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Drafthouse Films gets into the distribution game with 'Four Lions'

By Marc Savlov, November 5, 2010, Screens

It's all too apropos of everything that Tim League's newest and maybe riskiest move in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's global domination gambit should involve a blacker-than-black comedy about a quartet of wannabe mujahedeen scheming to martyr themselves for Islam and take out half of the Kaffir bastards in London whilst doing so.

That'd be Four Lions, the debut film to be distributed under the Drafthouse Films banner. Directed by Brit comedy icon Chris Morris of Brass Eye fame, the film finds the humor inherent in al Qaeda-style shenanigans, humanizing the other side of the global war on terror in the process. A suicide bomber comedy, pitched somewhere between an episode of The Office and The Battle of Algiers? What will Glenn Beck say?

Who cares? The media, and by extension an unusually ill-informed electorate, has forgotten (or perhaps never realized) that while the first casualty of war is the truth, the second POW is a sense of humor.

"We'd been talking about [getting into film distibution] for a while, as a channel for Fantastic Fest and films that get left on the vine, films that we love and the audience loves but for whatever reason don't get picked up for distribution," explains League. But getting into the cutthroat distro market, taking on NetFlix and VOD and a thousand other hazards for what could turn out to be a losing call? (In the U.S., anyway – Four Lions has already blown up, so to speak, the box office in the UK and EU.) Now that's chutzpah.

"I saw the world-premiere screening of the film at Sundance," says League, "where it didn't sell. Months went by, it got released in the UK, more months passed, and ultimately companies were afraid of it because of the potentially volatile subject matter. We weren't. And so we felt comfortable entering into the negotiating process."

Which entailed, among other things, expanding on a relationship the Alamo had already cultivated with Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Films (for the February DVD release); handling the entire U.S. marketing, advertising, PR, and positioning campaigns; and generally getting in what most people would consider to be way over their heads, but doing so with League's hallmark unflappability.

"We've employed a lot of people to do this," says League. "We've hired PR firms in D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and then we have [Austin-based] Fons PR handling everything online. We've got a lot of people out there beating the bushes and trying to get people excited about this film."

Which, frankly, shouldn't be too hard in the U.S.; in case you somehow haven't noticed, terrorism, or the fear thereof (and the concomitant zeitgeist), is a hot cultural commodity these days. It shouldn't be overly difficult to generate publicity and word-of-mouth when you are trying to sell a "terrorist comedy" to the huddled and periodically cowering masses. Or should it?

"My preference would have been to [have bought] the film and then worked a long time to work out the PR and strategy," League says. "However, we felt that with what was going on right now with all the various strains of Islamophobia in America, it was important to get this film in theatres right now."

The decision was not without its challenges for League, who, although he's built the Alamo brand extensively since returning to the CEO position earlier this year, was entering heretofore uncharted waters.

League expounds: "I had to learn how to get a film rated by the [Motion Picture Association of America]. I had to learn how to get a Digital Cinema Package made from the original source material. Lots of interesting things to learn, but on a supercompressed, very tight timeline."

Other, less obvious challenges have arisen, not least of which is the occasionally indecipherable thickness of the characters' deeply Londoner phraseology. Director Morris ix-nayed any initial flirtation with subtitles.

"Yeah, there are a number of recurring lines that don't necessarily translate culturally," League admits. "There's three in particular that threw me initially: 'rubber-dinghy rapids' [a carnival ride], 'fucking Mini Babybel' [a popular cheese-involved snack food], and 'I'm gonna turn you into baked beans,' which is the second line in the movie. It took me watching the film a couple of times before I figured those out, but that's not any hindrance to enjoying the film. It's all in the context."

As in, "Listen, you Kaffir bastards, we're gonna blow the box office to paradise and turn you into baked beans, and no mistake," right?

"Yeah, something like that."

Four Lions opens in Austin and select cities on Friday, Nov. 5. See Film Listings for review.

See, for an interview with Four Lions director Chris Morris.

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