Where Geeks Rule and Chaos Reigns: Inside Fantastic Fest

Movies Features Fantastic Fest
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It’s after midnight inside a hot and muggy boxing gym in Austin, Texas, and the hundred or so people surrounding the ring are thirsty for blood. Inside the squared circle, Tim League gets last-second instructions while putting his gloves and headgear on. With the evening’s MC hyping the crowd into a frenzy, League turns to face his opponent, a filmmaker half his age who has a reputation for being as gruff as the movies he makes. The bell sounds. The fists fly.

League soon hits the canvas following a wicked combination of punches. He falls a second time after a strong left. Soon after, another flurry of punches drops him for a third time. Thank God the fight is only for two rounds! Though it’s not looking good, League keeps getting up, landing some hard shots to the glory of the crowd.

“Kick his ass, Tim!” one gentleman clutching a Shiner beer exclaims.

“We believe in you, Tim!” the woman next to me at ringside shouts while he’s by our corner for a standing-eight count.

Believe it or not, this is the fun part of League’s job. The guy behind one of the most popular theater chains in the country and who heads a genre-pushing, multi-Oscar-nominated distribution company likes to be pummeled in front of a raucous crowd. This is Fantastic Fest. Though many in the film world spout Cannes or Sundance as the best places for cinema, for ten years, nerds, fanboys and social outcasts from around the globe have come here to geek out in an alcohol-fueled, karaoke-driven environment safe from normal folk.

If you have an unquenchable thirst for the extremely skewed side of genre movies that include Nazi zombies, rapping Japanese gangs, a human walrus, sexually transmitted ghosts and documentaries on obscure topics like the disastrous making of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Marlon Brando or the fall of ’80s B-movie company Cannon Films, then showing up in Austin for eight days at the end of September is your oasis. League and Ain’t It Cool News creator Harry Knowles created Fantastic Fest in 2005, and thanks to top-notch programming along with evening antics like “Fantastic Debates” (the boxing matches), “Fantastic Feud,” “Nerd Rap Throwdown” and “Karaoke Apocalypse,” this isn’t just the largest genre festival in the country but the hottest ticket for any geek.

Fantastic Fest would not be possible if it weren’t for League’s creation of the Alamo Drafthouse. For those who still love sitting in a dark room with strangers staring at the glow of a large wall-to-wall screen, you’ve likely heard of the chain and are envious of anyone who lives near one. Entertainment Weekly once called it, “the best theater in America,” because basically they’ve mushed together dinner-and-a-movie with drive-in culture to create an experience that has revolutionized the way we go to the movies. A long table goes across the front of every row of seats, allowing you the option to order food or beverages—including alcohol—throughout your moviegoing experience. This is where Fantastic Fest is held. Specifically, the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, which houses nine theaters, two bars, an Arcade and seven karaoke rooms that range from one that looks something out of The Twilight Zone to another that resembles the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.

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To survive this festival, you must enjoy drinking, operate on only two-to-three hours of sleep and love genre films. For attendees here, watching the latest Keanu Reeves action film followed by a foreign film about a family who must take stock in their relationship after surviving an avalanche is the ultimate double bill.

“The thing about this festival is if you’re into loud music and drinking, that’s good for this group,” says Austin resident Ellen Carrie, who along with husband Ian has attended Fantastic Fest the last five years and has been coming to the Alamo Drafthouse for 17. “I’m more into watching movies and talking and debating. But that’s what’s great, people are thinking about things here and also being goofy.”

There’s a lot of goofy, enabled by League, their fearless leader. Though his antics at the festival are legendary to veteran attendees, when I met him the day I landed in Austin, things didn’t fit. He’s quiet, reserved and fidgety. He won’t look you in the eyes and has a nervous giggle. This is the guy who once pissed himself in public to promote one of the Drafthouse Films movies? But when he finally looks at me, he gives this side-eye that tells you there’s more to him than what he’s showing.

“He’s not a CEO in a traditional sense,” says Elijah Wood, who first went to the Alamo Drafthouse in 1998 when he was shooting The Faculty and has been coming regularly ever since. In fact, his last two films, Grand Piano and Open Windows—the latter of which he’s in town for as it’s playing at this year’s festival—came about because he met the filmmakers previously at the fest. “He now runs a major company, but yet he’s here with everyone all the time. He’s like P.T. Barnum.”

Though it’s his tenacity and savvy that has made his theaters the envy of the glutinous multiplex chains that can’t keep their heads above water, it’s the deranged Pied Piper in him that makes Fantastic Fest so gonzo.

No better image epitomizes that than this year’s opening night party where, dressed in a two-piece floral outfit, League lead a conga line to the parking lot where everyone was invited to put on plastic one-pieces and have a giant food fight. Then, later in the fest when they had their annual Fantastic Feud, a Family Feud-style movie trivia game made up of attending filmmakers and celebrities within the Alamo Drafthouse universe that pits “Team America” versus “Team International,” the crowd went berserk when an audience member went against the unspoken rule of only giving points for Team America during an audience participation portion. This led to boos, food throwing and League in a fit of playful rage jumping out of his chair and climbing over six rows of people to berate the person.

“We’re not reckless,” League tells me the first day of the festival when I ask him if any idea for the festival goes too far. “We would never do anything that would risk bodily harm.” Perhaps League doesn’t include himself in that statement.

The festival’s pinnacle of madness is Fantastic Debates. This year, four bouts took place where the pair of fighters for each first stand in the center of the ring at podiums to debate an issue (e.g.: “RESOLVED: The Samurai is Infinitely More Badass than the Cowboy”) and then have a two-round brawl. Audience reaction decides the winner. In the past, League has been roughed up by Uwe Boll and Michelle Rodriguez, and last year, Keanu Reeves faced League in the verbal portion then unleashed Tiger Chen, the star of his movie Man of Tai Chi, for the fighting.

“I don’t think he was properly prepped for what this was,” League says looking back. By the end of the fight with Chen, League was sporting a bloody nose.

This year, he took on indie horror filmmaker Ti West, whose main hobby is MMA fighting. “My wife is a little bit nervous,” League told me. It wasn’t a pretty sight, though as per Fantastic Debate rules: “the boss always wins.”

But according to League, he had higher goals for this year’s Fantastic Debates. With Daniel Radcliffe’s Horns showing at the festival, he was hoping to have Wood, who participated in the debates a few years back when he fought fellow Lord of the Rings mate Dominic Monaghan, against Radcliffe. Radcliffe didn’t come to the fest, but the reply from his camp regarding the bout was swift. “They said ‘Hell, no,’” according to League.

I ask Wood if he’d be game for Frodo vs. Harry Potter. With a playful giggle he answers: “It might happen one year—you never know.”

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When you peel away the karaoke, the afternoon field trips to gun ranges and the evening antics, what brings people back every year is the sense of community. Interacting with other people who for most of the year feel like outcasts in the social structure. Like the Carries, Kristen from Seattle and her boyfriend have been attending the festival for the last five years. She says this is their yearly vacation, and it has evolved from not only seeing lots of movies, but to catching up with friends they’ve made here over the years. “It’s just great to have a community of like-minded people to talk to after you get out of the theater,” she tells me while sitting under a leaf-designed umbrella that shields her from the hot Texas sun.

The stories of how attendees embed this event into their daily lives are impressive. One guy told me he plans with his wife long in advance for her to stay home with the kids so he can fully immerse himself in the festival. One year, a journalist proposed to his wife here; they’ve returned every year since to celebrate it. A young girl named Maddy pays the bills working as an administrator for an acrobatics company, but for the past few years has made sure she has enough time off so she can volunteer at the fest. When I met her, she’s driving the shuttle that brings guest to the theater. “I just love meeting new people,” she tells me during our drive, during which we discuss topics ranging from her time working as a wench at the Renaissance Fair to recently turning single. “My boyfriend and I didn’t go out much, so I think I’m making up for lost time.”

That kind of dedication is what makes some studios intrigued to show certain types of films here instead of at the more known festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival, that happens just before Fantastic Fest, or the New York Film Festival, which starts up right after. John Wick, coming out later this year and starring Keanu Reeves as a revenge-seeking mercenary, had its world premiere here this year, and the reaction was greater than expected. Twitter went wild following the premiere screening as attendees overwhelmingly sent out 140 characters-worth of praise highlighting the most outlandish moments. It’s the social media spike from the evening that festival organizers say has made the studio confident for its release. And with an attendance that hit an all-time high this year at 1,650—many of them bloggers or having a large presence on the Twittersphere—it’s the kind of marketing a studio dreams of.

But ten years in, League is aware that what makes Fantastic Fest great is its intimacy. “Our sights are not to make this the ComicCon of genre festivals,” he says. “It’s our goal to make this the best week of everybody’s year, but frankly, we’re stretching it this year. The idea of keeping it contained to this size is really important to the identity of it.”

In a town where the motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” Fantastic Fest has become an ambassador of the liberal free spirit in this region surrounded by staunch conservatives. And it’s hard to find anybody who isn’t having a good time.

Catching the early morning movie on my last day before flying back home, I walk back to my hotel with the hot sun directly in my eyes. As most in Austin are heading to work, there’s a scattered line of folks headed toward me. Badges around their necks. Anticipation on their faces. As I get closer, I see toward the back a greenish umbrella above the heads. It’s Kristen and her boyfriend, likely discussing their viewing schedule for the day. We lock eyes. We give a nod as we pass. I’m heading back to the real world; they get to have fun for one more day.

Jason Guerrasio is a New York-based film journalist. He writes for VanityFair.com, Esquire.com, RollingStone.com, The Dissolve and BlackBook, among others. Follow him on Twitter.