Alamo Drafthouse CEO on Fighting for 'The Interview' and How He's Preparing for Screenings

Jordan Zakarin
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Normally, it wouldn’t be big news that Tim League was going to show a talked-about movie at one of his theaters. But this afternoon, League — the founder and CEO of the independently owned Alamo Drafthouse theater chain — lit up the web when he announced that Sony was reversing course and allowing select theaters to screen The Interview onits original Dec. 25 release date. League, who will show the film in 16 of his 19 locations around the country, hopped on the phone with Yahoo Movies to discuss the big decision.

So what happened? Have you been in discussions with Sony since the moment the movie was initially pulled?
I only got back into discussions with folks at Sony yesterday, as a part of the Art House Convergence petition that went up. And that was more the role of reporting the data of the survey of how many theaters were willing to show the movie, how many theaters were digital, etc. etc. I think Sony had pressed “pause” when they took it out of release the first time, did some risk assessment, and were looking at ways to bring the movie out effectively and safely. It was just happening so fast. I don’t know this for a fact, but that’s what it feels like to me: [That] they just needed a little more time to figure out what was going on.

Back in the old days, when big reels of film were projected, this would have been impossible to pull off. But now they can send you a simple digital file, right?
Yep, that’s the hope. We should be receiving the files tomorrow to be ready for Christmas day screenings.

Related: An Interview With Someone Who’s Seen ‘The Interview’

After the Sony hackers threatened a 9/11-style attack aimed at theaters that showed The Interview, some of the big chains were worried about the legal risk involved with screening the film. Was that a concern you had?
There’s obviously still risk associated with this. Everybody understands that. But I think a lot of the independents and art-house theaters are on the same side of the fence, where if you look at this from a national level, it’s more of a problem to give in. I love that Sony stepped up and said, “Yes, we’re going to support this, we’re going to bring it out.” Otherwise it sets a terrible precedent.

Are you taking extra precautions for the screenings?
We’ve reached out to local police and they’re done venue assessments that walked the venues and looked for potential security problems. We’ve done some training sessions with the staff and the managers, but that’s for the most part where we are. We might hire some additional security; that’s always an option. I don’t think it’s an issue, but we’re going to play it by ear.

I have a nightmare vision of movie theaters having airport-style security.
Yeah, I don’t know that we really want to send that freak-out message.

What do you think finally changed Sony’s minds?
I don’t know, honestly. I think there’s a lot of factors at play. I think them having a little bit more time to get a better gauge of the whole situation. I know they’ve been in touch with the FBI to get a better sense of the real risk at hand here. And I’d like to think — though I don’t know this for a fact — that the independent theaters of America rallying together and publicly supporting Sony and their efforts to release The Interview played some role there.

Do you expect the big theater chains to come on board?
I don’t know, but I will say that I think some of the information out there wasn’t totally fair toward the big five. Some of [the chains] were advocating for, “Hey, why don’t we delay the release for a week or two, or why don’t we do a staggered rollout?” Those voices were in that mix, and it ends up that’s what we’re basically doing: A staggered rollout. I think [some of the big theater owners] may pop back onboard. It would be great.

Drafthouse Films, the studio arm of your company, does day-and-date VOD. [Releasing movies in theaters and on VOD on the same day.] And there are still rumors that The Interview may go to VOD at some point. Could this be an big moment for the on-demand industry?
I don’t think this particular incident is going to set any precedent or trends in terms of studio VOD or theatrical releases. I can tell you that when we were working on the petition for the Art House Convergence theaters, 100 percent of the people who said they’d be willing to support the film said they would not have an issue if Sony decided to go VOD, day-and-date on this title. Everybody understands the circumstances: [The studio is] going to lose a ton of money on this film and if they can get it out digitally, it’s probably the best thing for them to do it. It’s not going to affect my support of the film whatsoever.

Related: I Want My VOD: How Video On Demand Broke Big in 2014

I imagine, in theory, Sony would love to be able to do day-and-date VOD on a lot of movies.
They might not have such an easy time with that in the exhibition community. In general, I don’t have a problem for day-and-date when it’s very small independent films from [studios like] IFC, Magnolia, Radius. But it’s a little bit of a different situation when it’s a big tentpole studio film.

You wouldn’t be super-pumped if they put the new Avengers movie on iTunes the same day it came out in theaters?
I wouldn’t be super-pumped. That said, ultimately that’s going to be a decision that’s going to be beyond my control, if that ever happens. But it would probably significantly hurt the theatrical potential of the film, and I think the overall gross of the film, if you think of the whole worldwide market. I don’t know how much precedent there is to really do this at this stage, and even if it happens with The Interview, it’s not saying, “Okay, the levy is broken and this is now okay.” This is a one-off.

Any special events planned for the screening? A patriotic celebration?
We’ll probably do some live-hosting at the beginning. We’re certainly [offering] a special with frozen margaritas with salt and little umbrellas.

Watch the trailer below: