Among genre cinema buffs and film industry insiders, the name Tim League is usually met with smiles of grateful approval: He’s the guy who made it fun to go to the movies again.
His Alamo Drafthouse chain started as a single theater in downtown Austin in 1997. It is known for both its convivial atmosphere (League’s was one of the first movie houses in the country to embrace the now ubiquitous trend of in-theater food service) and its respect for the experience of communal viewing (a number of disruptive patrons have been ejected over the years, including one woman who was booted out for texting, and whose angry voicemail the chain used in an anti-texting video that was widely circulated over the summer). The Austin flagship theater also hosts influential events, including Fantastic Fest, an annual festival devoted to genre films.
But eyebrows went north when League announced in September 2010 that he was launching his own film distribution company, called Drafthouse Films. Independent film distribution is a notoriously fickle proposition, and many companies have struggled in recent years to capture the attention of viewers unlikely to turn away from their iPads for anything other than special-effects-driven blockbusters.
“My first reaction was that it’s a folly to start a distribution company, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction,” said Dana Harris, the editor in chief of IndieWIRE, an online publication that covers the independent film industry.
Consider the fate of other specialty distributors: Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse both went under in 2008, and Apparition closed its doors in 2010, after a little more than a year in business, despite releasing high-profile films like Jane Campion’s Bright Star.
The industry as a whole has not done much better. According to the website BoxOfficeMojo.com, total theatrical revenues for limited releases in 2010 totaled $288 million, a far cry from a peak of roughly $481 million in 2002.
So why does a forward-looking businessmanthink he can make it work? “Through our efforts with Fantastic Fest, we saw a lot of films that came through our pipeline that weren’t getting any offers at all, particularly foreign films,” League said in an interview earlier this month. “We thought we could promote them through the theater chain, and we are also very bullish on new technologies and the way people are watching movies now.”
The company distributed its first release, Four Lions, a British film about a team of hapless terrorists trying to plan a suicide bombing, in partnership with the more established Magnolia Pictures. League, who said the release was something of an experiment for the company, joined the film’s director, Chris Morris, on a multicity promotional tour last fall. And while Four Lions only grossed $304,000 in North America, it received strong reviews, and League said it earned a modest profit.
Morris said in an email that he found working with the neophyte distributor highly gratifying. “I doubt another distributor would have sent the guy in charge on the promo tour to drive and carry bags,” he said, adding, “Without an attitude that favors the unusual, decent films in the U.S. would disappear.”
Although Drafthouse Films didn’t release any films in 2011, League and his team spent the year building a modest release inventory for 2012, including Klown, a Danish comedy about a canoe trip gone awry, and The FP, an action-comedy pastiche of cult fare like The Warriors and Escape From New York that had its world premiere at this year’s South by Southwest film festival. (League said Drafthouse Films would also re-issue six repertory titles next year, either theatrically or on DVD, or both).
The highest-profile acquisition is Bullhead, an unsettling crime drama set in the illegal market for cattle steroids. The film is Belgium’s submission for an Academy Award for this year’s best foreign-language film. Aware that a nomination could help put his company on the map, League has hired a Los Angeles-based publicist for the film and is taking out industry trade ads and setting up screenings for awards voters. (League declined to specify how much the company is willing to pay to acquire a new title but acknowledged that it can’t compete with “mini-majors” like Fox Searchlight Pictures or Focus Features.)
With only one release under its belt, it remains unclear whether Drafthouse Films can grow. And considering that the distribution wing is being financed entirely from within the privately held company, it might easily turn out to be League’s Waterloo. But film industry observers, who tend to root for the avuncular, press-friendly cinephile, are cautiously optimistic.
“He’s proven he has a certain level of understanding and vision and taste,” Harris said. “Is this going to work? Beats the hell out of me. But it’s a reasonable, logical move for the franchise Tim League has created.”
For his part, League—who also expects to significantly expand the Alamo Drafthouse chain in the next few years—doesn’t regard himself as a savior for a struggling industry. But by exploiting a loyal following that reaches far beyond Austin and by embracing video-on-demand and alternate revenue streams, he remains confident he’ll be able to turn a profit. If nothing else, he’ll have the opportunity to do what he’s been doing for many years: bringing the films he adores to the attention of others. And, hopefully, making a buck.