If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ll know that one of the major go-to stops, aside from all the barbecue and the hippies with cowboy hats, is one of the many Alamo Drafthouse cinemas. It’s truly a night out for movie fans both casual and diehard, and they’ve become so popular that many have begun popping up across the country. It’s also become the hub of watching awesome offbeat movies not generally seen, and with Fantastic Fest, a film festival catering specifically to the genre crowd, which opens September 19th and runs to the 26th, Austin’s film scene has become legendary. The man behind both of these is Tim League, who started as a film exhibitor in the mid-’90s and is now a distributor of movies both cult and Oscar-nominated. We spoke to League about this year’s Fantastic Fest, about Drafthouse Films and about the possible jump to producing.
NERDIST: Fantastic Fest has becoming a premier genre film festival; did you have any idea at the beginning it was going to become so influential?
TIM LEAGUE: I think it’s evolved over the years. Our first desire for putting Fantastic Fest together was to put a regional festival together. We weren’t getting enough of these types of movies in Austin, and we had a community that I thought would really like this type of stuff. So, really, that was my first idea: building something toward the Austin audience. Then, over the years, we’ve developed different goals, and now a lot of the moves we make with the festival are about how we can support genre filmmakers for potential sales opportunities, and now this year with the market, hoping to get more and more films like this financed.
N: As the festival has gotten larger, I’m sure submissions have grown exponentially as well, so what do you look for in films that go into the Fest?
TL: Well, one of the tentpoles, I guess, is horror, but we end up playing not very much horror at all, because I don’t have much patience for bad horror, and there’s a lot of that. I think the particular type of film that we’re looking for is, obviously, something that dabbles in genre film, dark subject material or science fiction or fantasy or horror. We look for emerging auteurs, we look for incredible storytelling. Storytelling is going to stand up to the “critics,” if you will, first and foremost. That’s something that’s become a bit of a pet peeve for me, so many people just looking down upon genre films, saying they’re just B movies or “trash” movies. That’s the way to piss me off the easiest. And so, the festival was built around this idea of taking genre films out of the nearly-midnight category and saying these stories are incredible and the filmmakers telling these stories are some of our great talents and lifting it out of the perceived B-movie category.
N: Alamo Drafthouse has been doing that from the beginning; is that why you became a distributor in the first place, to try to show movies that people might have passed by initially?
TL: Yeah, sure. I mean, I got into the movie exhibition business really and only because I loved movies. I didn’t know how to run a business, let alone run a movie theater, but Karrie and I wanted to build a theater that we would find fun. Kind of a simple idea, but that was exactly what it was, this desire to share films, and that’s the mantra we follow with Drafthouse Films, our releasing company.
N: What are some of the films this year at Fantastic Fest that you’re most excited for people to get to see?
TL: Well… there’s a lot. The cool thing is, we didn’t have to dip down into the “maybes,” if you will, at all this year. You know, sometimes you get to the end of the programming cycle and you’re like, “Okay. We’ve accepted all the ‘I love it’ ones, so we’ve got to take a look at the ones that got mixed responses from the programmers.” We never had to do that. So, it’s a pretty strong lineup. One film in particular I really want to share with people is a film we actually bought at Cannes, so this is going to be the North American premiere coming to the festival. It’s called Nothing Bad Can Happen. It’s a drama, but it’s similar to Bullhead in a way. I think the response it got at Cannes was good, but I think it’s so violent at times and pretty hard that my hope is that when our audience sees it, they’re just going to explode. It’s just amazing performances, really fresh and interesting story, but tough as nails.
N: You also picked up and are screening Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, which looks phenomenal. In the UK, it had a really interesting release in that it came out in cinemas, on Blu-ray, on digital, and on Channel 4 all on the same day. Are you going to be doing a similar thing for this movie over here, and what are your feelings on that kind of simultaneous release in general?
TL: I do like it. We do a bit of that with our Drafthouse Films titles. For some titles, we’ll release them day-and-date on VOD, on iTunes, and theatrical, basically at the same time. And it helps for small folks like us who don’t really have a big budget for promotion. You can promote it once as opposed to twice. Film 4 was one of the financiers of Ben’s film, so putting it on their television channel was part of the program as a low-budget feature project. By all accounts, it was a pretty successful launch in the UK. I certainly think it’s an interesting way to release a film. In the States, by doing so you end up sacrificing theatrical, because there’s a lot of people who just won’t go to a movie theater if they’re following that model. We happen to own a movie theater [laughs], so at least we can break the rules for our own movies.
N: Last year you screened and picked up I Declare War which just came out fairly recently; what kinds of movies are you looking for from a distribution side of things?
TL: Well, we’ve just been to the Toronto International Film Festival and Toronto is where we picked up The Act of Killing, which wasn’t a huge target for us going in to the festival, but we were so struck by it when we saw it that we knew it fell into the category of films we love, so that was our primary objective last year at Toronto. What we generally do is we hit all the major festivals and we put a hit list together of anything that sounds like it might be our taste. And really, anything we do with the label is very much in tune with the way we pick Fantastic Fest. A lot of that work overlaps, as we’re looking for the festival as well.
It’s interesting; several acquisitions, I Declare War and Bullhead, we only thought to pick them up for distribution after they got such a strong response at Fantastic Fest. Bullhead won the Next Wave Award and I Declare War won the Audience Award. The festival audience is a good way to see what has legs. Also, the critical response. The response from critics in Toronto of The Act of Killing was really strong, but also divisive. We like films that divide an audience. So, for some folks that’s going to be a negative; for us, it’s a positive.
N: You began as an exhibitor and transitioned into a distributor, which is sort of a model that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s very Golden Age of Hollywood. At what point did you start actively pursuing that angle of it?
TL: It was something that we’d talked about idly for a couple of years, similar to Fantastic Fest. We talked about putting something together like Fantastic Fest idly for three years before we actually did it. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Drafthouse Films was really, honestly, frustration, because I had seen Chris Morris’ Four Lions at Sundance, just as a fan; I wasn’t there as a distributor, I was just there to watch movies. And I loved it, and as Fantastic Fest was rolling around I realized it was still on the vine. Nobody had picked it up, which I thought was absolutely absurd for a movie of that quality. It was because it’s a jihadist suicide comedy and people were afraid of it. I didn’t think there was anything offensive in it. I actually think it’s very respectful towards the religion of Islam, so I thought it was fine. So, just the fact that it was there, just sitting there, and nobody was taking it led me to take the leap into distribution.
N: You’ve also been distributing older and kind of forgotten films, like the amazing Miami Connection. Are there any in the pipeline that you can talk about that you’re particularly interested in people seeing again or for the first time?
TL: Yeah, we have a couple slated for this fall, actually. Fall/winter. We’re bringing back, for the first time in HD, this movie The Visitor, which is such a weird movie. It’s one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. And that one came to us because it’s been such a staple of our programming; our weird kind of 35mm repertory programming for a number of years and it’s one of the all-time audience favorites at the Alamo. We finally got the rights all sorted out, got the distribution, and we’re going to release it this winter. Also, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. .45, which has never been in HD before. Those are the two we’re focusing on right now, but we also want to do that with films that haven’t really had a proper home video release before and do a real nice job with them, with plenty of extras and something that’s not just a cheap gift but something with nice, good content.
N: Finally, where do you see the future of Drafthouse Films going? Are you going to take that step into producing new films?
TL: My wife tells me I’m not. We have dabbled in it a little bit. ABC’s of Death I co-produced with a friend of mine and we’re doing ABC’s of Death 2. But, honestly, he did most of the heavy lifting. My role there was the relationships with a lot of the filmmakers who participated. So, I’d like to stay away from that, as tempting as it might be. I’d like both of the companies to be a little more mature before we think about that potential distraction. Right now it’s finished films and watching them at festivals and taking them on market and taking them to the next step, not getting involved early.