On the first night of Fantastic Fest, about two dozen press and industry attendees, all of them female and/or non-binary, huddled inside an Airbnb in Austin to do some urgent soul-searching. The fest’s famously rowdy screenings and parties getting underway all around town could wait.
They gathered to speak candidly about the enormously complex issue tormenting this community, a loosely defined but close-knit circle of critics, bloggers, filmmakers, publicists, programmers and independent cinemas. For them, the genre film-focused Fantastic Fest had been an annual rite. Now it was in crisis.
They’d been battered by waves of nauseating news: Accusations of sexual assault, harassment, power-dynamic abuses, quiet cover-ups, old hurts uncovered by women speaking out. It was enough to make some choose not to come.
For those who did, there was too much happening to process alone. They gathered to hear what others had to say, about the onslaught of terrible revelations, about what needed to change to move forward. There were jokes and pleasantries, but also tears and commiseration and impassioned discussions.
“That was the most important thing to me, to be there,” said ScreenCrush editor Britt Hayes. “I felt like it was productive, and what I hoped get out of it was I wanted to listen to women who are approaching this and coming at it from their own collection of life experiences, from different angles from mine.”
Organizers Katie Rife and April Wolfe maintained that all discussions at the informal forum (unaffiliated with Fantastic Fest) be kept offline — all involved agreed that what was discussed would stay in the room. Rife would tell me only that “in the broadest outline, we talked about what happened and what we want to change.”
After having these convos in person at FF, I’m gonna say they’re not being held on social media yet cuz SM can’t convey nuance.
— April Wolfe (@AWolfeful) September 23, 2017
Another attendee, Pajiba editor Kristy Puchko, told me that “the conversations flowed really naturally,” which is rarely the case when professional acquaintances are discussing topics like sexual harassment and assault.
It was an unusual move for a community that’s connected more through the digital sphere than the physical one. For this community, Twitter is the public square. It’s where friendships are forged, networks are built, work is shared and discussed.
Which meant that to people watching from outside Austin, attendees’ reticence to share what was happening on the ground at Fantastic Fest seemed suspect, to say the least.
“I think the thing that isn’t translating to social media is that we’re not ignoring it,” said Rife. But, she told me, “they’re long, complex conversations, and I don’t know how to really distill it down to tweets all the time.”
A ‘church’ desecrated
It had been a rough few weeks.
A year earlier, Devin Faraci – a prominent but controversial figure as editor-in-chief of Birth.Movies.Death – was accused on Twitter of a sexual assault that happened years before but was never reported. Though no charges were filed, Faraci didn’t deny the woman’s allegation and stepped down, keeping a mostly low profile.
Then, on Sept. 11, just 10 days before Fantastic Fest, his byline was spotted in festival program blurbs.
To understand why this garnered so much heartbreak and outrage, you need to understand that both Fantastic Fest and Birth.Movies.Death are part of a sprawling empire run by Tim League, which also includes the Alamo Drafthouse, the movie poster retailer Mondo, and the Drafthouse Releasing and Neon distribution labels.
Collectively, League’s is a brand built on a reputation for being, well, cool; of having impeccable taste in genre movies, a bit of an outsider’s mentality and — and this is a big one — progressive politics. This was the same company that hosted women-only screenings of Wonder Woman in the face of backlash and legal challenges, and a big part of Faraci’s Twitter persona was standing up for women.
What had once seemed like a cinephile utopia now looked like any other shitty company more worried about looking good than doing good.
“For a lot of people, in the film community, theaters are like churches, and the Alamo had become a cathedral,” said Puchko. “It had become a sacred space where we could go together and enjoy cinema the way we felt that it was intended.”
League had spent years fostering a real sense of community around the Drafthouse, and around Fantastic Fest in particular. As Neil Miller, the Austin-based editor of Film School Rejects, put it in an email, “Longtime attendees of Fantastic Fest feel a familial bond with other attendees and most especially the Leagues [Tim and his wife Karrie].”
So when it was revealed that League had accepted Faraci’s resignation last year, only to quietly re-hire him in a slightly different capacity when no one seemed to be looking — well, that illusion was shattered. What had once seemed like a cinephile utopia now looked like any other shitty company more worried about looking good than doing good.
The backlash was immediate and harsh. Faraci tendered his second resignation to League two days after the news officially got out (or so League claimed; I’ve heard more than a few people joke bitterly that there’s no reason to trust League this time.) But it was too late to save League from the fallout.
For the first time in 11 years I will not be attending Fantastic Fest. This breaks my damn heart but I’ve made my decision. Damn it.
— Scare Eek Worms-Borg (@scottEweinberg) September 14, 2017
Todd Brown, a Fantastic Fest programmer, resigned in protest; he followed another programmer who’d quit months earlier over the same issue. Fox Searchlight pulled one of its films, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, from the festival lineup. Some high-profile members of the community, including Scott Weinberg, cancelled plans to attend; other writers, including Mike Ryan, and Glenn Kenny, called for boycotts of the Drafthouse.
Same Fantastic Fest, new dark cloud
Still, the show must go on. So, on Sept. 21, Fantastic Fest got underway as scheduled.
Right away, the mood felt different at the fest known for its over-the-top screening stunts and spirited “debates” that devolve into amateur boxing matches.
“There’s kind of a sense that maybe some innocence has been lost,” said Rife.
Before, there was a sense that the Fantastic Fest was a world away from reality, a place where booze and bawdy behavior and gnarly movies could be enjoyed without worry.
“Now it’s clear that that’s not true,” she added, “and that all of the systemic problems that are in the rest of the world are in the Alamo and Fantastic Fest, too.”
To hear Rife and others tell it, that unofficial women’s forum was the first of many, many difficult talks taking place all week, all over the festival. “It’s the number one topic of conversation at the festival this week,” said Miller. “And there’s been a lot of positive movement. Fans coming together, speaking openly and honestly about the environment and how we can make it more inclusive and safe for everyone.”
But those heart-to-hearts were being had off Twitter for a reason, Miller said.
“I’ve had many a fellow attendee tell me that they’ve stopped checking Twitter during the fest. Not because they want to disengage with the problem or ignore the valid concerns being raised there, but because the discourse on Twitter has become so extreme that it’s hard to have much of a discussion.”
Those outside Austin were watching on social media, and many were frustrated by what they perceived as an unwillingness to discuss the community’s big issues. And it wasn’t just League’s quiet re-hiring of Faraci. As the scandal continued to develop, multiple women came forward claiming that they’d confronted League about instances of sexual harassment and assault (some involving Faraci, some not) — only for the Leagues to try and sweep them under the rug.
FWIW telling people who are/have been affected by this the only way to talk abt this is to out yourself/go to an uncomfortable situation 1/
— Monica Castillo (@mcastimovies) September 23, 2017
isn’t the way to go either. And there are plenty of folks out on Twitter who want to see/be a part of this conversation.
— Monica Castillo (@mcastimovies) September 23, 2017
Many attendees I spoke with expressed tentative optimism that things were changing for the better. League opted to sit out the festival, and instead spent that time traveling to other Drafthouse locations across the country to speak with staff members to figure out a way forward.
At the same time, other members of the Fantastic Fest team were engaging on the ground in Austin.
“Every day of the festival, I’ve seen [executive director] Kristen Bell in the lobby, talking to different groups of people,” said Miller. “She’s been here and available and as she stated in her opening night remarks, open to listening to the people who matter most: the attendees.”
That isn’t to say everyone felt heard, as former Drafthouse employee Jill Lewis outlined in a Facebook post (quoted here with her permission). She said she’d tried to start a conversation with a member of the festival staff after a film …
… and was immediately silenced … saying they “absolutely will not talk about that.” I walked to my car, feeling really weird about it, and returned to confront the situation and have an actual conversation. Twice more, I was brushed off, walked away from, and not allowed to speak about these things.
More uncool news: The problem gets worse
Just as Fantastic Fest got underway, more dark clouds gathered: Ain’t It Cool News dropped out as a sponsor at the last minute. Harry Knowles, founder of the film fan site, co-founder of Fantastic Fest and another influential member of the film community, explained that the reason was “rumors”— as Knowles put it — about his own past.
Over the first weekend of the festival, details began to emerge. Indiewire published an account from Jasmine Baker, a regular Drafthouse patron, in which she accused Knowles of groping her on multiple occasions. When she told the Leagues what had happened, she said, they suggested she “just avoid him.”
That report sparked a whole new round of consequences, this time falling most heavily on Knowles.
In the days that followed, more women came forward with stories of being assaulted or harassed by Knowles over the years. Several AICN writers resigned in response, and Knowles was ousted from the Austin Film Critics Association.
But the vote to remove him was not unanimous.
One of the women who shared her story publicly was Britt Hayes, another member of the Austin Film Critics Association. The mixed vote was “depressing,” she told me.
According to Hayes, some of the voters “didn’t feel comfortable” treating the allegations about Knowles as more than rumors — this despite the fact that some were made by one of their own. Hayes was upset enough to send her colleagues an email expressing her hurt.
“I cried about it. It was the first time I really broke down at all in the past couple weeks,” she told me. “It’s really deeply painful to learn that these people you share a group with, that’s supposed to be rooted in a mutual respect for the profession and for each other, to learn that they basically don’t respect you. I mean, that’s basically the message that I felt like I was being sent. That’s not entirely the case. But it felt that way in that moment. And that was really, really hard.”
The Drafthouse finally responds
The same day the AFCA announced their decision to drop Knowles, the Drafthouse finally issued an official statement. At that point, five days had passed since the start of the festival, and over two weeks since Faraci’s re-hiring went public.
“I’ve been reflecting on twenty years of decisions as a business owner,” League wrote. “In the early days, Karrie and I conferred on all tough decisions, and we always tried to do the right thing. … Recent perspective has made it clear that we didn’t always do the right thing, despite what we thought were good intentions. To the women we have let down, Karrie and I both sincerely apologize.”
It went on to outline League’s plans to “ensuring that we create a safe, inclusive environment for our staff at both the theater and the festival as well as the community at large.”
According to multiple sources I spoke with, the Drafthouse was reluctant to release a statement too early in the festival, lest they overshadow the films and filmmakers. But for some, the words were too little, too late.
“That’s a statement you put out 24 hours after this news breaks,” said Rebecca Pahle, a Brooklyn-based Pajiba editor who did not attend. At that point, she continued, “you need to do something extra or you need to have a concrete action to show that you’re taking some responsibility for the role that you play in this. I’m not seeing that. They fucked up, and I need to see an admission that they fucked up.”
Pahle added that while she hadn’t made a “conscious decision” to boycott the Drafthouse, “I’m not comfortable giving my money to an organization where I know that they are knowingly covering up an abuser and they’ve done it for years, that they’re not taking responsibility for it.”
Clare McBride, another longtime Drafthouse patron who’s decided to boycott, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Tim League needs to step down,” she said in an email. “He aided and hid this behavior for years, and I can’t trust him anymore. I need new leadership and a plan of action that garners results. After I see results, then I will reconsider my boycott.”
Others, however, are more optimistic that the Drafthouse is moving toward real change — or at least more willing to be patient while the company figures out its next move.
“I’m taking a very wait-and-see kind of attitude,” said Rife. At the time of our conversation, she’d made plans to meet with Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest staff to discuss concrete changes that the company could make.
So much bigger than the Alamo
But while establishing changes at the Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest might solve that company’s problem, Rife — and just about everyone else I spoke with — stressed that the issue isn’t limited to one particular individual, company, city, or event. It spans outward to touch every single corner of the film community.
the film industry won’t be “good for women” until y’all make some compassionate boundaries about what kinds of behavior is acceptable
— INVISIGOTH (@spacecrone) September 14, 2017
Indeed, just weeks before the Fantastic Fest scandal broke, Cinefamily, a beloved indie film venue in Los Angeles, had been mired in a separate sexual harassment scandal. In that case, two top employees resigned and all activities at the establishment were suspended.
“I get worried that people are going to think it’s just an Alamo thing, and if I boycott the Alamo, my job is done here,” said Puchko. “Or it’s just an Austin thing, and it’s a good thing we don’t have that in L.A., or we don’t have that in New York, or we don’t have that in Cleveland. What people need to be doing is not just looking at what’s happening in Austin, but look to their own film circles, look to their own websites.”
Pahle emphasized that these conversations need not — should not — be limited to harassment and assault. “I would like to see people, specifically men, speak up when they see other men in this community say shady shit,” she said. “Saying gross things about actresses. Saying gross things about other female people within their own profession.”
And not just on Twitter. “You need to be making those statements on one-on-one individual conversation level with men you see doing it. With your friends. It’s uncomfortable. But sexual harassment, for the women who have to put up with it, is more uncomfortable than it is for you to maybe have an uncomfortable conversation with a friend.”