Originally posted on Cinematical, 9/23/09
Tim League founded the Alamo Drafthouse with his wife Karrie in Austin, Texas back in 1997, and since then it's become a mainstay for mainstream films with a brisk sideline business for film geeks who require a steady diet of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, Asian, cult and ... the plain weird flicks. They've become known for their offbeat programming as much as they are for the fact that you can get a cheeseburger and a pint of beer during the movie, and this week marks the start of their fifth annual Fantastic Fest film festival.
Besides being the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, League founded the fest with Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, Matt Dentler, Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, and Tim McCanlies. These days, League is usually busier than "an octopus with hives," as my uncle used to say, but we caught up with him during the relative calm before the hurricane of film geekery and all-day screenings begins. Read on after the break for the full interview, and of course stay tuned to Cinematical for all of your Fantastic Fest news.
Almost everybody that we talk to in the film world, you mention the Alamo Drafthouse, and they say, "Oh yeah! I heard about that place!" But they haven't been. A lot of people still don't know what it is. What would you tell those people it is? What's the logline for the Drafthouse?
Well, the first thing that we would always tell people, and this is from the very beginning, is "dinner, drinks, and movies all at the same place." You know, but there are a lot of places doing that now. And over the years we have started to have something else to our identity, and that is the programming that is unique to our theater. We employ a really large programming staff, five members that are full time programmers for the theater.
So we do a lot of things you don't find in a normal movie theater. We bring a lot of celebrity guests. We come up with our own concepts for original programming. We scour the news and the web. When there are trends or concepts that people are doing and getting excited about, we try to work those into a show somehow. So I think of late, more of our notoriety has been on the programming side.
What was your first favorite obscure film as a kid that sort of got you down this path towards being a film geek and theater owner?
I don't know how obscure it is, but at the time it was obscure for me. It was The Warriors. I saw that when I was pretty young and I just ... I don't know. I thought it was like the coolest thing I had ever even possibly imagined. And it is still pretty cool, but now you look at it and you have got a little bit of jaded eyes and like these gangs. What the hell are these gangs and why are they wearing top hats? That maybe doesn't translate, but when I was, I don't know, 10, 11 years old or something like that, it was an eye-opener for me.
So when did you and Karrie start the theater?
1997. May of '97.
When did you guys first plan an event with a filmmaker or program something that was slightly different that just really hit with audiences?
Well, I think we were doing it from the beginning, but just on a much less frequent scale. And honestly, it started back in the theater in Bakersfield. We ran a theater in Bakersfield for a couple years. And there are things that we did there. We did our first silent film with live musical accompaniment. We did our first sort of feast event with multi-course dining. But we just chose a restaurant, because we didn't have a kitchen and we weren't really equipped to do it. They partnered with us on the events. We started doing midnight movies there.
But when we came to Austin ... I remember one time in particular where the Austin community embraced us, because when we first moved to town, the Austin Film Society and a lot of the sort of film snob type folks, which I am too, were real standoffish because we had food and they thought it was going to be a huge distraction. But when Robert Mitchum passed away, we did a Robert Mitchum tribute, Thunder Road, and Night of the Hunter. And Richard Linklater was still really active in the Film Society then. And it raised his eyebrows, like, "OK. Well any theater that loved Robert Mitchum, I am going to at least give them a shot." And he came down, he checked it out, and had a good time. And then we started doing events with the Austin Film Society. I don't know if it was the first event that we did like that, but it was certainly where we got recognized by the film scene here in town.
So you go to festivals. You got markets around the world to see movies that you might consider for the Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest. What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen?
Yeah. I kind of like the bizarre. I know last year there was a film that Kier-La Janisse brought to my attention. She used to work for me ... I guess this was two years ago. She brought a film to my attention that she loved, and I saw it, and I thought it was reprehensible. I just couldn't play it. And then I couldn't stop thinking about it. And then eventually, like a month later, I was like, "Well why can't I play that? We will go ahead and play that."
Which movie was it?
It was a short film called Gary's Touch. It was at the festival two years ago, played before this extremely weird Korean film called Never Belongs To Me. But I mean really disturbing stuff. And one of the most disturbing things about it, apart from having a lot of semen in the movie, was this weird sexual relationship and sex scene between a woman who had some sort of issues. And I found out later that she actually didn't have Down's syndrome; she was just an actress. But man, oh man, oh man. It seemed like it had crossed a line that you didn't want to cross.
What is the hardest part of putting this festival together every year? Is it coordinating the staff? Is it getting the films together, bringing people into town?
I think every year it gets a little easier. The film shipping has been a problem in the past, but this year we have a new guy working on it who has been amazing. It is out of my realm, so it is everything up on a big board. There is nothing that is flagged red at this point and we are two days away from the festival. Red is bad on the big board.
I think my biggest challenge is that running the festival is something of a fulltime job, and then I have got, at least this year, I am deeply involved in the construction of this Highball facility and my regular duties running the movie theater. So it is juggling those various activities and not letting anything slip.
If you had a time machine and someone said, "All right. We are going to send you back to one era and you can take as many pristine prints as you want from some film house or somewhere," what era would you go back to? Like, say within five years, like '60-'65 or something like that.
'70-'75, Times Square Depot.
Whoa, no hesitation!
Yeah, I know. I just need that time machine.
See, well if something like this gets immortalized on the web, somebody somewhere has got to invent a time machine, right? You hope they are reading back through all the blogs and you'll get your wish.
So, tell us about the Highball. When did you guys first start thinking about this? And tell us what it is for people that don't yet know about it.
We are sitting in the Highball right now. But the Highball is ... well, it used to be the Salvation Army here in the Alamo South Lamar Shopping Center. The Salvation Army moved out about six months ago, seven months ago, and we realized that there is big empty space here. And we ended up throwing a couple parties here just associated with film screenings we were doing over at the Alamo South Lamar. So we rented the space and did a casino party for Casino Royale, and then we had a vampire prom for Twilight. And we threw a couple parties during South By Southwest, too.
And it was just kind of cool to have a space this close to the Alamo Drafthouse. And we thought that were was potential there for after party events or related screenings. And then we had an idea that we could build this space out and it could be a remote lobby. So you could pick up your tickets there and basically get a boarding pass a la Southwest Airlines and hang out here. On the weekends, the lobby at the theater is too small. It just gets too cramped, and noisy, and crowded. This way people can relax and hang out and board in a leisurely manner.
And then the evolution of what it became, I think started with the fact that it is such a huge space and we needed to eat up part of the space with something that wasn't just people milling because we don't have the parking for it. So we came up with a bowling alley, which is a huge space hog, because you have got half of the building for bowling and really only 48 people can enjoy this half of the building. You know, six people for each of the eight lanes. And we didn't want to get new lanes. We wanted something cool, so we started shopping and we found this package of vintage 1959 lanes.
That kind of defined the look and feel of how the rest of the building was going to take shape. So we used that era and we started designing around it. And we knew we wanted a food service angle, we wanted a cocktail angle, and we wanted an event space where we could put on shows and whatever, have rented events as well. And then what was left after all that, we found all these little nooks and crannies, and absolutely the first thing we think about was karaoke. So we filled every other available inch with karaoke rooms.
Yeah, you are a fan of those karaoke lounges. So it seemed to work out perfectly with that extra space for that. And Skee-Ball! You have Skee-Ball machines. I read somewhere you guys are going to have alternative prizing for the Skee-ball?
Yeah. We have been starting to collect some stuff. We have got branded merchandise obviously, but we have been trolling eBay and we are going to get old fashioned candies and just kind of oddball things. If you go to like a Dave and Buster's or Coney Island type thing, you redeem your tickets and there is absolutely nothing that you really want. So hopefully people are going to want some of the things that we have. And we are also going to have some gigantic prizes because we do some events. One of the things is we have got a baseball bat signed by the cast and crew of Office Space that will probably be some crazy 50,000 tickets.
Who is your favorite splatter director?
Splatter director. You know, I mean it is going to sound odd, but maybe it is just because it is on the top of my head. I was so blown away by the splatter effects in District 9. I don't know. So he is my new favorite. I wasn't expecting that out of that movie at all. It had so much to offer, but I wasn't expecting to have invented gore be a part of it. So he is my new fave. Maybe it is just a fleeting fancy, but there you go.
What about the food at the Highball? Are you guys going to have the same menu as the Drafthouse or will it be different stuff?
It is totally different. So we have gone with the same era, in a way, with both the cocktails and the food. So we have got an open kitchen back there. It is very traditional diner style. We have the same kind of garish gold upholstery on the booths surrounding the bar. So Trish was the chef at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. And so we have taken her over here, and she has developed something of a hybrid diner menu, like some diner classics that have been sort of made more modern or a little fancier. And she has got a real kick on local meats, local proteins as she calls them, local vegetables wherever possible; everything fresh. We will still have even like French fries and onion rings, but they will be hand cut and hand battered. Even the ketchup is fresh, she makes the ketchup from scratch. The cocktails are ... a lot of them are reimaginings of really old-school cocktails. But again, hand made, fresh ingredients.
What about music? Are you guys going to have a swinging '60s soundtrack going in here or will it be different?
I think it is going to be different. We might occasionally. Even though we have tried to be pretty reasonable with making it look as if it has always been here, there is something that sort of bothers me about when you go into a place and it is like a lounge. For some reason, if the soundtrack is always Dean Martin and the Rat Pack, it tends to grate on me for a little bit. So we will mix it up. It is going to be a pretty broad mix. And the live events are going to be God knows what. We are partnering with some promoters here in town and we are going to do some of our own events, but it is going to be a wide range.
What is your favorite event or most off the wall thing you have done over the years at the Drafthouse? Maybe not during Fantastic Fest, but is there an event that you love that just came off really well or something just bizarre that you guys put together that worked really well?
There are a couple. When we were closing down the original one, there were a couple things we did. One was a smoking mandatory night, which is technically, I suppose, not quite street legal. But we were closing down the place and we put only our smokers on staff and watched Breathless. And just seeing that film, which is such an amazing film, and everybody smoking constantly, and just seeing the theater full of smoke and this incredible beam of light cutting through the smoke. I am not a smoker, but I smoked a lot. I actually got a little sick from smoking that night. But they were so appreciative of being not marginalized for once.
Did they bring their own smokes or did you guys provide cigarettes?
Everybody brought their own, yeah.
What was the other one?
That same week we did a screening of Earthquake and brought in 50,000 watts of subwoofer power.
Like Rumblerama or or whatever they call it?
Yeah. It was pretty good. Somebody had a little Flipcam, or whatever the equivalent was back then, and videotaped her wine glass. And her wine glass was shaking, and it shook, and it just shook all the way off the table.
Wow. I can only imagine the volume in that place.
It was pretty good.
So when you guys moved, they were raising the rent over there or the lease, or whatever, from what I remember?
Yeah. I mean I don't begrudge them at all. The neighborhood got really fancy around us. We were certainly the most low end, low class place in the neighborhood at that point. And so they could get more rent out of somebody else. We were actually going to suck it up and just stay. We had gone through a process to become a nonprofit. Then at the last minute the Downtown Austin Alliance came in and set up a deal with us with the people that own the Ritz Theater on 6th Street, and they offered us a much better rent. And yeah, we decided to move.
So it was kind of fortuitous. I mean if you guys had the same lease, you probably wouldn't have been looking for another place at that point?
Yeah, I mean we were close. We were maybe a week away from signing up and saying, "OK. We are just going to do this thing." And the move turned out great. I like the new space. We have two screens there and a lot more flexibility on the programming.
Fantastic Fest has a pretty big reputation at this point. Variety called it "Geek Telluride", which is pretty appropriate. People now want to come here with their films. I mean you guys have had a lot of success the past year with that, like the Star Trek II event that turned out being the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film that sort of blew everyone's pants off. Did Paramount contact you guys about that? Did you contact them?
Paramount set that deal up. And it was a variety of ideas that made it come together. I think for the most part it was the screenwriters that wanted a real litmus test for the film. They knew that we had done a bunch of events with Paramount in the past. They knew that we could deliver a solid genre loving audience. They wanted that audience to validate the film. So it was a pretty tightly guarded secret. I didn't even tell my wife. The only people that knew were on staff for me and the projectionist.
Can we expect some surprises on that level at this year's Fantastic Fest?
There are always a couple of surprises we have got up our sleeve. However, I am not at liberty to talk about those surprises!
So, what is the most bang for your buck film with a lot of nudity in it that is not like a hardcore X rated film?
In Fantastic Fest?
No. I mean, well, The Bare Breasted Contessa looks like it is going to have a lot of boobs in it.
Yeah, Groper Train also.
Well, what have you guys shown over the past that has been sort of like, "Hey, you get more nudity for your dollar with this movie than anything else?"
Boobs for the buck ... let's see. There is a movie we are all kind of strangely in love with called Teen Lust, which some people don't dig, but it definitely has a lot of boobs. Lars shows boobs almost every other week at Weird Wednesday.
Not his own, we should probably add.
No. I mean yeah, for a price he will. I am thinking about important boob moments when I was younger, too.
Well, everybody has their Porky's moment ...
Mine was Hot Dog: The Movie, I think. Purple Rain also. It is not a lot of boob for the bucks, but it was an important boob moment for me growing up.
So, we are about to start the festival on Thursday. When the festival is over, do you guys immediately start thinking about next year or does it take a while? Do you guys take some time off?
Well I mean the day after Fantastic Fest I am flying to the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. So I am going to watch some stuff there thinking about Fantastic Fest 2010. The first real scouting trip is in November for the American Film Market. So I mean I start looking, and we start slowly, we start bringing in submissions, but I don't get super serious about it until Berlin. That is kind of the turning point when I start to really pick up the pace, and then all the way through the summer.
Do you get a lot of submissions from filmmakers now because it has become big, and, "We want you guys to consider this?"
Yeah. There were well over 1,000 this year. That is shorts and features. There are probably more shorts that come in through submissions than features do. But yeah, it is growing. We actually have to manage that better this year, because Karrie and I were still the frontlines on most of it, which ended up just eating so much of our time over the months.
What is the next step? Fantastic Fest continues to grow, would you guys open this up and have buyers come out and that kind of thing?
I don't know. We definitely encourage buyers now. There are a few folks that come out. Weinstein, Magnet, Magnolia, and IFC are definitely coming out this year, and some video buyers are coming out like Starz, and Synapse, and things like that. I am cautious about growth. I don't want it to get too big because part of the charm of the festival is, I think, a real community that surrounds it. And if you get too big you are going to lose that. So we have grown every year. What we usually do is at the end of each year is we assess and we see how we did, and we get a lot of feedback from the people that came and see if they enjoyed themselves. We play it year by year.
What is your favorite non-Fantastic Fest film festival every year? Which do you enjoy the most? It may not even be the movies but just the setting.
What is funny is the only one that is not Fantastic Fest related that I go to is South by Southwest. I mean even when I am at Berlin ... well, that is not true. I am going to go to Cannes. I love SXSW. I probably have more fun at South by Southwest than at any other festival. Impressive spectacle and the sheer volume of films that I need and want to see is Cannes still. But I don't go to a lot that aren't filled with boobs and blood. [laughs]
You guys did Fantastic Fest at SXSW, or SXSW Presents Fantastic Fest ... you know, this year.
It is awkward to say, yeah.
How did that work out?
I think it worked well. Janet [Pierson] seemed to be happy. She has asked if we want to do it again, and I think we are going to do it again. We haven't worked out any of the details of that, but I think as soon as this festival is over we are going to talk seriously about it. I enjoyed it. Throughout the year ... I mean it is exactly off-season from Fantastic Fest, and we willfully position ourselves that way. What that means is there is a lot of films that we come across that we love that are frankly just too old or are not appropriate for us by the time SXSW hits, or by the time Fantastic Fest hits.
So I like it. And it is only four films, which actually strangely is more pressure in a way, because we tried to give sort of a representative sampling of sort of the various things that Fantastic Fest has to offer. So if you have just like one film that is supposed to represent this chunk of your festival, then there is a bit of pressure to make sure it is exactly right.
So you guys get to pick those?
Yeah. I programmed all the Fantastic Fest... South by Southwest Presents Fantastic Fest at Midnight.
See? It needs like an acronym or something. FF+SXSW. You said Fantastic Fest is off-season from SXSW, but it comes right on the heels of the Toronto International Film Festival. Did you plan it that way?
Right. That is where we chose it, to be right after Toronto, because coming right before Toronto is a mess, because there midnight madness selection is only 10 films, but there are a lot of films that are tied up awaiting consideration from Midnight Madness. There are many other genre titles that have to play Toronto first in North America. We tried to sandwich ourselves between Sitges and Toronto. And we are just at the mercy of their flexing schedules. Toronto moved back a week and almost gave us a real scare this year.
The Drafthouse has done a lot of goofy stuff like including weird items with your tickets. Do you have a favorite that you have done? I remember back when you were in the old location you could go see Friday and you would get a 40 oz. of alcohol.
That was a very early one. We did that with a bunch of early black exploitation films. We did it with Friday. I love that and it makes people so happy. [laughs] Favorite gimmick? Let me think.
Yeah, the gimmick. Like the Baby Ruth bar that came with The Goonies. It is kind of the charming thing that makes it like, "Oh, cool!" It is very Drafthouse when you do stuff like that.
Well there was one we did which was something of a failure honestly, but I really enjoyed that we did it and pulled it off, even though it was both unpleasant mildly for the audience and it was a financial mess. But we recreated ... what was it called? From the Kentucky Fried movie "Sense Around", where you have a guy standing behind you like recreating the effects, like spritzing you with water. So we did like a little clip show of movies and we set things on fire. But the one that was like the disaster was we had the scene from Backdraft, and we gave everybody this little packet of pepper that you were supposed to blow into somebody's eyes to make them feel like they were in a smoky room. It totally worked, but it worked in a really ... we should have tested it a little more thoroughly.
Everyone felt like they got maced?
Yeah, a little bit.
It was effective, but no ... didn't repeat that one.
I guess I can see why. So this Fest, what movie are you most looking forward to? You have probably seen most of everything, but what have you not seen that you are looking forward to, or maybe seeing again on the big screen?
Of the ones I have seen, I really like Love Exposure, a new one by Shion Sono; a four hour epic Japanese peek-a-panty apocalyptic movie. It is just crazy. It won an award at Berlin. But because of its run time and because it goes kind of extreme in a couple different directions, there are not a lot of places for it to play. So who knows if it has got a life after the festival, but I think it is a great film.
I was one of the people that loved Antichrist at Cannes. So I am real excited about getting an audience to see that. There is a movie ... it is our first movie that we played from mainland China called Crazy Racer, which I think is really fun. It is just pure popcorn chase action-adventure comedy. But I haven't been that impressed with that style of movie out of Hong Kong for a while. And this feels like somebody understands it and has got a fresh voice. Just that mainland China's film industry is catching up and has this kind of talent now is pretty cool.
So what is it like being both a film lover and a business owner? Is it a happy medium? Or is it job first, and then enjoy later?
We have a good team assembled. I mean I am not frontlines on balancing the budget of the theater anymore, but I am still aware of it. I think it is fun. Running a business is kind of like a game in way. And as you know, I like to play games. So profitability is fun ... if you can do something you love and put on crazy events and make them make money, then it is sort of the perfect scenario. So I enjoy that aspect of the business as well. And I also, frankly, I mean I am a sucker for blockbuster Hollywood movies, which is the bulk of our revenue at the theater. We do a lot of fun and crazy events, but in an order of magnitude of the revenue that comes into the theater, it is way off the charts for the Batman, Spider-Man movies that come out every year. But I get really excited about those films, too.
You mean how people get too hoity-toity for those, and they are like, "Oh, Michael Bay. That is below me."
No way, man. Bad Boys 2!
And now you can look forward to Bad Boys 3. What about the community? Austin is such a film rich town. Do you do anything in conjunction with the filmmaking that is local, the Film Society, or the University?
Yeah. I mean we reach out to those guys a lot. Film Society first; we have been doing screenings with them for ... as I said, as soon as we got the blessing from Richard Linklater, and that was early in our first year, we started out with the Texas Documentary Tour, a monthly documentary series. We have hosted their free cinema series for eight years. Partnered with them on a whole bunch of things. We do UT filmmaking screenings all the time. Try to take part in all the film festivals in town. We are certainly approachable and offer reasonable rates for everybody.
We have done a number of things with the local filmmaking scene. We host and sponsor a bunch of filmmaking competitions throughout the year and have a great relationship with the Austin School of Film. They do screenings and events. I love the scene here. I wish there were more professional opportunities in Austin. There was a time a while back where it looked like it was going to start really coming together, but we lost some ground by not having the appropriate subsidies in this town. But on the university level, on the student level, I think we have got great talent. We do everything we can.
I know people in Austin were so upset when Drew Barrymore's film Whip It went to go shoot up in Detroit. I heard they did some pick up scenes here.
Yeah. They did a pick up at the Alamo. I haven't seen it yet.
So ... where do things go from here? The Highball, let's say, becomes a cool place to hang out. People come and the fest keeps rolling and the theater keeps getting people in. Is that good enough for you or would you like to see the Drafthouse brand continue to grow? There are some non Drafthouse theaters that aren't run by you guys that have the franchise name.
Well I mean technically I sold the Drafthouse company five years ago and it is licensed back to me for the theaters here in Austin. So any of the Drafthouse expansion is not my company anymore. Long term, I mean there are some ideas and things that we have. You know, the possibility of expanding programming concepts to a more national scale. I think some of the things we do could work in a lot of different markets and aren't being done. There is a big push in the digital cinema age to find some traction in alternative content on the digital screens, and that something I could see getting involved in.
What about Tim League directing a film?
That will never happen.
What about Tim League producing a film? You guys have sort of produced some films
Yeah. I served as executive producer on a film this year. There is a Fantastic Fest veteran who enjoyed his time here in Austin, and I have stayed in touch with him over the years. And he wrote a script that was set in Austin. And I agreed to ... I didn't provide money. That is important. But I housed the casting crew for 12 weeks and set up locations and extras, and gave them transportation, my cars and company vehicles, catering, that sort of thing, and set them up with second unit folks and effects people here in town.
You don't know if you will ever put your weight behind an entire production or anything?
I found that experience fun, but it is definitely not what I want to do be doing for a job. There are a handful of people, most of them Fantastic Fest veterans, if they were ever to ask me I would say yes, but it is really no more than five or six people at this point. And they probably know who they are.
Do you think you have like budding filmmakers on staff, somebody that is going to make a movie some day or has a book in them? I feel like Lars could write an encyclopedia about bizarre movies.
Zack just got a book published. It is coming out next year. He has been working on it for six years, seven years. Fantagraphics picked it up. It is a gigantic 900 page compendium, an obsessive look at every single movie up until 1989 that has an instance of a punk rock character in it; every single one. So he has looked at thousands and thousands of films. I think it is 5,000 capsule reviews and then interviews with all the major players.
That comes out next year?
Yeah. Zack is such a good writer, and it is just a staggering work of, I don't know, compulsion. I want to help him out. We went out on the road, Lars and Zack went out on the road with Cinema Apocalypse this year and did a West Coast tour. I think we want to do that with some punk rock movies and help them orchestrate a book tour. And we will obviously do some punk rock programming here and have book signings. Whenever the book hits, we are going to try to announce some big press about it. I am very proud of that boy.
Event wise, last year you all had a party in some caverns with Bill Murray for City of Ember. Do you think there is going to be something that tops that this year that may not even be on the schedule or may not even be announced yet?
One thing we are doing that only really the filmmakers pretty much know about is we found a group ... and I am not exactly sure what their background is, but there sort of a quasi-militia group out in East Texas ... well, east of here at least. And we are going to take 25 filmmakers out there to have this all day machine gun shoot, and they are going to blow a lot of stuff up. And I think for those people that is going to be a pretty epic day.
I hope there is not a high chance for injury there.
I don't think so. There is an hour of safety training before we start. I think the Meet the Japanese party is going to get a little bit unhinged. They are packing a whole bunch of stuff. I don't know what, but they are shipping a bunch of stuff in advance. Nishimuro has sent me some scary photos about things that are awaiting me personally.
Well, we'll have to see what the aftermath is, and people can read all about it right here on Cinematical.