s inspirational.
Who’s playing Elvis in the movie?
His name is Austin. I should know his last name. He’s new. He’s a singer, first and foremost. He sings all the songs. He is fantastic.
Is it coming out in theaters?
It’s coming to theaters only. It is a big-screen experience. To hear his voice boom, you want to be in a crowded room because you’re going to feel like you were at some of those earlier concerts and in some of his experiences.
That’s exciting. That’s all, Shelli. Hopefully, it wasn’t too tough.
It’s super fun. I will love to stay in contact as human to human if you don’t mind.
We do business with you guys already. We’re about $40 billion in money flow. We put merchants in front of the money. Think of it like you’re on Coinbase, and you sold your Dogecoin for $500, and you can withdraw that. You can withdraw it to gift cards or to brands. Those brands acquire those customers. We’re in front of crypto and gaming and banks and payroll. We want an RFP to do jury duty payments in Indiana. All these people have money, and they’re like, “How do I want to withdraw that money?” You can pick PayPal ACH. We take brands, put their gift cards in front of them, and say, “Withdraw your money to this.” We do Alamo, AMC, Fandango, Regal, and all of them. We work with you, which is pretty cool.
Thank you. I’m thinking the next half of my life looking for people to have as my advisors.
Especially deals I know all about. We are looking at a deal, like a breakup fee. If only you had known that two months ago or whatever. I will email you. I’m a big texter and not a big email.
I’m good with text.
I will shoot you my number if you have any questions and if it’s okay if I have questions. Are you based in Texas?
We’re in Austin. Where are you based?
I’m going to be out there. I’ll take you to a movie, you and your family.
That’s amazing. You’re on the South Street Seaport, the theater.
Is that 28 Liberty?
I noticed the Financial District.
Do you like New York?
I love New York. In fact, my son’s going to Syracuse in 2023. I teased until some friends told me I couldn’t do this. I was like, “I’m going to take an apartment for a year, so I can be closer to him.” They’re like, “That’s not cool. Don’t follow your child.” I’m like, “At some point, I’m going to take an apartment in New York because I love it.”
Syracuse is 4 to 5 hours away from New York. You’re not too close. Trust me. I don’t think that’s weird at all. That’s an appropriate amount of distance. What’s he studying at Syracuse?
Here’s what he won’t do. He’s going into Aerospace Engineering. He is smart, and he can do it. It’s not beyond belief. It is so not in his soul. He doesn’t know that yet because he’s had too many teachers who have seen him in action and are like, “This is what you should do.” He loves physics and math. I’m like, “You do, and you are good at it, but you’re way too social. You’re a peacemaker.” I don’t know what he’ll do, but I truly, in my heart, say don’t believe it. I’m like, “Go do your thing. Learn. If you’re not an engineer, no one’s going to be unhappy.”
That’s what college is for. When I was going in my freshman year in college, what I thought I wanted to do was as opposed to what I ended up doing. Night and day, he always has chances to change his major and try different courses and everything like that.
You have to make sure they know that because there’s so much pressure on what success looks like. It’s easy to let yourself get pigeonholed.
Which is strange and is something that burdens younger people these days that I don’t think I have experienced. There’s this notion that if you make this one mistake, it’s going to derail this path to success. That’s so not true. I don’t know where that comes from, but it’s prevalent with young people. That’s why anxiety and everything else are through the roof.
It’s called standardized testing. There’s only one way to be successful.
When I was in high school, if someone got 1,500 on their SATs, it was 3 people in Long Island, which is 6 million people. Now all the parents have hacked it. That is the starting now. Clearly, these tests should be thrown out because it doesn’t show good gauge. You can hire tutors. You figure it out. You gain the system. It was night and day when I was taking the test. This went pretty well.
Thank you. This is a total honor and pleasure. I look forward to seeing you. I will let you know if it works for you and your family when we’re in New York. I’d love to take you to the movies. It would be fun.
We could see the Elvis movie.
It’s opening weekend when we’re going to be there. I’m truly a fan, partly because of my grandparents. It feels true to his story. It’s glamorized.
Have you seen the movie?
I’ve seen about 30 minutes of it. I got back from a conference at CinemaCon, but we got to go in and have some private studio time. That’s one of the things we got to see a part of. I was like, “That’s good.” Glamorized, but there’s truth in it. It’s not too over the top. Some of them are too nice, and you’re like, “That’s not exactly right.”
Where does it start? Does it start in childhood? Does it start when he is famous?
I didn’t see the beginning. We saw the middle. My guess is it bounces back and forth because we saw some childhood and revival gospel singing and church experiences. You then see the middle. We didn’t see anything at the end. I’m curious how they’ll treat that. We saw some of the progression. It was a pretty good cut for 30 minutes, but probably more than we needed. I was like, “I want to see the movie. I don’t want too much ahead.”
I’m excited to see it. Thank you so much, Shelli. I appreciate it. In the meantime, I’ll shoot you that email with my phone number. Feel free to text me with anything.
I’m thankful. I will see you soon.
About Shelli Taylor
Shelli Taylor is currently the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, leading the iconic national theater chain. Her career journey in leading small to large businesses through rapid expansion has spanned brands such as Starbucks Coffee and Disney; diverse geography inside the US and Greater China; varied industries including experiential retail, software development, and fitness; with a diversity of roles in operations, real estate, human resources, brand, and executive management. The connector throughout her career: the love of serving people, and scaling businesses while retaining brand soul.
Shelli is an active for-profit independent board member. But her favorite positions are on non-profits, Habitat for Humanity, and Homebase furthering affordable homeownership for first-time homeowners.