THE PROGRAMMERS: Tim League (Fantastic Fest)

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Twitch is proud to present the second entry in our current ongoing interview series. Titled The Programmers we'll be spending the next several weeks putting a series of questions to the people who decide what films make it - and what films don't - into the film festival world. From regional, highly specialized festivals up to the biggest of the big, we're putting the same batch of questions to everyone in the hopes that it'll give you something of a picture of how the festival world works as well as a portrait of the people who drive it. Over the coming weeks programmers from Fantastic Fest, The Toronto International Film Festival, The Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance, The New York Asian Film Festival, Fantasia, and Cannes will all be chiming in. Today it's time for Tim League, co-founder of Austin's Fantastic Fest.

First, can you tell us your name and what festival(s) you work for.

Tim League, Fantastic Fest. September 23-30.

What was the moment when you realized that film was something that you wanted to do - and actually could do - for a living?

Out of college I was a Mechanical Engineer for Shell Oil.  I made the decision to become an engineer when I was a senior in High School and not until my junior year of college did I realize that I had made a catastrophic mistake.  As soon as I hired on to Shell, I knew that I didn't want to retire from this job and was casually thinking about an exit strategy.  On my way to work was an abandoned movie theater, a single screen relic from the 1940s.  A "For Lease" sign appeared on the marquee and a week later I signed the lease. 

At the time, I had no experience in business of any kind, let alone theatrical exhibition.  We made it up along the way and programming our various theaters eventually led me to the path to start our own film festival.
 
How long have you been involved programming for festivals? How did you get involved?

I only got involved after starting my own festival.  I had not done any festival programming at that point, but I had been programming my own cinemas since 1995.  The programming of Fantastic Fest was an extension of what we had been doing at the Alamo Drafthouse for years, so it wasn't a drastic leap. 

One pivotal moment for me and the festival was back in 2002.  I was on vacation at the Sitges Film Festival. Vacationing at Film Festivals is a sure sign that you are perhaps movie obsessed.  Sitges was the first exclusively genre film festival I had ever attended and it blew my mind.  My partner in crime Harry Knowles was on the jury at Sitges that year too, and he and I vowed to someday to bring something like Sitges to our corner of the world.

On average how many films do you see per year? How many festival slots do you have to fill? How long does the selection process take?

We fill 70 feature slots and about 50 short film slots.  We start the cycle the week after Fantastic Fest ends.  I probably watch about 400 features a year, with little spikes at the Cannes Market and Berlin market where I watch about 50 a week.  My wife Karrie does a lot of the screener review too, and she watches an additional 400 or so features. 
 
Do you make a living on your festival work or do you have to supplement your income in other ways?

Ha.  No way.  The festival probably makes a little bit of money each year, but that's not really accounting for any of my travel expenses or time.  We may eventually grow to be profitable including all of those costs, but I rely on my income from running the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to pay the bills and put food on the table.  If you go into the festival business hoping to get rich from the festival itself, you are sorely misguided.  That said, I love the work, I love the festival and always want to be involved in this world.

What do you see the role of a film festival within the overall film industry? How has it changed in the past five years?

I see us as having 4 roles...
1) Providing an amazing experience for the festival attendees.  The festival is primarily built and programmed for the audience to have the time of their lives
2) Provide networking, publicity and distribution opportunities for emerging filmmakers. 
3) Provide publicity for both indie and big studio films prior to their theatrical, VOD or DVD releases
4) Provide an environment for buyers to pick up new genre films

All of these aspects work together.  I'm not sure anything has changed dramatically in the past 5 years.  Some festivals only concentrate on the first role, which is fine, but I see Fantastic Fest as a playing a part in the complex web of sales, publicity and production.

What are the most common mistakes people make when sending you a film to consider? What are your pet peeves about the process?

1) We are a genre film festival.  Don't send us a film that has nothing to do with fantasy, horror or science fiction
2) Please do not be overly persistent.  A nice letter with the submission is fine, and one follow-up email is OK, but beyond that a filmmaker can cross the line to being annoying.  We get thousands of submissions and if everyone called and repeatedly emailed we would never have time to watch films.
3) Is your film good enough?  Before anyone starts submitting a film to festivals, they should arrange for public screenings with an audience of strangers.  Watch those screenings and see what the reaction is.  Some first-time filmmakers are too close to the film to see the flaws clearly.  There's nothing like an audience of strangers to amplify any problems your film may have. 
 
Hypothetically speaking - because people ask this question all the time - You've seen film X, you love film X, but you're not showing film X in your festival. Why not?

Sometimes we don't get approved to show the films we love.  There are lots of other film festivals around the globe and sometimes the sales agent, producer or director just simply opts to go in another direction.  We always see way more than 70 films in a given year that we really like. 

Towards the end of the programming, I usually analyze the makeup of the festival.  Is there too much horror?  Are there too many slow-paced films?  I owe it to my audience to not get too lopsided in one direction, so many times we pass on playing something we really like when there are too many similarly-styled films. 

The last decision is one of premiere status.  We don't refuse a film if we don't get the world or US premiere, but if the film has played in Texas before, we generally don't consider it, or at least that is a strike against it competing at Fantastic Fest.
 
What guidelines do you follow when selecting films? I don't just mean the rules laid down by the festival you work for, but what are your personal criteria?

The film can have crap effects and production values, but it must have a great story.  We program a large number of horror films, for example, but pass on a LOT of high profile projects because they are telling the same story over and over again.  That just bores me.  I look for amazing stories and characters that just happen to be constructed into horror, science fiction and fantasy backdrops.

If people are to remember your programming work for only one film, what would you want that film to be? What is your proudest discovery as a programmer?

I was really proud of world premiering DOWN TERRACE last  year.  It won the Next Wave grand prize and also was picked up for distribution by Magnolia.  My all-time favorite still remains TIMECRIMES (thank you again Todd Brown for bringing that film to our attention).  Not only did the film sweep awards, I've maintained a close friendship with the incredible Nacho Vigalondo ever since.  Nacho will be back at Fantastic Fest this year as a member of the jury.  He hasn't missed a year yet since the debut of TIMECRIMES in 2007.

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