Alamo Drafthouse in Crisis: Allegations of Sexual Assault and Harassment Mount
As the Fantastic Fest company parts ways with Harry Knowles, female accusers come forward to say their warnings fell on deaf ears for years.
Troubling allegations continue to surface regarding Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin, Texas-based movie empire currently embroiled in a sex assault and sexual harassment scandal involving several employees and business partners.
On Saturday, IndieWire first reported on Jasmine Baker, a former Drafthouse employee who says Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles — who co-founded Fantastic Fest with Drafthouse's married owners Tim and Karrie League in 2005 — "groped" her "opportunistically on more than one occasion" in 2000.
That news comes on the heels of a scandal involving Devin Faraci, a Drafthouse-employed film writer who stepped down in October 2016 after being accused of sexual assault, whom League then quietly rehired to pen promotional material for this year's Fantastic Fest. It also comes less than a month after Los Angeles' own nexus of movie nerddom, Cinefamily, ceased operations amid its own sexual harassment scandal.
Since that report, multiple women have come forward to allege that Knowles has subjected them to various forms of sexual harassment and assault over the years. Several, including Baker, say they informed the Leagues about Knowles' actions and were consistently greeted with words of concern but ultimately inaction. Knowles, for his part, had denied any wrongdoing.
On Monday, League announced that Knowles, 45, is "no longer affiliated with the company in any capacity." The CEO went on to say that he had skipped Fantastic Fest this year, currently underway in Austin, to instead go on a "listening tour" of the 22 Alamo Drafthouse locations around the country. (Some, like the Austin, San Francisco and Brooklyn locations, are owned by League; others are franchises.)
One day after IndieWire's report, a Drafthouse customer named Gloria Walker accused Knowles on Twitter of having "on more than one occasion grabbed my ass and other parts of me." Walker cited another incident in which she tried to enter the cinema to watch Captain America; Knowles allegedly stood in the doorway and told her "I had to kiss him to get in."
The Daily Beast, meanwhile, on Tuesday published screenshots of a text conversation between Knowles and an anonymous film blogger, in which he allegedly told her, "Come hither to Austin. Your eyeliner makes you look good enough to eat. Obviously I'm talking about cannibalism, baby. You have can have my Vienna sausage anytime."
The article also quotes Britt Hayes, a writer who previously worked for the Drafthouse-owned Birth.Movies.Death — where Faraci had been editor-in-chief — who says she was contacted via Twitter direct message by Knowles, who hosted a 24-hour Fantastic Fest movie marathon called Butt-Numb-A-Thon.
"He said, ‘Do you want to know the real way to get into BNAT?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, what,’ and he said, ‘Show me your tits,’” Hayes recalls.
Perhaps most troubling is the account of Jill Lewis, the guest services coordinator for Fantastic Fest in its early years. In a statement posted on Tuesday to Facebook, Lewis describes several disturbing incidents directed at her by various male employees and business partners of Drafthouse.
"A regular of the Drafthouse/Fantastic Fest, whom people knew as 'creepy, but harmless,' made me very uneasy with his escalating unwarranted sexual behavior towards me," Lewis writes. "The peak of which ended with me pushing him away from me and kicking him out of Alamo South Lamar in the middle of a crowded hallway after he grabbed my arm/shoulder, stuck his face in my ear and whispered extremely dirty things involving my 'pussy.'"
Lewis says she informed the Leagues of the incident with the man, whom they knew personally. "[They] explained to me that they felt compassion for him as he was injured in an accident and lived his life at the Alamo, that banning him would ruin life for him," Lewis says.
The Leagues' approach was to demand the unnamed man, who was not directly employed by Drafthouse, sign a "a legal document stating that he would keep his distance from me and no longer engage in these disgusting behaviors, or be banned." He signed it and continued to work in close proximity of Lewis.
"I had to go to work knowing that this man, who I didn't feel safe around, would be lurking there. For a period of time afterwards, I had an employee stay until I could be walked out to my car at the end of the night. This man is still a regular and is involved with both the Alamo and Fantastic Fest," Lewis says.
She cites another incident in which a male co-worker threw an office chair at her head in a fit of rage, narrowly missing her; it was caught on surveillance video. He was not fired, but rather relocated to another location in Austin. Another time, a filmmaker screening his film at the cinema announced that he wanted to make Lewis "squeal like a stuck pig," in front of several patrons, which was met with "an uncomfortable silence then slight giggles."
About Knowles, Lewis says she was once approached by the movie blogger at a Fantastic Fest event. "He told me he was on mushrooms," she writes. "And that he and his wife had been talking about wanting to see me naked, and asked me to do just that with them that night ... I was completely disgusted, politely declined, and left."
With League traveling during this year's Fantastic Fest, the duties of opening remarks were passed on to Kristen Bell, a former director of the festival (no relation to the Veronica Mars actress) who this year was not involved in programming. Bell acknowledged the controversy in her speech, and urged "complete open communication and conversations about change" among the Drafthouse community.
But when Lewis later approached Bell to share some of her own experiences of sexual harassment, she says she was "immediately silenced" by Bell, who said she would "absolutely ... not talk about" the allegations.
"I walked to my car, feeling really weird about it, and returned to confront the situation and have an actual conversation. Twice more, I was brushed off, walked away from, and not allowed to speak about these things," Lewis writes.
With a decades-long pattern of sexual abuses now coming to light, all eyes are on Tim League to see how he maneuvers this particular powder keg.
In his latest statement, League describes Drafthouse — which includes the theater chain and Drafthouse Pictures releasing arm, in addition to its websites and Mondo memorabilia store — as a "big company with over 4,500 employees." He notes that over "one million guests come through our doors every month" and that the company has "a great HR team."
But with that HR team seemingly asleep at the wheel, Drafthouse has left itself susceptible to costly lawsuits, as civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, daughter of Gloria Allred, told IndieWire shortly after the Faraci news broke — but before the latest avalanche of allegations.
“The reason most sane companies are not going to hire someone with a significant sexual harassment history is because they are exposed to massive liability, including punitive damages if the guy sexually harasses or assaults somebody at the new company,” Bloom said. “This would be a gold mine for me."
Also in question is how the controversy will affect League's new company, Neon, which along with 30WEST nabbed domestic distribution rights to the the high-profile Margot Robbie film I, Tonya at the Toronto International Film Festival. The status of the acquisition — a Tony Harding biopic that revolves around an act of violence planned and perpetrated by men against her Olympic rival, Nancy Kerrigan — has thus far been unaffected, sources with knowledge of the deal tell The Hollywood Reporter.
Writing from "a hotel room in Kansas City," the latest stop on his company listening tour, League promises that Fantastic Fest is "actively working on building out a new Board of Directors" led by Bell. That board of directors will be separate from Drafthouse's current board, according to someone familiar with the plan.
"Recent perspective has made it clear that we didn’t always do the right thing," League said. "To the women we have let down, Karrie and I both sincerely apologize."
Representatives for Alamo Drafthouse declined to comment for this story.