Projecting Innocence: Years after promised reforms, Alamo Drafthouse Theaters still breed harassment. KC is no exception.
It began, as these things so often do these days, as a Facebook thread. On July 2, Sam Cable, a former employee of the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, posted on his page about a poor work experience at the Kansas City location of the Texas-based movie theatre chain.
“One of the things that blew my mind when I moved on from Alamo Drafthouse is just how terrible that job is (and by extension the company), but how you never notice it until you leave,” Cable’s post read. “It turns out the Alamo Way is to oppress, overwork, and harass workers to the point of mental instability.”
Within minutes, comments on Cable’s post went from “Wait, really?” to “Oh, you have no idea how bad it was.”
By the end of the day, KC’s film community could see how many of their favorite Mainstreet Drafthouse bartenders, staff members and servers had suffered during their employment at the metro’s “coolest” movie theater. Participants within the thread were quick to support those coming forward for the first time, even if they’d previously failed to support those co-workers in the moments it would have mattered most. Comments detailed nightmarish experiences: sexual harassment, grueling hours, no support dealing with sometimes violent patrons.
“I started seeing all the other stories coming out, and I thought, ‘How could I be so dumb?’” Hannah, a former member of Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet management, says. Hannah started as a food runner at the Mainstreet location in 2015, working her way up to management before being laid off in June.
“I drank the kool-aid, I encouraged other people to do the same,” she says. “I thought I was making a difference and changing the company I knew was terrible. I was trying to do the right thing, and trying to be like ‘Well, people can change.’ But they don’t want to.”
Since its opening in 2012, the Kansas City branch of Alamo Drafthouse Theaters has let abuse and harm fester. Over 30 current and former Drafthouse employees—from local servers to corporate leaders—are now speaking up. Many wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution; either from the film community or Drafthouse legal. All claims have been thoroughly vetted and corroborated by other parties or court filings. For clarity in the story, sources who wish to remain anonymous have been assigned pseudonyms. We have also assigned pseudonyms to some of the abusers involved, in the interest of keeping the focus on the Mainstreet theater’s larger work culture in light of its eventual re-opening.
A History of Silence: The Great Reckoning of 2017
As a company, Alamo Drafthouse has a documented history of minimizing sexual assault claims and protecting known abusers. In 2017 Ain’t It Cool News founder, and long-time friend of the Drafthouse, Harry Knowles was outed for several instances of sexual assault against women—including Drafthouse employees. The same year, movie blogger Devin Faraci left his position as editor-in-chief of Birth.Movies.Death.—the then Drafthouse-owned movie news website and magazine—in the wake of sexual assault allegations that took place before he began working with the company. In September of that year, it came to light that Drafthouse founder and then-CEO Tim League had quietly re-hired Faraci to write program content for Fantastic Fest, the company’s genre film festival.
Public outrage following League’s re-hiring of Faraci, combined with the outing of Knowles, sparked a listening tour. Over the next six months, League visited every Drafthouse location in the country to assure employees the company took sexual harassment and assault allegations seriously, and he was committed to helping employees feel safe at work.
Hannah received a promotion to management after League visited the Kansas City location, and says she was initially reassured by her interaction with him.
“I was going to quit, but I ended up having lunch with Tim League and discussing why that incident [with Faraci] was so terrible, and asking him to explain himself,” Hannah says. “He said they were revamping the entire company, that he’d had no idea. He played dumb, in my opinion, and said he was ready to change. And I was convinced.”
The company assured workers and patrons that things would change. But nothing did.
“After I got laid off, I became aware nothing had changed regardless of the countless hours I’d put into that place to make it better and to make it an awesome place for awesome guests to come, and an even better place to work,” Hannah says. “It was a trip to realize everything I had done was meaningless.”
“Febreeze and Feces”
The Mainstreet location of Alamo Drafthouse is a century-old building at the corner of 14th and Main, across the street from the Power & Light District. The Mainstreet theater was originally built in 1921, then underwent a $30 million renovation in 2009 to re-open as an AMC theater. Alamo Drafthouse took ownership of the location in 2012.
There were issues with the building right away, employee accessibility ranking high among them. The Drafthouse partially built its reputation on popularizing the concept of dine-in theaters. However, the only way employees can run food from the ground-floor kitchen to the theaters on the top floors is via a two-story service staircase in the back of the building. Staffers call the top floor “The Hell Hole” because of the marathon-level physical requirements it takes to reach. Employees say they were required to use the back staircase, even when working with injuries that made it difficult or impossible to do so.
“When I first started working there, I was expected to go up four or five flights of stairs with multiple trays of food to take it from the ground level to theaters four, five, and six,” Hannah says. “If you couldn’t hack it, they encouraged you to find another job. I admit, I lost quite a bit of weight and I got into excellent shape going up those stairs, but if you couldn’t make it, you weren’t allowed to use the elevators, and I’m not a hundred percent sure why that was the case.”
Sydney Rebel started working at the Mainstreet Drafthouse in 2013, and was a front-of-house manager at the Mainstreet Drafthouse when she shattered her ankle in a car accident in April 2016. She says after being pressured to come back to work shortly after her surgery, she required a knee scooter to get around.
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“They didn’t make any accommodations,” Rebel says. “No chairs to sit in, no breaks. I couldn’t take my pain meds while I was at work, and I was forced to be there for a full shift.”
Richard Pepper, another former front-of-house manager who started at the theater in 2012, says he had a similar experience after an ankle injury. “One year, the night before Valentine’s Day was busy, and I was taking trash out. I stepped off the curb wrong and messed up my ankle. I had to go to the hospital at the end of that shift. I got a big splint wrapped around my foot.”
Because the incident happened in the adjacent parking lot, which the Drafthouse doesn’t own, the general manager at the time, Alan, told Pepper that the theater wasn’t liable. He still had to come in for a full shift. “[Alan] forced me to come in and work a busy Valentine’s Day shift, and I was hobbling around. They had me climbing stairs and running food,” Pepper says.
Beyond accessibility, the building is also cursed with an antiquated plumbing system that routinely breaks down and spouts sewage.
“Every time it rained, the basement would flood with human shit,” Pepper says. “On nights when it rained really hard, it would come up through the toilets in the lobby, and the lobby would flood with shit. I can’t count the number of times I had to put on rubber boots and wade out through the shit in the lobby and fix the toilets.”
Former employees say the theater continued to operate, showing films and running food, while other parts of the building were shut down due to leaking sewage.
“This last year, in the winter, it got so bad it backed up behind the bar at the Chesterfield [the theater’s bar],” Cassandra, a former server and bartender, says. “For a couple of days, we couldn’t have the Chesterfield open. It was nauseating, but we were expected to work and to clean it up any time it broke again.”
According to a representative from Alamo Drafthouse corporate, the company is aware of the sewage system issue.
“We have had intermittent issues with the sewer main since the beginning. Without fail, we have followed proper sanitation protocols and shut down any affected area,” Alamo Drafthouse wrote in a statement. “We are lucky enough to have kitchen, bar, and bathroom facilities on multiple floors and have usually been able to safely continue operations while repairs are made without disrupting service or sacrificing safety. Whenever that is not possible at any venue, we shut down service.”
According to former employees, these issues, even if they were intermittent, caused long-standing problems. Albert worked at the Mainstreet location from 2013-2017, and says he often had to open the back doors of the auditoriums to let them air out between screenings.
“Some of the theaters had a constant odor no one would do the work to clean out,” Albert says. “We referred to the scent as ‘Febreeze and Feces’ among the staff. You know, to make it sound classier.”
Employees also say there were frequent issues with pests in the facility, including mice and rats. “You can say these would be normal issues affecting a building more than a century old, but I worked in Power and Light [across the street and up the block] and never saw this at any [of those jobs],” says Carly, a former bartender who worked at the Mainstreet Drafthouse from 2018 to 2019.
Kitchen and cleaning were regularly so understaffed that other employees would pitch in.
“I would clean the milkshake machine at night and watch dozens of cockroaches scatter,” Carly says. “I was doing this work while also being forced to take on 100-hour weeks, especially around holidays. The staff, especially men, would ignore the type of cleanliness I would pride myself on. If it was a male manager on shift, the quality of sanitation was non-existent. They served spoiled orange juice to customers. I would come in on morning shifts and there would be fruit flies everywhere because none of the food from the previous night would have been put away.”
Alamo Drafthouse maintains they hold a high standard for pest control in their theaters, including the Mainstreet location.
“We maintain best-in-class monthly pest control contracts, and we also go beyond the norm to contract with a third party inspection service who executes quarterly mock heath inspections in addition to the annual inspections from the city,” a representative for the company says. “We stand behind our national scores in all venues and lead the industry in our commitment to the health and safety of our guests and teammates.”
Hannah says the theater managed to earn passing ratings on inspections. “Usually we did pretty well with health inspectors. It became a panic every time they came,” she says. “They’d say ‘Your equipment needs to be replaced, but it works right now, so you’re pretty good.’ We passed inspection, but we were working in an ancient building that needs financial know-how and care, but nobody wanted to put the money into it.”
A representative from Alamo Drafthouse told The Pitch the company’s facilities team regularly reviews the Mainstreet building’s infrastructure, and improvements including regular repair and maintenance have been made to the location since 2018.
On February 25, the company’s Vice President of Operations and two facility leaders visited the location and spent two days addressing venue concerns. Hannah was present during the visit, but says she wasn’t satisfied with its outcome.
“I was under the impression corporate was telling me no one had told them the building was in that level of disrepair,” Hannah says. “But the former GM who left August of last year had a paper trail of things that needed to be fixed. I called them out on that. But the week they were there, the only thing that happened was some light bulbs got changed.”
Hannah says her experience taught her not to trust the reporting process at the theater. “I always believed any complaint that actually made it to the corporate office would just be met with ‘Well, deal with it.’”
Sam Cable, the former employee who posted about his experience on Facebook, says his impression was similar. “If you complained or gossiped about any of these problems not being addressed, you were made to be the enemy,” he says. “Making negative statements of any kind got you labeled as pretentious and lazy.”
Long hours and manager woes
Cassandra began her Drafthouse career working at the theater chain’s original Austin location. After six months, she moved to Kansas City to work at the Mainstreet location shortly after its opening in 2012. By that point, Cassandra says, the Kansas City theater had already gained a negative reputation within the company at large.
“When I said I was moving to KC, one of the women I worked with in Austin who said she came up here to open the location told me it was the red-headed stepchild of the company,” she says. “I knew the Mainstreet Alamo would get overlooked with issues, but I never realized how severe that was.”
The theater’s poor reputation was characterized not just by building issues, but also a revolving door of general managers, each with their own problematic ways of addressing issues with staff or abuse allegations. According to employees, the Mainstreet location went through, on average, one general manager per year. Carly says it was “The worst of Wild West machismo. 1950s bullshit made manifest daily.”
Employee interactions with management were frequently described as unhelpful or actively hostile. Sydney Rebel recalls an interaction between a general manager, Simon, and a server that resulted in the server walking off the job.
“After a server had to kick a guy out of a theater, [Simon] pulled the server aside and screamed at him at the top of his lungs for like five minutes straight,” Rebel says. “The server walked out, and he never came back. When I tried to stop [Simon], I also got yelled at.”
Selena, who began working at the Mainstreet theater in 2015, says Simon was known to scream at employees over minor infractions, and sometimes did so directly in front of customers. When there were genuine issues, Selena says management often was nowhere to be found, or would sit at the bar and actively ignore the situation.
“Once, a 19-year-old girl who was about 90 pounds soaking wet spilled some soda, and [Simon] screamed at her until she cried so hard I thought she was laughing,” Selena says. She says complaints to HR about this behavior were laughed away.
“I still have stress dreams years later,” Albert says. “You never know who you were going to meet on the shift; whether the management would be hot or cold.”
Sexual harassment was an issue with managers as well. When a longtime Drafthouse colleague, Malcolm, was promoted to general manager, Cassandra says she went out with him and several other Drafthouse employees to celebrate.
“He pulled me aside to talk, and at first he started praising me for my job performance and my hard work, but it slowly turned into ‘I’ve watched you become a confident woman over the last several years, and it’s a huge turn-on for me.’ I was nervous to call him out for it because he was my boss.”
Cassandra says Malcolm didn’t stop there. “He told me I was his wife’s type and propositioned me for a threesome with her. I deflected and said we should go back to the group. I found out later I wasn’t the only one he propositioned.”
Richard Pepper says he was physically assaulted by a former Drafthouse bar manager after he had to give her a warning for being disruptive during a screening.
“Alamo policy for employees talking is you get one warning, and if you get kicked out, you’re automatically terminated from the company,” Pepper says. “I gave her a talking warning and went to the server station. After the movie, she came over and started berating me. She hit me in the head really hard, called me useless, and said I should kill myself, in front of all the servers in the area.”
The company forced employees to work long shifts—16 hours or more—with no overtime pay during blockbuster weekends. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, Sydney Rebel didn’t have a car, and says she regularly worked shifts starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 4 a.m. Because she relied on public transit, that left little to no time to go home and rest.
“There were some times I had to sleep in the employee break room or in the projection booth because there was a couch,” she says. Rebel says she often worked over 60 hour work weeks without overtime compensation.
Hannah began working at the Drafthouse at this same time, and says she had to work the same shifts. “I’d have just enough time to go home, take a shower, and come right back, because I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 a.m.” she says.
Richard Pepper says the overall effect of these shifts were detrimental to employees’ physical and mental health. “When The Force Awakens came out, I don’t think any of us slept or ate really,” Pepper says. “There was one employee who ended up popping uppers to stay awake the whole time. He had an overdose in the theater and started yelling at an audience member, throwing their food around. He had to be taken out of the theater.”
Despite these long hours and requiring employees to work full shifts even when injured, Cassandra says Drafthouse corporate changed requirements for employee health care coverage for workers in 2019. Those updates meant few employees, if any, qualified for employer-provided health insurance.
“It used to be you had to work 30 hours a week over the span of a month to qualify, then it was changed to 30 hours a week over the span of six months,” Cassandra says. “With the way the business fluctuated, it was impossible for anyone to qualify after that point.”
The No Talking Policy
Alamo Drafthouse attendees are subject to the “no talking” policy, where servers give loud patrons a talking warning when alerted to the disruption by another theatergoer. If that audience member continues being disruptive, they’re ejected from the theater without a refund.
Former employees say enforcing this policy occasionally put them in danger. Sydney Rebel says she was physically assaulted by customers twice during her time as a front-of-house manager at the theater.
“The first time it happened was during a Fast & the Furious movie. It was a man who went into a theater and was very belligerent and had his wife and kid with him. He was being loud and disruptive, and I had to go in and tell him he had to leave. He threw me into the wall and ran back into the theater. We had to call the cops. I was the only other manager there at the time.”
Rebel says the second instance was even more frightening. “The second time, I was closing the theater by myself. A man and his wife were in the theater talking, and I had to explain to him he couldn’t talk. I pulled him out again to kick him out, and he punched me in the chest. He threatened the servers and said he’d shoot them.”
After the customer was removed, Rebel says he sat in his car outside the theater to wait for her and the servers to come out. “I had a couple of servers that were able to walk me safely to my car to be able to leave,” she says. Even after these traumatic experiences, Rebel says she was still required to close the theater at night, despite several requests for a shift change.
Richard Pepper says he felt the no talking policy was enforced by management in a way that specifically targeted films with majority Black audiences. “There was a concerted effort from management to tell servers to watch people constantly in the theaters,” he says. “In any other instance, if you give someone a talking warning, you can give them one warning, stick around for a couple of minutes, and if nothing happens, you could bounce. For Black movies, you give them one warning, you stand there, you watch them until they talk again, and then you kick them out.”
Pepper says this happened so often, managers would sometimes ask servers to kick out entire theaters. “There were movies with big Black audiences in the smaller theaters, and the manager would say if everyone was talking, you stop the projector and you kick the whole theater out,” he says. “I never ever felt comfortable doing that. They had us kick out entire Black families for essentially nothing.”
Selena says she witnessed targeted harassment by management. “We’d be there for any Tyler Perry movie, or especially Straight Outta Compton,” Selena says. “Not only were we told to kick out individuals without a single warning, the management would get excited for this. I remember two managers bragging over how many people they kicked out of Straight Outta Compton, and the night manager saying ‘Oh, I bet I’ll get more.’”
A representative from Alamo Drafthouse told The Pitch the company did receive feedback from a Black audience member at a different theater location, who says they felt the company’s no talking policy conflicted with the way Black theatergoers typically engage with films. However, they say this policy has not changed as a result of that feedback.
Sexual abuse and harassment
On a shift just after Thanksgiving one year, Pepper says he was working as the front-of-house manager when police arrived, looking for an employee, Frederik, who was due to start his shift. Pepper hadn’t seen Frederik, but knew he was arriving soon. He says he asked the general manager, Alan, what to do.
“I went over to [Alan] and said ‘Hey, there’s cops here looking for [Frederik], and he’s supposed to start his shift right now,’” Pepper says. “[Alan] said to tell the cops I haven’t seen him, and he’s not scheduled to work today.”
Frederik showed up moments later. “I told him there were cops looking for him. He tore out the side door,” Pepper says.
Frederik was eventually arrested on charges related to the rape of a woman who was in a relationship with a Drafthouse colleague. Employees say that rather than dismiss him, the Drafthouse decided Frederik should continue working closing shifts during the week before his eventual police capture; often alone with other female employees.
Sydney Rebel was one of the female employees who had to work closing shifts with Frederik.
“One time I was cleaning popcorn from under the seats. He came from behind me and said ‘I’ve got you on your knees, right where I want you,’” Rebel says. “I was always kind of afraid to come into work when I saw he was closing. I’m not the only person that happened to.”
Albert says he knew the police were looking for Frederik, as did other employees. When Frederik’s colleagues asked him what was going on, Albert says Frederik’s response was a quote from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: “There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”
While Frederik was a high-profile example, he wasn’t the only sexually abusive employee at the Mainstreet location, and not the only case of theater management siding with an abuser over a victim. Another repeat offender was George, the theater’s head projectionist.
Stephanie, who began working at the Mainstreet Drafthouse in 2016, worked with George 11 years earlier at a different theater in Kansas City. She was a teenager at the time, and George promised to help her advance her career in exchange for sexual favors. Stephanie says George suggested he would destroy her if she refused. Stephanie says she eventually left that theater after submitting to his demands for an extended period of time. Theater management did not take her complaints seriously, and neither did the police when George began stalking her outside her home. Stephanie deleted all her social media accounts, moved, and didn’t engage with the film community for years.
When Stephanie applied for a job with the Mainstreet Drafthouse, she says she was horrified to discover on her first night that George was head projectionist. It was the release night of Suicide Squad. “At the end of the night he comes from the projection tower and I heard his voice behind me,” she says. “My heart stopped.” He joked with her about her disappearance and seemed keenly aware she was back under his thumb. Stephanie says she let management know about her previous experiences with George, but was still assigned to work shifts when he was in the building. Stephanie says for several years she had to ask kitchen staff to walk her to her car after work, for her own protection.
Stephanie was fired after two years at Mainstreet, when management told her she created a “passive aggressive” environment in the office. She says she posted a note in the break room saying male employees were lying about cleaning bathrooms on their shifts. This is worth attention for several reasons, not least of which being Stephanie’s discovery of a homeless person living in the basement restroom and writing messages on the walls in feces. “I was left to clean up this mess by myself,” Stephanie says.
Melinda started at the Mainstreet theater in 2015, and worked with George as a projectionist. She says George regularly propositioned employees to take part in threesomes. “He would talk to me about threesomes with other people, and people he was trying to get with,” Melinda says. Melinda and Albert say George kept a spreadsheet of women he’d had sex with, which included their weight and the quality of the sex. Melinda was 20 at the time.
“He never propositioned me for a threesome,” Melinda says, “but he did often list exhaustively the women that he was propositioning.”
When Melinda mentioned this in a meeting with HR, she says they, in turn, approached George, who was immediately suspicious of her.
“Two days later, when I came into work, he questioned me as to who might have told HR,” Melinda says. “I played it off as a weird occurrence and hoped he didn’t come back to me.”
When Mainstreet’s HR representative bothered to call George in for a conversation, they did little to disguise his accusers’ identities—meaning George was often made aware of who had brought complaints against him. This led to George engaging in microaggressions with his accusers, which former employees say included deliberately avoiding helping with technical training for important theater functions. Melinda says she was kept from on-the-job education to protect George’s career from any competition.
Shortly after George questioned Melinda about the incident with HR, Melinda says he started ranting to her about his beliefs. “He would talk about how the Earth was flat, and said the Sandy Hook massacre had been fake,” she says. Melinda says she realized she was trapped in a tiny space with a man who made her feel unsafe, with no way of getting help.
[In a statement to The Pitch, George denied the validity in these events and claimed that he had been misrepresented in these stories. For posterity, we are noting his protest here.]
Other employees feared retribution for coming forward. Carl started in the kitchen at the Mainstreet location in 2015, and eventually made it to the training team, visiting different theater locations around the country to help prep new employees. In 2016, Carl says he was sexually harassed by a Drafthouse corporate employee while traveling. He was told by this higher-up “If I didn’t comply with their requests, my career would be halted.”
A year and a half later, Carl says he complied with an HR investigation into the employee who had harassed him. Shortly afterward, he says his advancement opportunities within the company dried up.
“I was being groomed for various leadership positions I was told I was going to be taking, and then it never came,”says Carl. Another employee who was harassed, but didn’t comply with the investigation, was given a position initially promised to Carl, despite being less experienced.
Carl’s harasser was eventually fired from the company.
“There was action taken, but that person had been protected for so long, and there was animosity against me for speaking out against them, and forcing [corporate’s] hand,” Carl says. He says the company’s approach was just to learn to live with abusers’ dangerous behavior. “This person is your boss, and is an alcoholic. They’ll push boundaries, but that should be an endearing quality of that person,” Carl says. “If you didn’t like that about that person, then you shouldn’t be there.”
Carl says he realized exactly how bad the corporate culture that had propped up his abuser was during a theater opening.
“A person ran up to the group and, mistakenly thinking they recognized a friend from behind, slapped them on the ass. It was, of course, not the right person,” Carl says. “The offended party was dumbstruck and clearly upset. The group of people standing in the circle was every member of management at the new location with Tim League in the middle. Tim laughed it off, and encouraged everyone else to do so.”
Carl says he paused. “That’s when I knew: This is so, so much worse than any of us thought. You saw it all in that one moment.”
Corporate culture clash
According to a representative for Alamo Drafthouse, in some of these cases, reports brought to local management and HR at the Mainstreet location were never passed along to corporate. In the eyes of several former employees at both the local and corporate level, however, these issues are symptoms of a problematic workplace culture that originated with Drafthouse’s boy’s club ethos, and was exacerbated by the company’s rapid growth. They say League and the company he built with his wife, Karrie, were unprepared for the professional responsibilities such growth required.
Wes started working at the Austin Drafthouse in the early 2000s, eventually heading up Mondo, the high-end pop culture artifact company owned by League, in its early days. He says he watched the organization grow from a small theater to a large-scale company.
“Karrie and Tim are rich kids who saw their success as proof of intelligence rather than dumb luck,” Wes says.
According to Wes, who says he mainly had a friendly working relationship with League until leaving the company, working with him was “kind of like working with a tiger. He’d seem soft and cuddly, but he could rip your head off. I was young, and I thought if I got in good with this guy, I could ride it all the way to the top.”
In 2004, Wes was working the box office in one of Drafthouse’s Austin theaters. He says he witnessed managers voiding ticket sales to shorten certain films’ engagements at their theater (ensuring a better release for a new movie the following week), and to keep the money from that film in the company’s pockets.
“They’d void out sometimes hundreds of tickets,” Wes says. “It’d be under someone’s ticket taker login, and they’d void out Meet the Fockers or whatever. I’d say ‘Is this legal?’ and they’d be like ‘Don’t ask about it.’” A representative for Alamo Drafthouse says the company wasn’t aware this practice had taken place.
Clark, a former Drafthouse corporate employee, says as the organization grew from a cool hangout spot in Austin to a company managing multiple locations, the founding leadership’s lack of business and HR experience bred a toxic culture.
“It’s a growing company that’s still run like a small mom and pop, and was controlled by a lot of frat boys in the industry,” Clark says. “Once the company started making money, things were just brushed off. They figured out they can pay for certain things to go away.”
According to former employees, this practice included Alamo Drafthouse hiring lawyers to pressure those who did pursue legal action against them to give up. For Rachel and her husband, a lawsuit against the company became a year-long stall that eventually drove them out of Kansas City entirely.
Rachel worked at the Mainstreet theater from 2015 to 2016 as a server, alongside her then-boyfriend—and current husband—Matt, a bartender at the Chesterfield. The other bartender on Rachel and Matt’s shifts was Christopher, who Rachel says gave her unwanted advances. “He would wink at me, hit on me, ask me out on dates; all right in front of my then boyfriend.” On Valentine’s Day 2016, in a top floor hallway, Christopher walked behind Rachel and another server while taking out the trash. “He grabbed our asses with a full-on squeeze,” Rachel says. “We both froze up. We realized he’d done it because we had to say it out loud to each other. ‘Did he… did that just happen? Yes. Yes it did.’”
Rachel says she emailed her manager the next day. “He set our date to discuss it for one week later, during which time I had to keep working with Christopher.”
Selena, who worked with Rachel and her husband when this happened, confirms Rachel’s story, and says Matt was threatened with termination if he retaliated against Christopher. “They told him not to bring it up in any way,” Selena says.
After an HR investigation, the theater determined there was no cause for termination. Matt filed sexual assault and battery charges against Christopher. Christopher never went to court because he reportedly fled to South Dakota, and the case was dropped. In the Facebook thread that originated this article, another former Drafthouse employee confirmed Christopher had bragged about committing this act.
Rachel filed an EEOC lawsuit against Drafthouse for their handling of the situation. “We went to six mediation sessions over the course of one year and they wouldn’t budge on anything,” Rachel says. “I became emotionally sick from stress until I just had to move on. That and the lawyer’s bills adding up. That’s a tactic they use. They jack you around on a compromise or settlement until you just lose hope.”
Rachel and her husband finally gave up in late 2016. “We moved to Seattle to leave all of this behind. We quit and left the city. It was the only way out.”
“It was a pretty abusive relationship.”
On a local hiring level, former employees say Drafthouse was able to get away with abusive and exploitative employee treatment by using their well-established cult entertainment status to draw in young, enthusiastic recruits with promises of upward mobility and exposure that were never delivered on.
“Everyone was promised they’d be paid for them later and would get exposure up-front.” Cable says he put together pre-trailer clips for three years and was never paid.
For many former employees we spoke with, the Drafthouse was one of their first professional experiences.
“The thing I regret most is that I worked there in a time when I was really developing as a person. It had a big effect on who I’ve become,” Sydney Rebel says. “I think I was taken advantage of because I was young and ignorant, really. They get young people to start working for them so they can form them in the way they want them to be.”
In April, Alamo Drafthouse received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $5-10 million from the federal government. According to a statement issued by current Drafthouse CEO Shelli Taylor, a former Starbucks executive who joined the company in April, the company is still likely to be refinancing further debt due to Coronavirus closures.
“The PPP is very much appreciated, but we will undoubtedly be refinancing further debt once we emerge from this crisis,” Taylor told the Austin American-Statesman in July. “Alamo Drafthouse’s cash burn rate on corporate location rents alone is close to $2 million dollars a month, and we’ve accrued far more debt than the PPP loan in these four months of closure. We will be using the PPP funds to continue paying our staff, purchase essential safety equipment, and to help offset operational losses for the first months when we are operating at a greatly reduced capacity.”
However, the loan didn’t prevent the company from laying off over 80 corporate staff and many staff members at its locations. Those let go say they were offered $500 severance in exchange for signing an NDA.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t going to sign that,” Clark says. “It was a pretty abusive relationship, and I don’t want to have a legal document still tying me to them.”
What happens next?
Alamo Drafthouse’s spokesperson shared the following statement regarding the company’s plans to move forward, and asking any current or former employees with reports of abuse to reach out:
“Alamo Drafthouse has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abuse and harassment. These allegations are deeply disturbing and describe behaviors that are simply unacceptable. Last week an internal note was sent to all staff to encourage anyone with information about the claims made, many of which we are learning about for the first time, to share with the People team so that a full investigation can be conducted. If any former staff have a concern we encourage them to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The internal email from Drafthouse CEO Taylor, which the company shared with The Pitch, says they’re using this time while theaters are closed to work on long-standing company-wide issues.
“There is no place for abuse or harassment of any kind at Alamo Drafthouse,” Taylor wrote. “To anyone victimized while they’ve worked for Alamo Drafthouse – I am very sorry, and I promise that things are going to change. People who violate our Code of Conduct and engage in this kind of behavior must and will be held accountable.”
In her email, Taylor says this work includes one-on-one round tables, reviewing reports from employees, hiring a workplace culture consultant, and setting up a one-stop helpline for employees that can help the company learn from data and trends related to employee reports.
“I’m aware that we made strides in dealing with workplace behavior since after 2017, but we must do even more,” Taylor wrote. “If we can evolve our culture we can do extraordinary things together and Alamo Drafthouse will re-emerge from this pandemic stronger and with even greater purpose.”
Former employees say if Alamo Drafthouse truly wants to improve the workplace climate at corporate and local levels, it’s going to take a lot of internal work. Based on their experiences, very few are optimistic the company is willing to do that work.
“I had no hope of anything changing while I was there. I don’t see it changing at this point,” Cassandra says. “I don’t see anything that would redeem it in my eyes. Alamo has taken advantage of the power they’ve had for too long. I don’t see them holding themselves accountable to change that.”
“Ala-Bro culture needs to change,” former employee Elizabeth says. “I never once felt appreciated, and I’m not the only one. It isn’t me being bitter. We look back at our time there as if it was an abusive relationship, or PTSD.”
“If and when the new Alamo emerges, I believe they need checks and balances,” Clark says. “The executives left at the company are the same ones that are abusers on many different levels. It would take Alamo investing in a lot of training, and making them aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace. That would be the big thing. Not a guarantee certain people would change, but actual accountability.”
For us—the writers of this story—no one could hope for Alamo Drafthouse’s redemption harder. Brock Wilbur estimates between Drafthouse theater outings for his family and purchases from Drafthouse-owned companies like Mondo and Death Waltz Recordings, he has spent more than $10,000+ in the last decade. After conducting dozens of these interviews, it is hard not to feel an amount of shame looking at the art hanging around his house and many records on his shelf. Abby Olcese has been a regular Drafthouse customer since the Mainstreet location first opened, and has contributed to Birth.Movies.Death. since 2017.
For many former Drafthouse employees, the only thing they can do is recall their few good memories, cherish the friends they’ve made, and move on. “They say Alamo is one big family, but the only kind of family I ever felt was with my fellow servers,” Sydney Rebel says. “You build these bonds. Unfortunately for Alamo, it was a relationship built from shared trauma.”
“The job I have [now] never makes me feel like shit,” Elizabeth says. “There is life after Alamo.”