Dialogue: The Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League Explains the Importance of Film Preservation

Dialogue: The Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League Explains the Importance of Film Preservation

Aug 21, 2012

Tim League

The Alamo Drafthouse, ever the protectors of the church that is cinema, recently announced the acquisition of a 70mm film projector, and to kick off their inaugural AlamoScope film series, the Drafthouse put together a lineup that includes West Side Story, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and even Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. But what's the big deal about 70mm? Why is it so noteworthy that a modern movie theater is going back to decades-old film technology?

To find out why the Drafthouse is devoted to film exhibition and preservation, we went straight to the man at the top: Alamo cofounder Tim League. He laid out precisely why he thinks it's important to buck trends and keep both 35mm and 70mm film alive, while also revealing a few other historical preservation efforts he's involved with.

Oh, and he also teases what's in store for this year's Fantastic Debates, an annual event at Fantastic Fest that finds League in a boxing ring. In years past he's fought Uwe Boll, Michelle Rodriguez and, most recently, an actual bare-knuckle boxer. Apparently they were just warm-ups.

Movies.com: What is the importance of 70mm to you?

Tim League: Well, I think it's... everyone's talking about 35mm and the demise of film and cinema and there are certainly implications to repertory films and arthouse cinemas and people who do calendar programming, but almost exponentially more endangered is 70mm. There's already so few houses that show 70mm in the first place, it's already sort of a format that people don't use anymore. It's one of the greatest presentations that's ever existed in cinema.

There were a lot of circumstances that brought us to the idea that this was the time to invest in infrastructure to be able to present quality 70mm at our flagship theater, the Ritz. Not the least of which was the gonzo decision by Paul Thomas Anderson to shoot [The Master] in 70mm in this day and age. He was the inspiration.

Movies.com: How readily available are 70mm prints? Does the Drafthouse have any of its own or are you at the mercy of studios and collectors?

League: Availability is tough. The studios have some prints, but the real champion of 70mm, at least in the United States, has really been the UCLA Film Archive. They do an annual 70mm series and they have actually paid to strike new materials from time to time. They're the big superheroes in this arena. The problem is we're a new 70mm house, so it was very difficult for us to find prints we could show because we were in a bit of a catch-22. We have to show that we have a track record of being responsible film handlers, but we can't get the track record without getting prints. We had to do some convincing and we chose our initial lineup based on prints that were available to us at the time. I think in the future, when we're digging deeper, we'll probably look to foreign archives. Sometimes countries outside of the United States do a bit better job of archiving because there's more state money available for it.

Movies.com: How many film prints, be they 35mm or 70mm or 16mm, does the film preservation foundation you set up have?

League: AGFA, the American Genre Film Archive. We just recently acquired another thousand prints; just very, very recently. I think that brings our total to somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 prints.

Movies.com: When you acquire a haul like that, where are the prints coming from? Is it just some guy who forgot he had them in his attic?

League: It's a mix. Sometimes it's people that scavenge out of dumpsters. Sometimes it's a small amount of film collectors, who are basically just guys who have 35mm film projectors in their garage, so they salvage a lot. Some of the bigger hauls come from acquiring archives. We got the Tai Seng archives because they were closing their U.S. facility in San Francisco and it was either us or the dumpster. That's where we find ourselves a lot of the time.

Movies.com: In a case like that, do you pay for the prints or do they just say, "If you can come pick 'em up, you can take 'em"?

League: It's usually a process where the prints are appraised and since we're a 501(c)(3) non-profit, we can offer tax credits. Usually that's what we try to do, but there have been situations where we've had to pay for prints. We don't have a huge budget for that, so it tends to be a combination of the two, but generally since films weigh 50 to 100 pounds each the shipping is extravagant. Just the mere fact that we offer to cover the cost of assessing and housing and shipping, that's a lot of money right there.

Movies.com: Where do you store them all?

League: [Laughs] Much to the chagrin of our projection team, we store them in the projection booths of our various theaters. They're climate controlled, and we've installed shelving for it all, so when me or Lars [Nilsen] or Zack [Carlson] shows up with a U-haul trailer full of film, it's the projection staff that has to help unload and categorize and start the cleaning and archiving process.

Movies.com: It's obvious that both film production and exhibition is dwindling in the U.S., but have you noticed the same internationally as well?

League: It's definitely the same internationally, though it really depends country to country what's happening. The studios have said they won't be supporting the format after the fall of 2013, but I suspect that's going to linger on a little bit longer than that. A lot of independents in the country haven't switched over, and the amount of transition that would have to happen in the next 12 months would be pretty significant. The cost to upgrade for a small independent theater to make the digital switch is dramatic.

Movies.com: I remember reading not long ago that the costs, if not subsidized, would just flat out kill a great deal of theaters around the country. Do you think that's true or is that more just posturing in resistance?

League: I don't know. I think there are a lot of theaters that can't absorb the cost of digital conversion, so unless there's a financing model that works for the smaller independents it very well could. It's posturing until it actually starts happening. Either someone is going to come in with a financing model that helps the independents or the window will just stretch on and 35mm will continue to be available on a limited scope. And there is some talk of that, of scaling down labs. Giant 35mm film processing labs would be a thing of the past, but maybe there is a new, more indie 35mm lab that could arise. Either way, it's not good for the independents out there that are already tightening belts.

Movies.com: Do you think there's anything you or other theaters can do to raise awareness about film beyond just the exhibition and preservation of it? Or do you think it's on an irreversible slide to a plateau where it will become niche and stay that way?

League: I think it's going to become niche. We're going to continue to support 35mm, and now 70mm, for as long as possible because of the very nature of what's available. They're not going to go back and convert thousands and thousands of repertory titles that you can only get on 35mm. That's just not going to happen, not for at least a decade, and probably never. So there's always going to be a spot for repertory 35mm presentation, but we're already down to the point where even in major cities there are only a handful of theaters that will be programming this type of stuff.

Movies.com: Now, you're a man who wears many, many different hats. Are there any non-Drafthouse ventures or projects that people would be surprised to learn you have a hand in?

League: In Austin there are several things I'm involved in. I'm a member of the Heritage Society board, which is a historic preservation society here in town. I'm on the board of ECHO, which is the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, for Austin. I'm about to go to another board meeting which is for the Golden Hornet Project, which part of their mission is to find a new audience for classical music. That's another sort of dying, aging audience. [Laughs] I'm involved with various things like that that don't have anything to do with the Alamo that I think are important. But a lot of those are tangentially related to the idea of history and preservation of good things that are at risk of falling away.

Movies.com: I think that's a helluva thing. Before we go, do you have anything on the Drafthouse Films or Fantastic Fest horizon that you can tease on the record?

League: We're working on the Fantastic Debates and there have been some interesting proposals. I'll leave it vague, but suffice it to say I'm potentially upping the game in terms of my competitor this year.

Movies.com: I don't know how you'll up it beyond previous years-

League: Oh, I know. [Laughs]

 

Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.

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