July 3rd, 2008 by Russ
Austin’s Cinematic Superhero, Tim League, keeping film fans safe one film print at a time. With one of his partners in crime, Harry Knowles he has brought a unique form of movie viewing to the city and continues to find new and innovative ways to enjoy all things celluloid. Check out this year’s Fantastic Fest, you won’t be disappointed. We talk to the man behind the screen (also known to sport cape and mask) to find out how he does it.
AUSTIN DAZE: Everything you do is so much fun.
TIM LEAGUE: I think I’m really immature for my age so a lot of that shows in the programming and the decisions we make about events.
AD: You just got back from Cannes. How was that?
TL: Cannes was great. This is our second year going and Cannes is really the most important festival to go to as far as film programming is concerned. Simultaneously with the Cannes Festival is Cannes Market and we have Market badges. There are 125 films in the festival and there are 2,500 films in Market. They take over 150 screens. From 8am to 9pm Harry and I split up and then regroup at night for a late dinner and drinks and whatever party we can crash.
AD: Did you see anything you were really excited about?
TL: Two of my favorite things I’ve seen this year were there. Neither one is secured but we are desperately trying to get both for Fantastic Fest.
AD: How many years has Fantastic Fest been happening?
TL: This is the fourth one. I was proud of what we did the first year but we only worked on it a sum total of 4 or 5 months. It was more modest in size and more horror, science fiction, and fantasy. As we go, what I’m trying to do, is balance it so that we have the blood and guts-straight-ahead genre stuff that those people are looking for but also have really interesting movies that are also fun and our aesthetic for the theater. I think as long as we can keep the straight-ahead horror fans happy and also turn it into a more interesting, broad festival then I’m going to be happy doing that.
AD: Is it sold out already?
TL: Not yet. We sold out the VIP badges during the festival last year. We still have regular badges that I think will sell out before the festival happens. We are also doing day time only badges and second half of the festival badges. There are plenty of seats during those times so we are trying to offer those two badges for people to experience the festival on a smaller level.
AD: Will you use the Ritz for the festival?
TL: A little bit. The core and all the competitions will be at the Alamo Drafthouse South and then we will open up the Ritz to showcase signature Alamo shows–we are going to have a Master Pancake show for Friday 13th. So we are going to do programming like that and a badge will get you into those but it will also be open to the general public. It’s tangentially going to be part of the festival.
AD: The thing I like about Fantastic Fest is that’s it more accessible.
TL: Accessible in which way?
AD: You can talk to any director, actor, and writer. Everybody is here for the same reason.
TL: That’s very important and I’ll never want to lose that. Our whole purpose is to find stuff that we say, “Wow this is exciting; we are geared up about it and can’t wait to bring it to the home turf.” I have so many filmmakers who rarely get that experience anymore: to not have somebody hand them a script or a business card but instead it’s, “Hey did you enjoy the film we just watched? Let’s go grab a beer.” That’s what we are going for.
AD: Tell us how the festival works.
TL: It’s on three tracks: the first is the submission process. This year we are going to have about 700 films submitted to us for consideration for the festival. We don’t take that many but we watch them all. We will probably end up taking 25, maybe 30. My wife, Karrie, and I go to a lot of festivals. We started in December with the American Film Market which is the American version of Cannes. Then we went to the European Film Market in Cannes. We are going to Fantasia in Montreal and then we are going to go to this festival called, Pusan, in Korea. Then we have Ambassadors for the festival. Todd, who runs Twitch Film, goes to several other festivals on our behalf and the others just hunt–trolling the internet, seeing what other festivals play, requesting screeners. Part of that also is developing relationships with production companies so if they have something that they are working on that they know we are a place that you can premiere it. That’s how Time Crimes came about—it won the festival last year—the timing worked out right. He wasn’t ready to run in Toronto and it came straight from the lab to us.
AD: Some of the secret screeners last year were quite impressive. There Will Be Blood, was a great surprise. Was that a studio relationship?
TL: There Will Be Blood came about because of our relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson. We met him on the Rolling Road Show tour—he came to introduce Boogie Nights in LA. He was editing There Will Be Blood at the time. My career before the movie business was as an engineer for Shell Oil and I worked in Bakersfield where the movie was set. When I was there I got to know a lot about oil history and I was the first film person he had ever met that knew about a walking beam pump and whether or not the movie was oil accurate. So we became buddies. He doesn’t like to do traditional festivals and I assured him that if he came here he would be able to enjoy the movie; it would be with fans; and it wouldn’t be paparazzi. And it wasn’t. So he had a great time. But it wasn’t through the studio. He actually didn’t tell the studio until the day before.
We’re building relationships with bigger studios too because they know we put on special events and there is a lot of enthusiasm. They also know it’s not common because there are not that many places in the world where it’s a name and a face and a team like we have that can produce these events. They look to us for putting on splash events because we have a history of doing it.
AD: So now we have to ask, how did you transition from Shell Oil to this?
TL: Oh, I was a terrible engineer.
AD: Was it something you were interested in?
TL: No. I fell into it only because in high school I was good at math so if you are good at math you get pushed in a science and engineering direction. By my junior year in college I realized it was definitely not what I wanted to do but I was already too far along and I had already done all the hard classes. I had interned with Shell my freshman and sophomore years of college and they offered me a job so I didn’t do any interviewing; I just went straight to that. I knew taking the job that I was going to look for something else. I just decided to open up a movie theater. There was really no rhyme or reason to it. We opened our first one in Bakersfield.
AD: How did Fantastic Fest come about? What was the inspiration for it?
TL: The inspiration was Harry Knowles and I were both at this festival that was very similar but a lot larger and more deeply established called Sitges—it’s a town south of Barcelona, Spain. It’s a festival with a 5 million dollar budget that does the same kind of programming but much more grandiose. Harry was there as a juror and I just went there on vacation—I just wanted to go to the film festival and hang out. That was our first experience with a festival that was like that and we both said, “Maybe someday we can do something like this.”
AD: There are already a few festivals here in town. Has it been hard for you to develop yours? Is there a competitive vibe?
TL: I don’t think so. We’re off season from SXSW and Matt Dentler, former director of SXSW, was one of our programmers as well. It was this understood thing that if there was something he was going to go after he would go after it and if it wasn’t going to work timing-wise for SXSW he would help us with it. Austin Film Festival doesn’t really do much of this type of programming. Inherently, there is a little bit of competition but we are all friendly with each other–we are open. Nobody shares their list but you spend a lot of time and energy and money developing that. But I can call on the other festivals if we have a question or need their advice. It’s camaraderie. As far as I know.
AD: We asked Matt Dentler this question: is it hard to turn off the criticism of a film and just enjoy it?
TL: Sometimes I can just sit back and enjoy it. I saw the screening of Wall-E and was able to just enjoy it. But the Indiana Jones movie I was picking it apart and not in the mode. I couldn’t sit back, relax, and enjoy that one–I was too busy finding all the little faults. If it’s something I really respond to I’ll get excited while I’m watching it for the first time. So it’s maybe just the movies that aren’t that great that I get nit- picky about.
AD: As such a big film fan, is there ever a conflict between programming for the sake of good business and programming for personal taste?
TL: I don’t have a problem with that. I can’t program 100% to that. We’ve got a big audience. I try and steer it in my direction. For example, we are not opening up the Love Guru because the trailer just made me vomit. It was so bad. But that was more of me saying I think this is going to be so bad it’s probably not going to work. There are some things we program here at the theater very self-indulgently that we know aren’t going to work and we know we’d make more money if we did something else but it’s good. We want to support Baghead for example. There is no way that it is going to gross the potential of the Hulk. We would be better served to do a second print of the Hulk but they have Austin ties and Austin Film Society ties and it’s important to support them.
AD: How do you come up with the film events that you do?
TL: That’s not a clear cut answer. There are a lot of sources of input on that. There are five of us that office here and that’s the programming department and a lot of ideas come from there. We get a lot of ideas from customers as well. We get emails with all sorts of suggestions. Sometimes they are right; sometimes they are wrong. I have employees as well who offer ideas. And then we keep our ears to the ground as to what is going on both in movie theaters and in entertainment in general.
AD: Anything you have learned along the way in developing this festival?
TL: I’ve learned so much about it. The first year we didn’t know anything about how a festival operates—we just did it. That was good. But I’m starting to understand all the components of the festival: what the audience wants to get out of it and then also what the directors want to get out of it. I try really hard in the last two years to make this a really director-friendly festival. So what I’ve tried to do is bring in people that are film buyers and the big companies. They can meet the filmmakers and see the film in the right setting. That’s also where the hospitality comes in: taking them out to BBQ or to shoot guns or whatever. There is a certain amount of the films we show that are associated with some level of distribution whether it’s straight to video or theatrical release. We also understand what they want out of a festival experience which is to get an audience and to get publicity; to get the word out about the films. We are trying to build that more every year. It’s shaping up; it’s going to be a fun year. ***