Apocalypse or not, Fantastic Fest will be bloody good, Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League says
In a few days, Tim League and his co-conspirators in celluloid will make sure their favorite mobsters and monsters are giant-sized once more, free to terrorize a dedicated fanbase from the safety of darkened rooms. And he hopes that everything goes off without a hitch. But right now, League is in a car driving through the Arkansas country, on his way to a board game convention.
Sounds about right for the guy who started Alamo Drafthouse.
From Sept. 23 through 30, Fantastic Fest, the Austin-based cinema’s signature film festival, is set to return to its in-person form. As ever, it’s dedicated to genre film – that's sci-fi, horror, crime, kung fu, you name it. Last year, with the pandemic raging and no vaccines widely available, the festival scaled back to a celebration of mostly virtual screenings, with a couple of in-person shows at Drafthouse, which then had just reopened after shutting down in March 2020.
This summer rolled around, and the delta variant of the coronavirus “became more of a situation,” League tells the American-Statesman over the phone mid-road trip. “We looked at what we could do to improve the safety of the festival.”
So, this year’s Fantastic Fest (the 16th edition) still won’t look exactly like the salad days, when crowds of movie nerds packed the lobby of Drafthouse’s South Lamar location, waiting to wander into some sick, twisted or otherwise bonkers slice of the silver screen.
The fest has ditched badges, opting to sell individual, reserved-seating tickets to shows (a move that caused some social media rumbles from fans). They also split up screenings across multiple Drafthouse locations in town to alleviate crowding.
And like film festivals are used to at this point, they also kept a virtual option this year, dubbed FF@Home.
“We made a decision last year that having some sort of virtual component is going to be always a part of our future at Fantastic Fest,” League says. Over the fest’s history, some attendees have made pilgrimages to Austin, but they can’t come every year, and thanks to 2020, the fest discovered that there’s a global community willing to tune in from as far as Asia and Europe. Last year, the company launched its own streaming platform, Alamo On Demand, giving Fantastic Fest the infrastructure for FF@Home.
It was challenging to pivot — a word everyone in the Austin entertainment industry is probably sick of — yet again, League says.
“The idea was to always try to do the right thing and to create something that is safe and appropriate for our times,” he says.
Delaying the festival was nixed, League says: “I think the factor that was most important was, there’s so many world-premiere films (and) first-time filmmakers that are coming here to get exposure,” including the opportunity to get their projects in front of film-buyers. League feels, if not happy about how things have turned out, at least “COVID happy,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s as good as we can do, and I think people are still going to have a great experience,” he says.
A post-apocalyptic program
Even if 2021 won’t bring the grand return of the whole weird Fantastic Fest enchilada, League is excited about the film slate.
League used to do a lot of the programming himself, but not so much the past few years. He’s always happy when people say, “Oh, my gosh, this is the best year yet. It’s so much better than four years ago, five years ago, when you did a lot of it.”
Among League’s must-sees at Fantastic Fest: the world premiere of “Nr. 10” from Alex van Warmerdam, a festival alum behind the film 2013 “Borgman” — “I’m gonna take Karrie to that one,” League says of his wife and Drafthouse co-founder — and “Mother Schmuckers” from Belgian brothers Lenny and Harpo Guit.
There also are several repertory films programmed around the release of “Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive,” a new book from Austin cinema experts Lars Nilsen and Kier-La Janisse and published by Mondo, the merchandising arm of Drafthouse.
Fans of kung fu movies will find plenty to love at Fantastic Fest, like Jimmy Wang Yu’s “Master of the Flying Guillotine,” with live commentary by Wu Tang Clan founder RZA, and a never-before-seen 3-D digital restoration of Chang Mei-Chung's 1977 film “Dynasty.” (“Studded with bizarro weapons, the action is spiced up by a super-sophisticated use of 3-D which plops every severed limb in the audience’s lap and gives every running battle extra depth,” reads a description of the film from the Fantastic Fest listings.)
There will be secret screenings, too. Those are usually high-profile upcoming genre films. League, of course, is not spilling the beans, but says the secret screenings are “exciting debuts.”
How to run a movie theater in a pandemic
Fantastic Fest’s online FAQ doesn’t pull any punches: “As you might have noticed, Texas is a bit of a shitshow at the moment.”
In August, organizers announced that they would require proof of vaccination for anyone who wanted to attend the festival. The language was strong: “No vaccine, no Fantastic Fest, no exceptions.”
But then, well, Texas happened. As cultural entities like the Paramount Theatre required proof of vaccination for entry, restrictive state rules forbidding such mandates forced them to adjust. Many events and venues, including Austin City Limits Music Festival, announced they would accept either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test result.
Just weeks after touting their own vaccination requirement, Fantastic Fest on Sept. 2 announced they modified their “public health policy as far as we can within the confines of Texas law." The film festival still “strongly” prefers proof of vaccination, though guests can instead provide a negative test result "from a state-approved test provider taken within 24 hours of each day’s screenings,” according to the festival.
Would League ever consider a similar safety protocol for regular screenings at Drafthouse theaters?
“For sure,” he says. “If the past 18 months has taught us anything, it's to be flexible. ... If I had my druthers, I would like there to be a unified federal mandate,” both in terms of contact tracing vaccination policies.
League adds: “We’re very pro-vaccine and want to be part of any movement that increases the percentage of America that is vaccinated.”
Aside from throwing together a film festival, the pandemic has been harsh on movie theaters. Doors were closed for months last year, and release schedules are all kinds of messed up. Streaming movies, already a looming shadow, have only claimed more territory, with major studios dropping some marquee titles like “Black Widow” and “Mortal Kombat” on their at-home platforms concurrent with cinematic openings. And COVID hospitalization surges and vaccine hesitancy make for hazy skies over the in-person entertainment industry.
The pandemic hit Drafthouse hard. Layoffs came last spring, and the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. (It has since emerged following completion of a sale to an investor group that includes League.) At the same time, Drafthouse announced the closure of its two-screen Ritz location that opened in 2007, leaving the chain without a theater in downtown Austin. The Leagues founded the company in the heart of the city, at a since-shuttered Colorado Street location, in 1997.
There are no plans on the immediate horizon to return to downtown, League says, but it’s a possibility. Operating a two-screen theater was difficult and not what the company excels at anymore, he says; the Ritz closure was a “necessity of Chapter 11.”
Drafthouse is not yet at 2019 attendance levels, but in 2022, “I suspect we’re going to get back to some kind of normalcy,” he says.
League adds, “I’m pretty bullish on the future. I have to believe in a world where people are genuinely comfortable fraternizing with others, being out in public and enjoying shared experiences. That’s just who we are as a society.”
The magical and the odd
League’s belief in the durability of the cinematic experience checks out for someone who’s pumped about screening 1970s kung fu flicks in 3-D. He thinks there’s a pressure on any “out-of-home" business to ensure that customers walk away with a great experience worth their money.
When they do that, cinema is truly magic, League says.
“I cry often when I go to movies — I have a heightened sense of the story and the emotions that I just don’t get when I’m sitting at home on my couch, no matter how big my TV is,” he says. “I don’t want to see it evolve into something that’s not cinema.”
In a rapidly changing city that somehow keeps finding ways to change more rapidly, Fantastic Fest remains “a celebration of odd, weird, wonderful, challenging films that don’t get much play,” League says. He calls it a “distillation of the spirit” of Alamo Drafthouse, and when festival films get picked up by distributors, the theater chain tries to support those titles. The Leagues are still in Austin for a reason, he says: to build up a community that is likeminded when it comes to cinema.
He’s excited for Austinites outside the cult to dip their toes in the water of Fantastic Fest this year, because the ticketed screenings are a la carte for the first time.
We suggest that it might be more like dipping your toe into blood, knowing the fest’s typical film fare.
League laughs: “There's lots of fluids you could dip your toe into.”
If you go
When: Sept. 23-30
Where: Alamo Drafthouse's South Lamar, Mueller and Village locations
Admission: All screenings are individually ticketed, with tickets purchased online,; there are no badges for the in-person festival this year. The digital component of the festival, FF@Home, requires a separate virtual badge.
More information: fantasticfest.com