Sony Pictures buys Alamo Drafthouse: What this means for the 'cool' movie theater chain known for its 'personality'

For decades, movie studios weren't allowed to own theaters and control what was played onscreen. That changed in 2020.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema signage is displayed outside of a movie theater location in Los Angeles.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is under new ownership. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Sony Pictures Entertainment is acquiring Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the dine-in movie theater chain known for its personality, premium food and drink offerings, and punctuality policy.

The deal — creating the rare instance of a Hollywood studio owning a cinema chain — was announced Wednesday and is a solution to Alamo’s financial woes. But it also raises questions about its future — including what will change and what won’t amid the sale.

Alamo is the seventh-largest theater chain in North America, operating 35 theaters in 25 metro areas and serving about 10 million customers per year. Based in Austin, there are more than a dozen in Texas alone — though five locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, operated by a franchise partner, abruptly closed last week due to a bankruptcy filing. The original theater was founded in 1997 as a place for “good food, good beer and good film,” according to the company.

A pioneer of the “dine and watch” concept, Alamo Drafthouse offers cinephiles a curated experience versus the typical multiplex one. There’s waitstaff service, film-specific food themes and a wide range of events bringing together movie lovers with live music, trivia and karaoke. The company has said its “authentic personality” differentiates it from other chains, and it’s been called “the coolest movie theater in the world” by Wired. Prioritizing a pleasant theatergoing experience, the chain sticks by its rules — no lateness, no texting, nobody under 18 without an adult.

The business had been struggling financially for several years. Amid the boom of streaming — and theater closings during the pandemic — the company filed for Chapter 11 in March 2021, citing $105 million in debt. Owners Altamont Capital Partners and Fortress Investment Group restructured the debt, and three months later the company emerged from bankruptcy.

In March 2024, Alamo started exploring a sale. Several Hollywood studios were approached in addition to Sony Pictures, the studio behind blockbusters like Bad Boys: Ride or Die and Spider-Man. The financial terms of the sale were not disclosed.

Under Sony’s ownership, Alamo Drafthouse will be managed by Sony Pictures Experiences, a new division of the entertainment company. Alamo CEO Michael Kustermann will continue to oversee the cinema business as well as head Sony Pictures Experiences. Over the last year, Sony has focused on growing live experiences — like a Wheel of Fortune live traveling tour, based on the show, and Wonderverse, an entertainment space with movie-themed attractions — so those types of events could be held in Alamo venues.

Sony Pictures Entertainment president and chief operating officer Ravi Ahuja also mentioned that the studio’s Crunchyroll business, an anime streaming service, aligns with Alamo customers’ interests. Additionally, Sony will work to get the recently shuttered Dallas-Fort Worth locations, as well as one in Minnesota, back open.

Sony promised to continue offering content from all studios and distributors, not just its own, so the variety of movies playing shouldn’t change. All 35 of the chain’s theaters will also operate under the Alamo Drafthouse brand instead of being renamed. The company’s headquarters will remain in Austin. Also, Alamo’s film festival, Fantastic Fest, is included in the sale and will continue.

Alamo founder Tim League said in a statement that the sale will help with the business’s mission “to be the best damn cinema that has ever, or will ever, exist now in ways we could only ever dream of,” and that Sony has a deep understanding of “cinema’s ability to both drive growth and create lasting cultural impact which aligns perfectly with everything Alamo Drafthouse stands for.”

The spin is that nothing huge is changing — for now.

No. For decades, studios weren’t allowed to run movie theaters and control what was played on the screens due to an antitrust Supreme Court case (United States v. Paramount Pictures) decided in 1948. The ruling was rescinded in 2020, with the Justice Department determining that the antitrust restrictions known as the Paramount Consent Decrees were no longer necessary due to the advent of multiplexes and streaming. Sony is the first major studio to purchase a chain, while Netflix and Amazon have purchased a handful of individual theaters.

As a theater chain known for its personality, versus the traditional multiplex, there is obviously concern over a behemoth like Sony taking over the business. Austin’s NBC affiliate, KXAN-TV, spoke to some local customers who seemed cautiously hopeful — especially since the alternative is shuttered theaters.

Jack Kyser, an actor and director, told the outlet, “It’s always a little scary when a beloved local business gets sold to a big company.” But he said he would remain “optimistic ... that the powers-that-be will take note of what people love about the Drafthouse and not morph it into something that strays from the original concept.”