“We want to share movies, not run for office” — A Q&A with James Shapiro of Drafthouse Films

Initially, I was asked to do a little story about the history of Drafthouse Films, and considering how many movies they’ve released that I love, I didn’t hesitate for a second. Once The Tribe was announced as a Film Club screening, however, the focus shifted a little to be more on that specific film, with a little bit of past and future sprinkled in. That narrowed down direction is probably a good thing, as the initial story would have primarily consisted of me ranting about how amazing R100 and A Band Called Death are, and how more people should see The Congress. (which, trust me, would have taken up a good chunk of space in that post).

With that new direction in mind, I had the chance to do a little Q&A with James Shapiro, the COO of Drafthouse Films, about some past releases, what drives them to release certain films, and of course, The Tribe. Check it out!

Drafthouse Films’ first release, Four Lions, came 13 years after the first Alamo Drafthouse theater opened. What was the catalyst to making that jump from “just” a theater to distributing movies as well?

It was a natural extension out of the mission of the theater chain and out of Fantastic Fest. Tim [League] had built a great company and the best film festival in the world. He had access to films, to exhibition that he completely controlled, and a built in audience. There was frustration that a lot of great movies weren’t getting the theatrical release they deserved after they played so well out of Fantastic Fest that the desire was there. It was because of Tim’s relationship with Tom Quinn (formerly of Magnolia, now head of Radius) that Tim had an opportunity to do FOUR LIONS with Tom at Magnolia. The head of Magnolia didn’t want to do the film theatrically, so Tom and Tim did it together. It went well enough that I was hired to build it into a regular distribution company

Along with a handful of newer releases that racked up more awards than you could shake a stick at (Four Lions, Bullhead, The Act Of Killing), you’ve reached way back in the vaults to release Miami Connection, The Visitor, and Ms. 45. Obviously there’s a huge love for great, older films like these, but that has to be more of a risk than releasing something like The Act Of Killing that has Werner Herzog and Errol Morris attached to it. Does the success of some of the more recent films embolden you to release the cult favorites?

I don’t think there’s more risk actually. There’s risk in ANY release, from Avengers down to The Visitor, its just about the size of the release. For example, the upfront cost on Act of Killing was exactly 20 times more than the upfront cost of Miami Connection. After we fall in love with a movie, we build a model for that movie and evaluate it in terms of projected monies spent compared to projected monies earned. Every film is different. So yes, its easier to find an audience for a movie with Herzog and Morris attached, but that also means the release is going to be bigger so its a higher cost. Plus we thought Act of Killing was good enough to push for Oscars and that makes it a lot more expensive. And I’ll be honest, a lot of people thought Act of Killing was doomed to failure cause it was too much; Too dark, too obtuse, too confrontational, too surreal, too lacking it ethics, too niche, etc etc. But we had a model we felt confident in and most importantly, we loved the film beyond words. When we announced Miami Connection, I got nothing but “FUCK YES DUDE”.

Along those same lines, Drafthouse Films has built up a reputation for releasing some pretty challenging and intense films. From the psychedelic chaos of A Field In England, to the “What the hell did I just watch?” of R100, and now The Tribe, what draws you to these films that push the viewer outside of their typical viewing comfort zone?

There’s three of us that evaluate content for DHF – Tim, myself, and the company’s Chief Brand Officer, Christian Parkes. First and foremost, we are all similar in terms of what excites us in movies. Alll three of us share a love of the same films. Everyone is different, of course but our tastes are very similar, and we all like weird stuff. I can’t speak for the why for Tim and Christian, but for me, I see a lot of films. I stopped counting how many i saw in year a long time ago, but its between 10-20 a week which translates to roughly 500-1,000 a year. I see a lot of the same so something like R100, which is smart and funny and bizarre or Field In England which I think is truly revolutionary it not only excites me, but it makes life worth living. The fact that its different is what excites me the most cause its like finding gold.

In reviews of The Tribe, the film has been lauded as “radically new”, “unprecedented”, and “groundbreaking”. Praise like that doesn’t come lightly, and the film truly is like nothing that I’ve ever seen before. I’m sure it was an instant sort of thing, a feeling that you absolutely had to release this film, but was there ever any concern about the complete lack of dialogue (unless you happen to know Ukrainian sign language) being an obstacle?

Yes, that’s exactly what happened. I mean, I literally ran to the sales agent’s booth at Cannes right after the screening, but Tim didn’t see it until later in the fest and when we talked about it, we did think it was probably too niche to find a decent sized audience for. Going back to the previous question, one thing we are all looking for is a movie that we can’t stop thinking about and THE TRIBE stuck with me for days. When Tim had the same reaction, we knew we were wrong and it was a fit for us. So we made an offer and since we were the first company to make an offer, we got the film.

Drafthouse Films is no stranger to tackling some touchy subjects, such as in The Overnighters, but even amidst so much violence and intensity, there’s one scene in The Tribe (“the” scene that keeps coming up in reviews) in particular that is very much a hot-button issue. Can you give us a little insight into what the thought process is like in deciding whether or not to release something so volatile?

While we love exploitation, in a movie like THE TRIBE, which is grounded in reality, its very important that something like the scene you are talking about is not exploitative. I don’t think it is. Now, whether it is and whether it isn’t is actually a pretty subjective question, but we’re not trying to teach morality. We are trying to build a cinephile audience and share great movies. Its also important to accept that THE TRIBE is a work of fiction that’s not trying to push a political agenda, so that’s important too. The scene is a function of the story.

It’s not something we wrestle about too much. Its a sensitive issue for sure and there’s an audience out there that deeply cares about that issue. We respect them and are not taking any sides on this issue. The film is from Ukraine and what happens in the film is part of life. If this was a doc that had a political agenda, then we would have that conversation and would probably avoid the film. We want to share movies, not run for office.

Along with the recently released The Look Of Silence, Drafthouse Films has a few other upcoming releases detailed on the website which look phenomenal. Any hints for us at what may be coming beyond the release of those films, or what the future holds for Drafthouse Films in general?

There’s some great stuff coming. Keeping Room is a very cool western with Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Sam Worthington that we got out of Toronto last year and we have another perfectly made but also absolutely insane Japanese Film that also played at Toronto last year called World of Kanako. 2016 is also shaping up nicely. Expect more of the same mix – the beautiful, the ugly and the weird. We want people who know our brand to always know whatever they see from Drafthouse Films, it will be interesting on some level. That will never change.

Closing things out, what would you say is your favorite Drafthouse Films release, and why?

That’s easy. I love all of our children but working with Joshua Oppenheimer on Act of Killing and Look of Silence has been the greatest experience of my professional career. Those movies are actually making a difference in the world for the better.

Drafthouse Films’ THE TRIBE screens this Wednesday, July 22nd, at 7pm for Film Club at Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia.  Tickets can be purchased by CLICKING HERE.

Shane loves movies, records, bicycles, pretzels, and a fine root beer. You can find him being incredibly random here @shanexedge
“We want to share movies, not run for office” — A Q&A with James Shapiro of Drafthouse Films

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