On the "about" page of the Drafthouse Films site a sentence stands out in large font at the top:
“Destroying the barriers between grindhouse and art-house.”
To the unkeen eye this declaration could easily be thought of as just chest-beating from a wannabe player in the indie film world. But those in the know have learned that this Austin-based company is as authentic and self-driven as the man who heads it.
Tim League is known best to movie lovers in Texas as the creator—along with his wife Karrie—of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. With seven locations in the Lone Star State and numerous others popping up around the country (League says an announcement about the opening date for the location in Yonkers, New York should come soon), the chain has built the reputation as the best moviehouse in the country for its exquisite programming catered to the genre/cult fan, its unique food and drink menu (which multiplexes have been trying to emulate for years) and zero-tolerance towards talking or texting during the movie. Alamo also does the Rolling Roadshow, which screens famous movies at their iconic locations and the Fantastic Fest, touted as the largest genre film festival in the country, programmed by League.
Following League’s brief exit of the company with his wife in 2004, in which they sold all rights to all future Alamo Drafthouse expansion, he returned as CEO in 2010 and extended the brand by launching Drafthouse Films, a distribution company that, like his other endeavors, would be dedicated to championing titles that most distributors find hard to market, or as League puts it, “we only work on films that we love.”
That was evident in the company’s first acquisition, 2010’s dark comedy about wanna-be terrorists, "Four Lions."
After years of frustration seeing films showcased at Fantastic Fest or others he liked either unable to find a distributor or not finding the best home, League’s casual thinking of getting into distribution came to a reality after seeing Christopher Morris’ film at Sundance. “I have all his DVDs and TV stuff, so I went just as a fan to watch it,” League explains. “Then I noticed six months later this movie hadn’t been sold and it was mainly passed on because everyone was afraid of a jihad being called against them. Which I thought was absurd.”
Drafthouse Films did the theatrical release for Four Lions while Magnolia Pictures handled Blu-ray/DVD.
The company would gain respect throughout the industry after their second release, "Bullhead," got nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. “That was a very tense time for us, “ League recalls with a chuckle. “After it got nominated we rushed it out the door to capitalize on the publicity of the nomination so we were trying to do three months of work in three and a half weeks.”
And with a company that only includes a staff of four (including League) you have to learn quickly. “Now I think we’ve gotten into a rhythm of releasing films,” League says.
No longer having to go through the acquisitions troth after everyone else is through it, Drafthouse Films was now considered a reputable outfit. And that only strengthened after they bought eclectic titles like Mikkel Norgaard’s "Klown," Mads Brügger’s "The Ambassador," and Quentin Dupieux’s follow up to "Rubber," "Wrong," within the last few years. But this past Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals led to the acquisition of what League calls the company’s proudest buy so far in its young three year history: "The Act of Killing" (read our review here).
Highly sought after for its unique storytelling of the genocide in Indonesia and gaining doc icons Errol Morris and Werner Herzog to come on as Executive Producers, the film by Joshua Oppenheimer quickly became an attractive buy for any indie distributor.
“At a certain point we were told we weren’t going to get [the film],” says League. “But I was really aggressive. I remember writing back [to the sales agent], ‘This is not acceptable, this is why we have to distribute this film, this is why we’re perfect for this film, you can’t make this mistake.’”
“They just had this undeniable, unmatchable passion and enthusiasm for this film,” Oppenheimer recalls. “They said they would die if we don't get this film. At the end of the day you know people are going to work hard if they're passionate about something and at that point you don't know how it's going to do at the box office, and we didn't have critical consensus yet for the film. We decided these people have an unmatchable passion.”
Drafthouse Films has not slowed since. They were extremely aggressive at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, buying three films including Ari Folman’s follow up to Oscar nominated "Waltz with Bashir," "The Congress," and they have Ben Wheatley’s next film "A Field in England" slated for release later this year. In June it was announced that they would also release this year cult favorite "The Visitor," a late ‘70s sci-fier with a random cast that includes Glenn Ford, John Huston, Shelley Winters and Sam Peckinpah. It’s League’s hope that he can acquire forgotten titles like this at least once or twice a year.
League says this isn’t a clever way to add exclusive titles to his moviehouses, Drafthouse Films is dedicated to getting the most out of what it buys. “To me it’s a non issue that we own theaters,” he says. “In a lot of ways we make all the decisions based on what we think is going to be best for the film. It’s how can we get as many eyeballs as possible.”