Indie Cinema’s ‘Safe Space’ Crumbles Under a Wave of Sexual-Assault Allegations
The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema—and Fantastic Fest—is rocked by yet another series of sexual-assault accusations against a prominent film blogger: Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles.
Fantastic Fest, Austin’s cult genre film festival, has been wracked by a series of sexual-assault allegations and internal controversies.
Two weeks ago, news surfaced that movie blogger Devin Faraci, who had previously resigned from his post as the editor in chief of Birth.Movies.Death following allegations of sexual assault, had been quietly rehired by Alamo Drafthouse, the Texas-based company that boasts the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, Drafthouse Films’ distribution company, and Birth.Movies.Death. The Drafthouse is run by CEO Tim League, the co-founder of Fantastic Fest. League himself cited Faraci’s friendship as the primary motivation behind the CEO furtively hiring the controversial movie blogger to write copy for Fantastic Fest. Once Faraci’s byline was spotted in the official Fantastic Fest brochure, League and Drafthouse’s secret was out, sparking a controversy that spread from the insular Fantastic Fest community into the larger film community and blogosphere.
The Faraci fallout included multiple statements from League, who initially defended the decision to give Faraci a second chance, before backtracking with an announcement that the blogger had “offered his resignation, and I have accepted it.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, multiple alleged victims of Faraci have spoken out, from Caroline, the woman who first accused the critic of “grabbing me by the pussy,” to the anonymous female film blogger who recalled a disturbing sexual interaction with Faraci, telling The Daily Beast that: “I quietly shared my experience with Devin with readers and fellow writers, and learned that this was not only common, but that Faraci had a long history of predatory behavior. Those stories aren’t mine to share, but they were awful, and very much echo the public allegations against him. I count myself lucky I wasn’t subjected to the more violent harassment he laid on other women.”
While Faraci appears to have been fired for good, outrage at the mishandling of the abuse allegations against him continues to reverberate throughout the community.
Kat Arnett, a self-described victim of Faraci’s harassment, shared with The Daily Beast a string of emails from October 2016 in which she reached out to League in order to make him aware of Faraci’s behavior. After reading Arnett’s accounting of Faraci’s alleged social-media harassment, League responded, “I’ve been talking to Devin lately and he is going through some very serious soul-searching right now. I hope that he does emerge from this as a better person. I’d appreciate it if you kept this dialogue between us. We’re now trying to move forward with the BMD brand, but I did want to get back to you personally.”
League’s apparent silencing of victims, combined with his decision to furtively rehire an accused abuser, has been cast in an even more sinister light this week, with reports indicating that Fantastic Fest may have knowingly harbored another unsavory critic.
Early last week, Fantastic Fest, which began on Sept. 21, released an official list of festival sponsors. Noticeably missing from the list was Ain’t It Cool News, the movie blog created and run by Fantastic Fest co-founder Harry Knowles. Knowles did not respond to The Daily Beast’s repeated requests for comment.
On Sept. 21, Knowles broke his silence to IndieWire, confirming the rumors that he would not be attending this year’s festival. “I’m minding the store this time,” he told the website. “I’ll be able to get stories up on time—silver linings, you know?” He alluded to the fact that his absence was in part due to circulating allegations against him, adding, “There was a rumor about me and an ex-girlfriend that felt ugly,” he said. “They’re a complete fabrication and lie.” Asked about ex-Fantastic Fest programmer Todd Brown, who parted ways with the festival in the wake of the Faraci news—and shared a statement condemning the festival and the Drafthouse as “just the geek friendly equivalent of the classic Old Boys Club”—Knowles responded, “As for any lascivious boys-club activity, I don’t understand that. I’m the guy who tries to see a movie [at all times]. I try to stay away from the parties, I’m in a wheelchair, plus I’m married. I’m not out trying to get laid. I never witnessed any boys-clubby type stuff.”
In a follow-up piece, IndieWire shared the story of Jasmine Baker, who claims that Knowles sexually assaulted her at an Alamo Drafthouse event. Kate Erbland and Dana Harris reported, “In 1999-2000, Baker was familiar with Knowles and his website, as they often attended the same Drafthouse events. Baker was at a Drafthouse event when Knowles rubbed up against her buttocks and legs in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. While she was initially willing to consider it an accident, on a later occasion he rubbed up against her again; she confronted him about his behavior, and made it clear that he did not have her consent to touch her in any manner. ‘He just giggled about it,’ she said. On at least one occasion, she said he also put his hand under her shirt.”
According to IndieWire, Baker told Drafthouse founders Tim and Karrie League about her disturbing interactions with Knowles “soon after they occurred.” Baker, who worked for Drafthouse from 2003-2007 but has been friends with the Leagues since 1997, disclosed that the couple “thought it was horrifying, but also didn’t know what to do.” She continued, “Their suggestion was, ‘Just avoid him,’ she said. ‘And I did that. In light of all that has happened for them publicly, today they might make a different choice about how to handle someone they did business with. But at that time, they were trying to bring inclusiveness to everyone and also didn’t want to confront a business partner.’”
As IndieWire outlined, League proceeded to co-found Fantastic Fest with Harry Knowles in 2005. Baker explained that she has spoken with the Leagues recently, and that “they are listening to me. They are listening to my concerns now. I don’t know if they are going to act on my concerns.
“I’m not saying that the Leagues have done things correctly, or always done the right thing when problems or improprieties were brought to their attention,” Baker said. “However, it appears that they are really trying to do something now, the right way.”
Knowles “categorically” denied the accusations, telling IndieWire that he and Baker were friends and that “she treated me like a confidante.” Knowles echoed these sentiments on Twitter, posting, “There’s a story coming about me that is 100% untrue. I was this person’s friend and confidant. I wish her nothing but the best. But untrue.”
In a statement issued the day after IndieWire's story, Tim League admitted that "recent perspective has made it clear we didn't always do the right thing, despite what we thought were good intentions. To the women we have let down, Karrie and I both sincerely apologize."
"As many of you know, I decided to skip Fantastic Fest this year," he continued. "I feel that the most important thing I can do right now is to travel to all of our theaters, talk with our staff and listen. I’ve hosted 12 sessions so far and there are many more scheduled for the next three weeks all over the country. ... Moving forward, we have severed all ties with Harry Knowles and he is no longer affiliated with the company in any capacity. 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."
Other Twitter users rushed to share Baker’s story and applaud her bravery, with some women coming forward to share their own stories of Knowles’ harassment.
Gloria Walker, who gave The Daily Beast permission to publish her tweets, posted that Knowles had “grabbed my ass and other parts of me” on multiple occasions, adding, “I just learned to not go within grabbing distance of him.” She continued, “One occasion that stands out: I wanted to get into the original Captain America screening and he told me I had to kiss him to get in. It’s not a secret. So many women have these stories. We have learned to steer clear of someone so we can pursue our love of cinema.”
A female film blogger who asked to remain anonymous posted screenshots of unsolicited, extremely sexual messages she received from Knowles last June. She told The Daily Beast that Harry started following her “maybe at the end of March”; she assumes that he found her via friends at Birth.Movies.Death. who were already following her on Twitter. Knowles began sending her messages. “They were harmless at first, completely harmless,” she explained. “He knew that I was a fan of Peter Jackson who he happens to be friends with, and he would use that as leverage to speak to me, so we would have conversations about that. And then, one day…I really don’t know what switched gears for him, but I had posted a picture of my makeup, and he sent me that message,”—referring to the excerpt from their conversation that she posted on Twitter, in which Knowles told her that “you can have my Vienna sausage anytime.”
Asked why she decided to go public with the harassment now, she explained to The Daily Beast that it was for the benefit of other women she’s interacted with. “I got close to a lot of the girls in that community when I started gaining a little bit more exposure, and they would tell me that they were scared of people like Harry, because they would get messages like that from him, and they wouldn’t say anything to him about it or tell anyone because of his influence in the community.”
She added, “If Harry was someone I wanted to write for, which is just a hypothetical, and he had made an advance on me, I would feel a little bit uncomfortable saying something about it, or exposing him for it, because of the simple fact that I wanted to write for him, and I was scared that if I did say something he would completely blacklist me. And then who am I supposed to write for?
“Recently,” she continued, “with what has been happening with the Drafthouse and Tim League and all of that, I couldn’t take it anymore that these men in power didn’t suffer the consequences of the disgusting things they were doing. I also don’t think Harry is going to face any consequences really, he’s still tweeting that nothing happened… so I just wanted to do it for them, pretty much, because these women are scared, and that’s a huge problem.”
She recalled one of the many messages she has received about Knowles since her tweet, this one from a woman who applauded her for sharing her story but said that she was unable to share her own—because she writes for a website that’s associated with Harry Knowles.
Discussing the IndieWire piece, which reported that the Leagues were aware of Baker’s story and continued to work with Knowles, she said that, “I one-hundred percent believe that.” She continued, “That is what is most upsetting. Because the Drafthouse is somewhere where these women went as a safe space. They had a Wonder Woman screening that was only for women, and it felt like they cared about us in this community. And to know that Tim did absolutely nothing when his friend was accused of sexually harassing someone, and rather lied to his supporters in order to protect his friend… that speaks volumes to me.”
This woman was actually planning to attend Fantastic Fest this year before deciding, given the circumstances, “to sit this one out.”
She explained, “I saw a headline from someone reporting at Fantastic Fest that literally said ‘business as usual.’ I was so shocked and really hurt by that, because some people are telling me that there are dialogues that are happening, but some people are telling me that everything is fine, there’s just a little bit of tension. I can only hope that something does change. But am I supposed to believe that something will when Devin had his job this whole fucking time, and Tim hasn’t even stepped down?”
As for Knowles, she points out, “Harry is still going about his daily life, he’s still posting things about his website on his Twitter, and he’s not even addressing my screenshots, which I know he has seen for sure by this point.”
Britt Hayes, an associate editor at ScreenCrush, spoke to The Daily Beast from Fantastic Fest. She’s one of the women who shared her own experience with Knowles on Twitter, posting, “Harry sexually harassed me. he has sexually harassed other women in this community for years. this wasn’t an anomaly. he is a predator.”
Hayes told The Daily Beast that the incident occurred in 2012. “I went to Harry’s stupid Butt-Numb-A-Thon [an annual event that Knowles hosts at the Alamo Drafthouse] in 2011,” she began. “I had a decent enough time, but it’s also a lot, it’s over 24 hours in a movie theater! So the following year I was kind of like publicly weighing, I was like, ‘I’m thinking about going to BNAT again, but I’m not sure…’ So I got a DM from Harry who at the time I followed on Twitter, and I didn’t know him very well, I had maybe met him in passing once or something, so he sent me a private message, and 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 subsequently unfollowed Knowles and made it a point to avoid him entirely. “If I have to be in a room with him and he starts to talk to me, I’ll be civil, but I don’t want to talk to him,” she explained, adding that, “I’ve heard a lot of similar stories, where he tries to leverage his position of power.”
Asked to elaborate on Knowles’ status in the community, Hayes responded, “Ain’t It Cool isn’t as relevant as it once was, but it’s still weird, you see him around town and he has these screenings and stuff, and he acts like… he rolls up and he acts like he’s the king of Austin. And I’ve seen many people who continue to be very friendly to him, they treat him with reverence, and I find it really hilarious and also disturbing. Some people who are really embedded in this community, in their minds they sort of built him up as a powerful figure who is perhaps sort of untouchable because he often has screenings at the Drafthouse, and he has his marathon here every year, and because everyone loves the Drafthouse and respects the Drafthouse.”
Hayes, who used to write for Birth.Movies.Death, views the wider Fantastic Fest community as her extended family. “I love all of these people—well I don’t love Harry, Harry is a garbage person,” she clarifies, laughing. That affection extends to the Leagues, who she describes as “very good-hearted people.” While she emphasizes that she “can’t speak to Jasmine’s experience”—specifically, the Leagues’ alleged reaction to Jasmine’s story—she says that, “My experience with the Leagues has been the exact opposite of that.”
She recalled an instance two years ago, the night before Fantastic Fest, in which “a guy who was here in town” began sending her harassing messages. “I immediately told a friend who works for the festival and immediately Tim had that guy banned from the Alamo for life. Throughout the week, Tim would ask me, ‘Hey, are you OK? Has he been bothering you anymore, let me know if he’s bothering you.’” Still, Hayes adds, “Even people with the best intentions can occasionally make mistakes—it’s what you do when confronted with that mistake that matters.”
Hayes is optimistic about the future of the festival, which she describes as “the best week of my year.” Describing the environment at Fantastic Fest this year, she says that, “The fact that our community is confronting this right now is really good. We’re taking steps to make it better, people are working really hard to make sure this never happens again, there is serious change happening here, there is dialogue happening—there’s a lot of pain and a lot of guilt, a lot of people who feel guilty that they didn’t know these things, or they feel guilty that they had heard about some of this stuff and they didn’t do anything because they didn’t know what to do.
“I’ve been coming to this festival for eight years now, and I have never felt uncomfortable,” she concluded. “I’ve never been harassed here, I’ve never been assaulted, I’ve never felt uncomfortable, I’ve always felt heard and seen and loved. But knowing that Harry’s not going to be at any Drafthouse anymore is nice, because it means that I’m not going to see him, and other women are not going to be exposed to potential harm. I do feel better that he’s not going to be around anymore, I do feel better now that his reign has ended.”
Hayes also expressed admiration for the writers who have publicly resigned from Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News.
One of these critics, Steve Prokopy, released a statement on Monday, writing, “This was a remarkably easy decision to make; a scary and emotional decision, but an easy one. I have known too many women over the years—both inside and outside the film community—who have encountered and survived sexual harassment and/or assault to allow myself to remain involved in an organization where allegations of either are a part of the landscape… I sincerely hope that the women impacted by any of these incidents have received all the support and strength they need to recover and heal, and I am genuinely sorry for what you endured.” Hayes hopes that this mass exodus marks the end of AICN.
Amidst a culture of silence and fear, women from multiple communities—Fantastic Fest, Austin, film criticism, the larger Twitterverse—are coming together in an effort to move beyond “business as usual.”
Speaking with The Daily Beast again, Kat Arnett shared that, “As one of the few women named, I felt it was my responsibility to reach out to those who might be afraid to come forward. I’ve encouraged them to write in anonymously to my blog if they want to be heard in their own words. I’ve received emails and private messages on all social media platforms from women who were targeted by these men and by others still unnamed. Often they are trying to weigh the benefit of coming forward versus how it will impact their lives. Most have said harassment, unwanted touching, and misogyny are rampant in all of society. They ask me what good it will do to speak when countless other have and nothing has changed.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League.