Revenge of the Nerds

From their basements they emerge to invade Texas every year! They wear hoodies! Scraggly beards! Converse sneakers! Gore junkies! Horror aficionados! Fantasy freaks! Your fate is in their hands! How a small group of fanboys and one supremely geeky Austin film festival determine what America sees at the multiplex.
Revenge of the Nerds
One of the theaters at the Alamo Drafthouse just after a Fantastic Fest screening.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Night of the Living Nerd

It is Friday night, movie night in America, the night when Hollywood fortunes will be made or lost, and at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, in Austin, the fifth annual Fantastic Fest has taken over three of the theater’s six screens. A film festival devoted to fantasy, horror, and genre pictures, Fantastic Fest has quickly established itself as a wildly popular event in a city with no shortage of wildly popular film-related events: VIP all-access badges to the festival, which went on sale a year earlier, sold out in only eight minutes. At the far end of the lobby is a red carpet, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet in length. Just beyond the red carpet is a large green and white backdrop displaying the event’s official logo. A handsome, muscular young man is conducting on-camera interviews with filmmakers and actors. It is a familiar sight, one you might encounter at any of the hundreds of film festivals that have sprung up around the world in recent decades.

Except that the stars being interviewed are two Japanese men wearing sumo wrestling diapers, one bald and bespectacled, the other short and round, a surrealist’s re-imagining of Laurel and Hardy. They are accompanied by two waifish Japanese women wearing tall black boots and shiny leather bikinis, holding a whip and a sword, respectively. There are strange phallic objects protruding from where the nipples should be on their bikini tops.

These are members of the cast and crew of the night’s featured attraction, a blood-soaked fantasy called Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl . They smile and pose for the cameras. With the help of an interpreter, they answer the interviewer’s questions. But whereas, say, Ryan Seacrest or Giuliana Rancic might conclude an interview by politely thanking the artists for their time, this journalist takes a more participatory approach. He gets down on all fours. He invites the actresses to strike a provocative pose on either side of him. He asks his cameraman to snap a photo as a keepsake.

Welcome to the most important film festival in America.

A few minutes later, inside the crowded theater where Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is set to unspool, another man in a sumo diaper appears at the front of the auditorium. His name is Mark Walkow, a co-director of the New York Asian Film Festival and one of this festival’s part-time programmers. He asks Tim League, the director of Fantastic Fest, to join him in introducing the filmmakers. League, who founded the Alamo Drafthouse with his wife, Karrie, is in his late thirties, with a graying buzz cut and an endearingly crooked smile. He’s also wearing pants. Presumably, he will lend a bit of institutional gravitas to these proceedings.

But then Walkow demands that League drop his trousers—and League readily obliges. He too is sporting a sumo diaper. He spins around and gleefully moons the audience. At the sight of his milky-white and not-entirely-gym-toned buttocks, the crowd roars its approval.

Did I mention this is the most important film festival in America?

A curious thing happened at the multiplex over the past decade and a half: A new wave of filmmakers—and a legion of unabashedly geeky film fans—turned our notions of entertainment upside down. The seeds of this movement were planted in the early nineties, when a handful of directors, among them Robert Rodriguez ( El Mariachi ), Guillermo del Toro ( Cronos), and Quentin Tarantino ( Pulp Fiction ), wedded their most juvenile obsessions (sex, violence, goo-slathered bugs) to an elastic and bracing filmmaking technique. Soon an entire generation of VHS babies—young men raised on a steady diet of iconic slasher pictures ( A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween ), trashy T&A comedies ( Porky’s, Zapped ), and dorky kids’ adventures ( Explorers, The Goonies )—was following suit (see Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, to name but a few).

The weapon of choice for this cinematic revolution? The computer. With evolving digital technology making it possible to conjure up pretty much anything, filmmakers began tackling ever more fantastical material. Meanwhile, the Internet—with its blogs, chat rooms, and comment boards—was giving voice to a previously marginalized subspecies of moviegoer. Suddenly even the dorkiest twentysomething living in his parents’ basement could make his opinions known to studio executives. And what this overlooked demographic wanted most was to see its childhood diversions, from Star Wars to Spider-Man to Indiana Jones, resurrected and reconfigured.

Before long, the lines between high art and genre trash began to blur—and then collapse altogether. At the multiplex, curious hybrids appeared, like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a chop-socky adventure with the austerity of art-house drama, or Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001—2003), an obsessively detailed cult object with the burnish of an old-fashioned epic. As more and more nerd-oriented movies—Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007)—proved outrageously successful, the Hollywood studios altered long-practiced marketing strategies. Jackson’s King Kong remake and the teen vampire sensation Twilight, for example, were first promoted at Comic-Con, a decades-old annual convention in San Diego devoted to comic books, graphic novels, and all things superhero. By 2009, it was impossible to determine where the mainstream ended and the fanboy took over. District 9, a low-budget sci-fi thriller, was being talked up as a potential Best Picture Oscar nominee. Classic literary material like Sherlock Holmes was being reimagined as fists-first action-comedy.

And while Fantastic Fest certainly didn’t give birth to all this nerdiness, the biggest nerds of Austin—Tim League and his main collaborator on the festival, Harry Knowles—have long been at the center of the cultural tidal shift. With the Alamo, League built a cinematic temple where nerd filmmakers could be worshipped. With the Web site Ain’t It Cool News , a compendium of Hollywood gossip, news, and extremely personal movie reviews, Knowles aggressively fanned the flames of hype

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