Every year at least a few of the Academy Awards' nominees for Best Foreign Language Film come as complete surprises to most people. Unfortunately foreign language films, regardless of quality, rarely penetrate into the mainstream American film culture, and if they do, it tends to to take a few years to get there. And that may have been the case with Bullhead, a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking hailing from Belgium, but fortunately for film fans, Drafthouse Films is looking to speed up that process.
Last year the distribution arm of the Alamo Drafthouse acquired writer-director Michael R. Roskam's masterful drama about the surprisingly fascinating and crime-filled world of cattle farming, and tomorrow (February 17th) sees the first wave of its release in New York, L.A., and Austin. This gave us the perfect opportunity to talk Drafthouse CEO Tim League about why he hand-picked Bullhead to be the company's second release (the first was Four Lions, the best film of 2010 as far as this writer is concerned), its surprising Oscar nomination and what kind of lessons he's been learning now that he's on both sides of the movie exhibition equation.
Oh, and if you missed the hour-long talk League gave to Google that we shared earlier today, do give that a watch. The man is nothing if not fascinating. And if you happen to live in San Francisco, you should know League just announced plans to renovate an old movie palace as the Drafthouse's next location.
Movies.com: What were your immediate thoughts the first time after seeing Bullhead, and where did you see it at?
Tim League: I first saw the film at the Cannes Film Festival. I probably watched about 50 movies at Cannes and Bullhead was by far my favorite. We immediately booked it for Fantastic Fest, which was challenging as the sales agent didn’t want the movie to be positioned as a “genre” movie.
Movies.com: At what point did you start to realize it might be a good fit for Drafthouse Films?
League: At the festival, when the Fantastic Fest audiences responded so enthusiastically to the film, I knew we wanted to make an offer. By the end of the festival, we had submitted our offer to buy it for the label.
Movies.com: Is the approach to acquiring a film any different than to, say, hiring an employee? What is the vetting process like? And does the film speak for itself entirely, or do you also have to consider the 'resume' of those who made it?
League: It doesn’t have much to do with the resume. With Bullhead for example, nobody knows Michael Roskam; he is a first-time feature director. We are driven by our mission statement at Drafthouse Films, “Share the movies we love with as many people as possible.” It is very simple, but helps us keep our priorities straight. We want to build a brand that means something, that is uncompromising in the quality of what we put out, but also speaks to the diversity of our movie passions. That’s how we feel comfortable releasing The FP and Bullhead within a month of each other.
Movies.com: At what point, if ever, did you start to think Bullhead had a legitimate shot at surviving the shortlist and making it to the final ballot?
League: A lot of things happened at the right time. During the clutch-cargo final weeks, Michael was named one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch, and the film went on to win big awards at AFI and Palm Springs. both of those events are great festivals for Academy Award contenders and tend to be a barometer for the nominations. That said, we were still quite surprised to secure the nomination. There were a lot of great films that didn’t.
I can’t say for sure why we were chosen. I think that Michael Roskam is a very exciting director – he is being compared to a young Martin Scorcese, he has an incredible visual style and he has a flair for rich, nuanced character development. The other factor is Matthias Schoenaerts. He gained 60 pounds of muscle to play the role and is clearly on an upward trajectory. His next project is the lead role in Jacques Audiard’s (A Prophet) new film. Everyone I know is buzzing about it.
Movies.com: Was "release an Oscar contender" ever even on Drafthouse Films' hypothetical bucket list? Has its nomination changed the way you think about the importance/relevance of the Oscars?
League: It was not. However, we are one of the few distributors that looks hard at foreign language content, so hopefully we will have another shot down the road, especially now that the nominating committee appears dedicated to choosing edgier movies than they were a few years ago.
Movies.com: What's the biggest lesson you learned between releasing Four Lions and Bullhead?
League: I think our budgeting is better now than with Four Lions. Spending money on advertising is incredibly expensive and can eat up a lot of your budget. One lesson I didn’t learn is to allocate enough time to launch the film. We went from acquisition to release on Four Lions in about two months. This time, we bumped forward the proposed launch of mid-April to February 17th, which meant we had about three weeks to cut trailers, make posters and film prints and get the ball rolling. Maybe next time we’ll learn that lesson.
Movies.com: Considering your roguish attitude has gotten you great success, what's the best advice about running a company, be it the Alamo or Drafthouse Films, you've deliberately ignored? How'd it work out?
League: I think our management team at the Alamo companies operates fairly traditionally. We have great financial oversight and strong training and operations staff. I guess as CEO I have ignored the need to play golf and wear a suit and what not. I’d much rather have a few beers and sing karaoke with business associates to get my deals done. I also think that our company can be pretty nimble and make decisions quickly.
Movies.com: Will The ABCs of Death be ready for Fantastic Fest 2012?
League: The ABCs of Death will be ready in a couple months. We are submitting to Fantastic Fest, but I hear the creative director is a bit of a hardass.
Movies.com: Do you have your sights set on any specific films on the horizon?
League: We have offers on several films and hope to make announcements soon. I can’t talk about any of them until they are secured though. The next two films out the door for us are Klown and The FP, both are really, really funny and very different from Bullhead. Stay tuned for more!