Who Defines A Community? Some Thoughts On The Drafthouse Controversy From Fantastic Fest

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People keep asking what it’s like to be at Fantastic Fest this year, as it unfolds under an ever-darkening cloud of sexual assault and sexual harassment revelations, ham-fisted damage control by Drafthouse, and allegedly ill-advised programming decisions.

Recapping every step of this controversy is a slog, but details are important, so here goes: First there was Devin Faraci’s firing last year. Faraci was the editor of the film site and print publication Birth.Movies.Death, which is owned by Alamo Drafthouse and works closely to put on Fantastic Fest. Faraci had been accused by a former friend of sexual assault, specifically of sticking his hands down her pants after she said no at a bar meet-up in 2004. (The original tweet, in response to Faraci discussing Trump’s Access Hollywood tape: “Do you remember grabbing me by the pussy and bragging to our friends about it, telling them to smell your fingers?”) Faraci said he didn’t remember the incident but apologized. (“I do not remember this. I can only believe you and beg forgiveness for having been so vile.”)

At the time, Drafthouse owner Tim League announced that Faraci had resigned. Faraci’s victim told The Hollywood Reporter “I’m really happy that Tim League took this seriously and that Devin is interested in getting treatment. I’ve let them know that I’m available for any accountability processing that might be part of his rehabilitation.”

In the wake of that decision, Faraci, who was a constant, loud presence on film Twitter before, largely disappeared from social media. Then a little over two weeks ago (I can’t believe it’s only been two weeks), League announced that Faraci, who had supposedly gotten sober and began studying Buddhism over the course of the previous year, would be writing blurbs for the festival. Drafthouse released a statement written by League saying in part, “I offered Devin copywriting work at Alamo Drafthouse and have recently expanded that to include writing blurbs for our Fantastic Fest festival guide.”

There was immediate fallout, not so much because League had rehired Faraci (which is a semantic argument in and of itself, since League apparently hadn’t given Faraci his old position back, only retained him in a more minor role), but because it didn’t feel entirely above board. The announcement only seems to have come after a few Drafthouse fans noticed Faraci’s name in the program guide, which made it feel like belated damage control. It was also weaselly on the details, and it soon came out that Faraci hadn’t spent much time away (“away”) at all, with one unnamed Drafthouse programmer telling Hollywood Reporter, “Devin’s new position was not initially announced internally so it’s difficult for me to say with exact certainty when he began in it. But it was clear he was around, being cc’d on emails and such, within a month of his leaving BMD.”

Drafthouse’s director of international programming, Todd Brown, well respected in the world of film writers (deservedly so, in my experience), resigned in protest, writing that he hadn’t been consulted on the decision, saying “Anyone who has ever suggested that Fantastic Fest and the Drafthouse is just the geek friendly equivalent of the classic Old Boys Club, you have just been proven correct. We have just seen that Club in action. There it is, the Club utterly ignoring the victim while it creates a protective ring around the perpetrator.”

There were additional accusations that Faraci had sexually harassed other members of the film community, and that the accuser had told League about it, and that League had responded, “As I’m sure you know, Devin has stepped down. Thanks for sharing your story and I’m sorry to hear about this experience. I’ve been talking to Devin lately and he is going through some very serious soul-searching right now. I’d appreciate it if you kept this dialogue between us.”

The anonymous Drafthouse programmer quoted above said he was similarly asked to keep criticism of Faraci private after calling out Faraci on Facebook for an essay defending Woody Allen. He told THR in part, “I was censured by the Alamo and had to sign a letter acknowledging that if I made criticisms like that in the future it would be grounds for dismissal. [Drafthouse said] these sorts of issues were meant to be addressed internally.”

There’s a legitimate discussion to be had about whether allowing Faraci to contribute copywriting would “contribute to his recovery process by helping him with some means to earn a living,” as League says, or if it would protect an abuser at the expense of a victim and contribute to a Boys Club atmosphere as Brown suggests. It’s difficult to answer because it partly comes down to optics. A PR pro would’ve almost certainly advised League to cut ties with Faraci immediately after the initial allegation, and maybe League should have, but that’s also an easy, face-saving, ass-covering move that any faceless corporation would’ve made and it would have had nothing to do with victims, community, or morals. If you took League exactly at his word, it could’ve been a positive move.

Unfortunately we can’t have that discussion, because the circumstances under which the rehiring decision was announced make it seem like it was belated damage control, a self-serving excuse for why Faraci’s name was going to be in the program guide. Worse, it seems that the larger Drafthouse community wasn’t consulted, and ended up blindsided by the announcement. As Faraci’s accuser wrote, “i’ve got too many good things going on in my life to let this break my stride too much but FUCK devin faraci & tim league. i was (and am!) willing to believe that people can learn, change, and grow, and don’t believe in lost causes. but compassion without boundaries and accountability is a form of enabling.”

League himself seemed to recognize that he’d screwed up and re-fired Faraci. This was still two weeks before Fantastic Fest. But once Faraci was out, news hit that Harry Knowles had been accused of sexual harassment by Jasmine Baker, including one incident at a Drafthouse event that Baker had told Tim and Karrie League about. While Harry Knowles, who runs AintItCoolNews, one of the earliest movie blogs (from the days when they were still called “movie blogs”), never worked for Drafthouse, he did co-found Fantastic Fest with League, and AICN had been a sponsor. AICN and Drafthouse severed ties a week before this week’s Festival, and long time AICN contributors Quint (Eric Vespe), Capone (Steve Prokopy), and Horrorella quit in the wake of Baker’s and others’ allegations against Knowles.

All along, people have asked me and others attending Fantastic Fest why we would still choose to attend the festival, what’s the festival environment like this year, etc. The easy answer is, I already had my plane ticket before any of this came out. But of course I could’ve still stayed home if I’d really wanted to. The longer version is that for me, the festival was never about Devin Faraci and it certainly wasn’t about Harry Knowles. (I’ve met Faraci a handful of times at Fantastic and other Festivals, and I don’t know if I’ve ever even been in the same room with Knowles. I was never invited to Knowles’ annual “Butt-Numb-A-Thon” event, and I founded FilmDrunk at least partly in opposition to the style of infantile cheerleading that Harry Knowles had pioneered.) The festival wasn’t even about Tim League (who I have spoken to a few times and truthfully have always liked). It was about the movies, the old movie friends I’ve made that I only see once or twice a year, and the new movie friends I make every time I go (who, with deserved respect to Todd Brown, seem like anything but an old boys club).

There’s a lot I wanted to say about Harry Knowles in the past but mostly bit my tongue about because it seemed like punching down. Even now, much as I want to join the pile-on, I know it’s not my pile on. I don’t want to equate personal dislike with sexual assault. I wasn’t the one who ever felt unsafe — only annoyed and vaguely creeped out.

To put it bluntly, I attended because didn’t feel like punishing myself or the countless artists with films at Fantastic Fest for things that Faraci or Knowles or League did. I was trying to take to heart what Faraci’s accuser wrote, that “some people seem to feel called to boycott Fantastic Fest but I would say, maybe go and feel emboldened to demand more of your community.”

Of course, even after the Faraci/Knowles controversy, there was a new issue that popped up when, according to one much retweeted Twitter post, Fantastic Fest “makes unaware audience watch a violent porno, refuses to answer public questions about attendee safety and sexual assault.”

I wasn’t at that particular screening, which was a “secret screening” of what turned out to be the lost Ed Wood movie Take It Out In Trade sponsored by the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) and Something Weird. But there are a lot of issues with the characterization. First of all, no one “makes” you watch a movie. It also had a content warning in the program: “Content Warning: This movie contains full frontal nudity and simulated depictions of consensual sex,” where it was described as “meant to be seen in a theater filled with gutter-dwelling perverts.”

As Katie Rife from the The A.V. Club, who was actually at the screening, described it: “It was a nudie movie. Sexist? Definitely. Objectifying? Obviously. Violent porn? Not so much.”

“A lengthy intro contextualized the film beforehand. Lisa of Something Weird DID answer the safety questions.”

Annie Choi also chimed in: “The film may be divisive but I don’t think it promotes violence toward women. Plenty of women enjoyed it.”

Of course, there were other social pressures involved, which April Wolfe summed up well in L.A. Weekly: “When AGFA’s Lisa Petrucci, who restored the film, revealed it would be the lost Ed Wood skin flick Take It Out in Trade, some attendees were rightly upset by the surprise softcore. I was one of them. AGFA director Joe Ziemba stated that there would be nudity, and people could have left, but if you’d already ordered food from the Drafthouse waitstaff, you’re essentially stuck there — likely sitting between two men you don’t know — until the check comes. And getting up and leaving is a kind of signal that you are one of the ‘uncool’ ones who can’t hang with the guys, a too-common pressure in a festival environment that often seems to offer litmus tests demanding women prove their coolness.”

It’s fine to question the timing of the screening or the programming choice, as Todd Brown did, which is a much more relevant critique coming from an actual programmer. But a lot of the anger and the hottest takes seem a little self-righteous, with a lot of men getting angry on women’s behalf. There are times when this kind of rhetoric sounds suspiciously like some patronizing old ideas about women’s fragile honor. It’s an open question, though, about who dictates the conversation when there are a range of different reactions to material. Did they contextualize it enough? Maybe not. Should it not have been a secret screening? Possibly. But raunchy and tasteless are the kinds of things one would expect at a festival of genre films. Fine if that’s not your bag, but it doesn’t make people wrong for putting it on.

Was there a dark cloud hanging over this year’s festival? To some extent, sure. Mostly, a lot of good people seemed annoyed to have the conversation hijacked by a couple guys who weren’t there and who a lot of the “community” were never crazy about in the first place. Do Faraci and Knowles get to define an entire scene?

There are ongoing questions about whether Fantastic Fest and Drafthouse were a hostile scene, and a subsequent pressure, as a Fantastic Fest veteran and current attendee, to weigh in with my two cents. I wrestled with it. It doesn’t feel like my place to say whether a scene was hostile to women. I can listen, but I can’t really know; it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. Of course, not saying anything at all tells a story on its own, and I didn’t want to tell that one either. What I can do is direct you to women who attended explaining why they thought it was important. As second-time attendee (and former employee of Cinefamily, which was taken down because of its own scandal) Suki-Rose Simakis wrote for Indiewire, “It is unfair to expect every woman and ally here to only engage with the festival in a self-flagellating joyless bummer fest, but more importantly, it’s unproductive. I will tell you that from where I am sitting (which is actually at Fantastic Fest), this year’s festival is hinged on the difficult conversations. […] It’s not my job to explain to men who are not here why I made the choices I made.”

As Wolfe wrote in L.A. Weekly, “This is the paradox of Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest right now. I am essentially watching a company (and a community) implode and attempt to rebuild itself, better, in real time. Sometimes they are royally biffing and other times exceeding my expectations.”

Simakis was a participant in this year’s Fantastic Debates, the annual event inspired by the infamous affair where Uwe Boll boxed critics who hated his films, in which people from the film community debate a topic and then strap on the gloves to punch each other for two rounds. In the past, the best matches have typically been between two people with legitimate beef. The prototypical example is probably Devin Faraci’s match with director Joe Swanberg in 2012, in which Faraci basically told Swanberg that mumblecore was garbage and that Swanberg should retire, and Swanberg knocked out Faraci’s contact lens and basically beat the crap out of him in front of a few hundred people. That event goes a long way towards explaining why a lot of people who knew nothing about Faraci’s history of harassment cheered his fall — because he was the kind of guy who would tell people he disagreed with to retire to their faces — and why Tim League kept Faraci around for so long — because Faraci was a guy who would happily play the heel and willingly take a beating for the entertainment value.

I wasn’t there in 2012, but my favorite match that I witnessed personally was in 2014, between the aforementioned Todd Brown and Matt Mason, CCO of BitTorrent, over whether BitTorrent was a positive or negative force for independent film. Like Faraci/Swanberg, the best thing about it was that the participants had legitimate beef (or at least, Brown had beef with Mason), and their debate was not only heated, but earnest and thoughtful. Watching it, I felt like I actually learned something.

Those kinds of matches are probably the minority, however, and lots were more like this year’s opening bout between Fantastic Fest programmer Evrim Ersoy and Udo Kier, star of Shadow of the Vampire, among many others, over whether Christopher Lee was cinema’s best vampire (with Ersoy taking the “pro”). Kier was a likable ham, and a highlight was when he pulled a glossy headshot of himself out of his shirt to give to Ersoy — he’d apparently just had that in there for the previous 10 minutes. Otherwise though, it typified the worst of the debates — an asinine topic followed by a dull boxing match between two people with no real beef. Both debaters had stand ins for the boxing (CHEATING) — Randy Palmer, owner of the gym where the event is held, and Geno Segers, a character actor who specializes in playing the heavy. Segers is a giant man and Palmer is a real boxer, but there was no animosity, neither cared about the topic, and they weren’t throwing real punches anyway. It was like a layer cake of pointlessness.

The next bout was Simakis’, over the topic of “Women matter in the film community and we all have to do better.”

Her speech was impassioned and clearly cathartic for a lot of the people present, but the trouble was, she didn’t have a true opponent. Her opposite was a friend playing a fictitious character, with a robe that said “NICE GUY” on the back and rebuttals that always began with “Well actually…”

That’s funny on paper, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it, and I don’t blame him. If he’d actually committed to the role of male chauvinist (Bobby Riggs style) in front of this crowd, at least half of whom probably didn’t know him and didn’t know he was playing a character, he might’ve gotten killed. I sure as hell wouldn’t have done it (which is its own comment on the often blurry line between self-preservation and genuine commitment to fairness).

And so it was another bout with no real animosity and at least one of the participants not throwing real punches. There were two more debates but I didn’t stay for them. It’s too frustrating to watch someone with something passionate to say tilt at the air. That’s the trouble with fighting systemic bias, you’re often left with no one to punch.

Devin Faraci and Harry Knowles will serve as deserving enough punching bags for now (personally I feel almost as uncomfortable with being part of a mob as I do with being part of a boys club). But justice comes from change. To that end, Tim League released statement midway through the week announcing a new board of directors and outlining steps Drafthouse would take to win back public trust. It read in part:

“We are striving to better respond to allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and will take actions so those who work at the theater or attend as a guest are not made to feel unsafe.

The festival is actively working on building out a new Board of Directors whose focus will be to further enhance and refine the experience of the festival; nurture and provide more opportunities for young genre filmmakers; and provide the best, most open and inclusive environment for this unique film community. This board will be run by the festival’s Executive Director, Kristen Bell, and should be finalized and announced shortly.”

Was it genuine or just good PR spin? Like many things, that depends on trust. People friendly with League are probably inclined to trust him, but if it comes out that he took a more active role in keeping sexual harassment hush-hush than what is already known, he’s going to need a very good explanation and will probably have to step aside.

“Fantastic Fest is a boy’s club. Always has been,” The A.V. Club‘s Katie Rife, who I met at the fest this year, told me. “There’s a running joke about the relative length of the bathroom lines among the female attendees. I also think it’s a little slow to change compared to other geek spaces (cons, etc). But I don’t think it’s especially egregious. I go to horror cons back home that have similar male female ratios.”

As always, the line between “exclusive boys club” and “stereotypical nerd party that not enough girls show up to” is a blurry one.

Even if the community was inclusive and an important forum, there will be (and of course, already are) those who don’t want their money to contribute to Tim League’s bottom line. I don’t think anyone’s 100% wrong to say that Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest are deserving of boycott as an active agent of boys club culture. But it’s also one with opportunity costs. You boycott Tim League so that you can give your movie dollars to… someone else you don’t know, or a corporation without discernible loyalties or problematic attitudes? Hollywood is not a magical land of opportunity. Neither are the theater owners of America a bastion of tolerance. Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest still seem at least capable of change. Some of the female journalists among this year’s attendees organized a list of recommendations to present to Drafthouse management. Whether they’ll do anything remains to be seen, but at least there was a line of communication. All I can say as someone who didn’t boycott this year is that the from the inside(ish), it feels like the scene is bigger than a few people.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.