Interviews: Horror Film Festival Promoters of the Northeast – Part 1

Putting together a film festival of any type takes time, commitment (or committed), a reliable team, a diverse lineup, luck plus so much more. We sat down with four of the most well established genre film festivals that have survived & thrived for over five years in the northeast part of North America. These four key participants bring different perspectives, experience, selective eye and personality to this discussion as we covered a wide variety of topics gaining insight into what makes this annual celebrations of film, fans and filmmakers a must to attend! So take a read, share each part of the mass panel interview, look for new parts in this interview series to come and most important come out and support them! The usual suspects included in the panel are:

Boston Underground Film Festival: 18 Years (BUFF) / – “Artistic Director” Kevin Monahan

Ithaca Fantastik: 5 Years (IF) / – “CEO & Founder” Hugues Barbier

New York City Horror Film Festival: 14 Years (NYC) / – “Festival Head of Staff” Sean Marks

Toronto After Dark Film Festival: 11 Years (TAD) / – “Programming & Communications Manager” Christian Burgess

The traditional Saturday morning cereal celebration with Saturday morning cartoons at the "Boston Underground Film Festival".
The traditional Saturday morning cereal celebration with Saturday morning cartoons at the “Boston Underground Film Festival”.

Where did it all begin for your festival? What were the early days like for you when you began? What has been the most impactful change to date?

BUFF: The first BUFF was held in February 1999 as an all-night short film marathon at a now-defunct museum. Local film programmer David Kleiler (who ran the Coolidge Corner Theatre for some time) started the festival, but after the first year he seemed to have a different festival manager each year. There wasn’t much infrastructure, because there was such a high turnover.  I came on board for the 2005 festival with Anna Feder (who now runs the Bright Lights film series at Emerson College. With David’s blessing, Anna and I made a huge overhaul of the fest over the course of the first three years we were involved, but the most impactful change we made in those early days is keeping the festival the same time of year (we’ve been the last weekend in March since 2006) and establishing a clear format for the fest. We’ve tinkered with the format a bit, but it’s been roughly the same since I’ve been involved.

IF: “Ithaca Fantastik” started as a spinoff of the “Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival”- in France, where I was a programmer/organizer for 3 years prior to move to Ithaca, NY. The early years where really hard, starting a fantastic film festival in a small town is really challenging in many ways- most of them I didn’t anticipated (funding, turn out etc.). Since year one, we try to stick to a formula (Competition, Retrospective, miniseries), hoping that the word of mouth will do its job instead of trying to re-invent the wheel every year. After 5 years, we finally got a regular core audience allowing us to continue this adventure.

NYC: This is a hard question to answer, as I didn’t join the festival until 2004, 2 years after it started in 2002. I’ll relay it best I can through second-hand information, however. Our departed founder Michael J. Hein and his friend Anthony Pepe had made a film called “Biohazardous”. After finishing it, they were submitting to festivals all over the country and were shocked to find that NYC didn’t have one. My understanding is that Michael said “Well…it does now!”. The “NYC Horror Film Festival” was born the next year. I can’t comment on the early days of the festival as I wasn’t there to experience it. Our most impactful change, however, is a rather long answer, as we’ve had a ton of that. Obviously, the most negative change was the loss of Michael in 2010. There’s really no way to recover from that 100%, but the Hein family recuperated and have brought the festival back in Michael’s honor. He was a great guy and we all miss him a shit-ton. We also recently lost another one of our NYCHFF family with the loss of Nixida Toro in August of 2015, as well as our venue with the closure of “Tribeca Cinemas”. We’re weathering it, though. That’s all you can really do with these sorts of things – band together and move on.  We’ve tried to stay relatively the same over the past 13 years so as a result, most “change” tends to be losses. Sorry Jay! Didn’t mean to be a bummer, brother.

 TAD: I can’t speak for what conceived the idea for the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival”. That story belongs to Adam Lopez. I’m hoping one day he writes an autobiography on everything we’ve experienced over the years, when we’re all old and grey. I began my interest in the festival back in 2006 when I worked for a division of Entertainment One who sponsored its inaugural year. I was a fan first and foremost. The festival simply spoke to me with the types of films programmed, so I went to see them. As for the most impactful change, I’d say it’s our venue. In ten years, the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival”, found a home every year at three different venues. Initially, Toronto’s historic Bloor Cinema – an independent single-screen rep theatre – hosted us. But it was our partnership with Canada’s exhibition chain, “Cineplex Entertainment”, that I really found impactful. Jumping from a single-screen theatre to a busy multi-screen venue run by a “corporation” was equally nerve-racking and welcoming. 2016 marks our fourth year with Cineplex and our relationship has been wonderful.

A moment’s break for the crew of the 2015 “Ithaca Fantastic” including Founder Hugues Barbier with Kaila Sarah Hier and two dedicated volunteers.

What does it take to not only host and run a successful film festival but to have staying power?

BUFF: I’d say it takes an intense love of cinema, a willingness not to get paid and a high tolerance for being jerked around.

IF: The way we see it at IF, is to not confuse our audience by changing what makes the festival successful, but at the same time trying to implement new axes to make the festival as attractive as possible with new trends. In our opinion, we live in a world where audience needs to be surprised every year. Slight implementation of new activities (Concerts, art exhibitions) makes the festival a destination that our audience wants to be part of.

NYC: Hosting’s the easy part. We just try to be friendly and ply everyone with alcohol to welcome them to the greatest city in the world. For our festival, we try to keep a rowdy, expletive-ridden party atmosphere going. It won’t work for every city or every crowd but we’ve found it mostly works for ours. It took a bit of getting used to (hosting after Mike passed), and there were some growing pains. But once you get the hang of being on stage and being an asshole in front of a crowd while liquored up, you don’t remember why it was so hard at the start. Running the festival, on the other hand, is a whole other beast. The Hein family deals with a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff (venue booking, guests, etc.). It’s a daily job and I don’t know how they do it. If I have to answer my phone once a week I get annoyed – they have to answer emails and phone calls all the time. It’s a herculean task and every time you think you’re done two more little monsters pop up that have to be killed (metaphorically speaking). So…patience! It takes a lot of patience. Staying power is tricky, on the other hand. We’ve tried to stay true to how Mike ran things and it seems to be keeping us afloat. We’ve evolved in some small, important ways (trying to angle all our film submissions to a digital platform, for instance), but the guts of it are still the rowdy, booze soaked, “holy crap this is barely holding itself together but goddamn it’s fun” festival. We still get a ton of submissions and attendance is pretty good so that fits the bill for “staying power”, right?

TAD: It all comes down to not only the films programmed each and every year, but the team of dedicated staff and volunteers we have. We have an incredible team of professional and courteous individuals. We ensure that our visiting filmmakers/guests are treated with the utmost respect, and that their visit to our festival and our city is a memorable one. Ensuring films are screened with the appropriate technical checks and balances. Building a rapport with every single audience member that trusts the programming every year – while we can’t obviously please everyone, I’d like to say that the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival” offers something for everyone who attends. The list can go on, but personally speaking, I like to think that these are the most important reasons.

"Toronto After Dark Film Festival" Programming and Communications Manager Christian Burgess
“Toronto After Dark Film Festival” Programming and Communications Manager Christian Burgess

How impactful has the venues and city been for the growth of your film festival?

BUFF: Our venues have been wonderful. Over the course of my tenure we’ve worked with the Somerville Theatre, the Coolidge, the Harvard Film Archive and even the Kendall Square Cinema (which is a Landmark Theater) and the staff at these venues have been fantastic and they’re run by great people, however only the “Brattle Theatre” (our current home) believed in us enough to partner with us and tie their success to ours. I don’t know if we would have the staying power we’ve over the course of the past five years if it hadn’t been for the Brattle.

Boston, on the other hand, was a tough nut to crack. Despite the abundant student population, it’s really hard to get people out to stuff in this city unless it’s a sporting event or a rock show. By the early-mid 90’s, the cinema culture in this town had seen better days; a lot of cinemas had shuttered and there were no indie theaters left in the city proper (still aren’t). But, this is a big enough city that our audience had to be out there somewhere and it was just a matter of cutting thorough the noise and letting them know we were here too. Social media has helped a lot in that regard.

IF: The IF is a community based festival- The venues, either for screening movies (Cinemapolis) or for concerts (CSMA)- are key in our development. Tompkins County through the Tourism board as well as the City of Ithaca are our main financing and moral supporter.

NYC: Our longest running venue was the now-deceased “Tribeca Cinemas” down on Varick Street. It had two beautiful theaters and a bar that was part of the venue (The Varick Room). You could drink in the theater and it was just great. It perfectly fit our needs and replacing it has been challenging. We were at Times Scare last year and they did a terrific job, but they’re gone as well (the NYCHFF kiss of death strikes again!) (just kidding, please let us use your space for our festival). So, venue has been a huge factor. We’ve gotten lucky in that both spots have had alcohol served on the premises with plenty of space to fraternize after the screenings. The festival experience is equal parts artistic and social. Getting everyone together to have fun with films is great, but when you add that social aspect on top of it, you hopefully give people a week/weekend to remember forever. Venues are a huge part of accommodating that. And as for the city itself? I mean, shit. It’s New York. I’ve met a bunch of filmmakers who get really excited to show their film in NYC. It’s a bragging right and something a lot of people dream about. And then when the screening is over we all go out and enjoy the…uhhh….”finer things” the city has to offer (read: booze). It’s also important to remember that the festival is named how it is for a reason – The “NEW YORK CITY Horror Film Festival”. It grabs people by the scruff of their neck – just like the city does.

TAD: Very impactful. As mentioned in my answer to your first question, venues are a key factor to the growth of the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival”. You have to have a home. Over the years we’ve stuck to the same sort of formula that works for us – the same capacity size for the theatre, along with one screen, and two screenings a night (except weekends where we have additional screenings). I feel that our recent partnership with Cineplex has opened up the festival to the typical audience member that doesn’t really attend film festivals (Toronto annually has approximately NINETY festivals every year). The multiplex environment also allows for walk-ups, those audience members who would normally just show up to the theatre and impulsively buy a ticket to some Hollywood fare. Having a presence there allows them to give the Toronto After Dark Film Festival a try. Feed that curiosity. Something outside of the norm.

Watching from the "crow's nest" in the "Brattle Theatre" during the "Homegrown Horror" block of BUFF.
Watching from the “crow’s nest” in the “Brattle Theatre” during the “Homegrown Horror” block of BUFF.

One of the greatest signs of evolution for the film festivals in general has been technology. Has it been more impactful for the film festivals in how they present and promote the programming or has it been more impactful for the filmmakers and the roads available to capture and cultivate their ideas and dreams?

BUFF: I think tech has been equally impactful for both festivals and filmmakers in completely different ways. I mentioned how social media has allowed us to reach out to our audience, and I really can’t overstate how impactful it has been. But as for the fest directors, we’ve been able to communicate with each other in a way that would have been very difficult without the technology. But when it comes to presentation, it’s a bit sad that actual film is getting harder to come by, but at least DCP has standardized the presentation to a known quantity instead of constantly wondering if this tape is going to clog or this file is going to glitch.

IF: Indeed, technology changed our job a lot- access to copy, cost as well as handling films changed radically 7 years ago. When I started to program for film festival, more than 10 years ago- 100% of our slate of films were prints- In 2016, we have only a handful or no prints programmed. 35mm projector are becoming really rare, and despite the fact that (me) and a few film geeks are still excited by celluloid screening- the big majority of people are oblivious about the change. The truth is that the quality and ease to handle DCP copies makes the overall quality of the festival higher. Still makes me really sad to not be able to screen 35mm- But still working on bringing more prints for the film aficionados. Technology also changed the way we promote the festival, and having a presence in social media is a key to success.

NYC: I think it’s been more fruitful for filmmakers. There’s only so much a film fest can do to promote. Filmmakers are endless wells of talent and, in the case of our favorite genre, depravity.

 TAD: One of the greatest signs of evolution for the film festivals in general has been technology. Has it been more impactful for the film festivals in how they present and promote the programming or has it been more impactful for the filmmakers and the roads available to capture and cultivate their ideas and dreams? I feel technology’s been equally impactful for both film festivals and filmmakers. Isn’t technology supposed to make things “easier”?? Regardless, they both consume a lot of time and dedication to pull them off.

 We’ll have PART TWO of this three part series up and ready tomorrow!

(All images are taken by Jay Kay, The Ghost and found on Google)

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