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) / http://bostonunderground.org – “Artistic Director” Kevin Monahan
Ithaca Fantastik: 5 Years (IF) / http://ithacafilmfestival.com – “CEO & Founder” Hugues Barbier
New York City Horror Film Festival: 14 Years (NYC) / http://nychorrorfest.com – “Festival Head of Staff” Sean Marks
Toronto After Dark Film Festival: 11 Years (TAD) / http://torontoafterdark.com – “Programming & Communications Manager” Christian Burgess
What has been two of the films that really have put your film festival on the map? Talk about finding those diverse and well-crafted films within the annual horror film fest circuit entries? How has film submission platforms like “FilmFreeway” or “Withoutabox” changed the game?
BUFF: Two years in a row (in 2011 & 2012) we had very anticipated opening night films with HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and JOHN DIES AT THE END, respectively. Even though we had a personal connection with the filmmakers, HOBO was more difficult to get than I expected and I had to exhaust every resource I had to book it. 2011 was a particularly rough year, it was very expensive, plagued with tech issues and internal strife. Anna jumped ship after that one. We weren’t sure if we were going to keep on with this, but we had the momentum so Nicole McControversy (who had been with the fest since 2008) and I decided we were going to see if we could keep the fest running and try to keep it simple. I was already a huge fan of David Wong’s book, so when I heard that JOHN DIES was being made into a film by Don Coscarelli, it definitely had my attention. It’s through sheer luck that these films were completed and available for BUFF and through the graciousness of Jason Eisener and Don Coscarelli that they were able to attend.
As for “WithoutaBox” and “FilmFreeway”, I can barely remember what life was like before these platforms existed. We’ve been using WaB since 2006, so I only had to manage the submissions myself that first year. Before that, I had only been working on other people’s festivals, where you sign-out a bunch of screeners and turn them in with notes. Not only have these platforms widened the pool of submissions, but they’ve made sure nothing falls through the cracks, because everything is online. If I were a filmmaker, I’d be wary of any festival that did not use either of these platforms.
IF: As a programmer it’s really hard for me to give away one or two titles as ‘prominent’- Finding international, and interesting movies to screen is a daily task- and networking, to know what is in the pipeline, is key. What’s been screened to other festival as well as watching (a lot) of submissions is the most taxing part of a programmer. Submission platform changed the programming game too- another effect of the shift to digital, we have access to bigger varieties of films- and on a programmer point of view it’s invaluable to be able to craft miniseries and competition that makes sense for the time they are screened as well as the way you put them together.
NYC: I would say two of the films we’re proudest of being able to have shown are Gavin Michael Booth’s THE SCAREHOUSE and Scott Schirmer’s FOUND. In terms of finding diverse films, it actually ties into the submission platform question. Honestly – I would never go back to receiving physical media for submissions. Film Freeway has been our platform of choice for the past few years and we can’t live without it. It lets us lay everything out very clearly – “ok, here’s what we liked, here’s what we didn’t.” It lets directors lay out their manifestos for the film before we see it in a text box on the film’s page. And it helps us wrap our head around how diverse our selection is. As opposed to when everything is on disc and it becomes a scramble to be like “Oh shit, what was this one about again?!? Too late, we already sent the screener back to the filmmaker!”. Now it’s as easy as clicking on the title of the film and saying “Ah yes, this was the prison-rape revenge slasher comedy! Totally playing this on a Friday night.” (please credit me if you make that film, by the way).
TAD: Good question. I’ve only “worked” for the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival” since 2008, so I’m unable to speak for all the films programmed over the years, and if they did or did not put the festival “on the map”. I’ll share two examples of films I feel worthy of mentioning. First would be 2008’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Although I wasn’t able to attend the screening, it wound up being sold-out and from my recollection; the power to the theatre was knocked out due to an intense storm. I saw the film at a later date once it was picked up for distribution here in Canada, and instantly it became one of my favorites. I don’t recall who programmed the film, or how the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival” managed to acquire it to screen (versus other festivals), but it’s indeed a highlight.
Four years ago, I discovered the Roache-Turner’s short film WYRMWOOD. I adore genre films from Australian filmmakers, so instantly I was sold on it. Upon hearing that Kiah and Tristan were making a feature of their short film, every few months I was contacting them asking them if it was ready. Without even seeing the finished film, I wanted it for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Although I kept my knowledge of it on the down low. I easily became obsessed with WYRMWOOD, and eventually we hosted the Canadian Premiere in 2014 to a sold-out crowd and enthusiastic reviews. I’m rather fond of that discovery and the work involved ensuring a successful screening.
Film submission platforms such as “FilmFreeway” and WAB are crucial to both film festivals and filmmakers. It certainly changed the game defining the word, “convenient”. Eliminating DVD/Blu-ray screeners (and potential problems with them), and ultimately saving time and money (shipping supplies, postage/courier costs etc), this online submission process is a godsend to both parties involved. Once a film is submitted to any festival via “FilmFreeway” or WAB (and others), it’s essentially automatically in consideration, easing the anxiety of submission process. That’s replaced with the anxiety of waiting for any news of acceptance/rejection down the road… 😉
How much does reputation matter in the landscape of horror film festivals?
BUFF: A whole bunch. We step up our game each year and take our feedback very seriously. It used to irritate me that we were considered a horror fest because we were always so much more than horror, but I’ve really embraced in in the last few years especially as we’ve moved our programming more towards genre fare than what “underground” meant in the traditional sense. The horror fans are some of the best fans out there, and their support has been unwavering.
IF: Reputation is key in any kind of festivals- that goes from the ethic of what you can screen or not, quality of screening, and- of course, what kind of films you decide to promote to your audience. Understanding what the public wants to see, but also diverging toward directions they don’t except is- in our opinion- is what a festival should be doing. Gaining reputation with the industry, but also having the confidence of your public is our goal at IF.
NYC: Honestly? I have no fucking clue. I’ve tried to avoid hearing too much about our reputation online or on social media. It might be terrific; it might be awful. I don’t try to get bogged down in it too much. That’s just a “me” thing, though. I’ve always hated reading about the reception to anything I’m involved in (hint: it’s why I’m not a filmmaker). We just try to make sure everyone who attends leaves happy or at least mildly horrified and hope good word of mouth spreads from there.
TAD: There is a misunderstanding that the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival” only screens “horror” films. This is not true as we screen all sorts of genre films – from dark comedies to action films and science-fiction. That being said, reputation absolutely does matter within the landscape of film festival. As mentioned earlier, a film festival evolves only from the success of its prior years.
Can you talk about setting up the film fest lineup? What goes into a connecting and balanced lineup? What is the criteria for selection?
BUFF: That’s hard to talk about because the criteria is so subjective. Nicole and I have a small screening crew that we trust and know our sensibilities. Nicole and I also try to watch as much as we can ourselves. Niki and I have worked together for some time and we’re on the same page way more often than not, so I think our programming chemistry is what makes BUFF what it is.
IF: We are always trying to balance by time and day- We will not show the same style of films at 6pm as opposed to 10pm- the same is true for Thursday evening as opposed to Saturday evening. People are in different mindset at different time, and our job is to taking this into consideration. After that, the creativity and angle we take for miniseries and competition is the most important. Our job is to try, as much as we can, to give an accurate picture of what the genre has to offer in a specific year. Programmer isn’t about selecting films you like, but selecting movies that are relevant for your audience as well as representing trends.
NYC: The judges (myself, Robert Hansford, Kimberly Magness, Adam Torkel, Brian Smith, and Santos Ellin Jr.) set up the feature film lineup first. We then add short films – the seasoning on top of our shockingly violent dinner, if you will. We try to keep each program somewhat connected without it becoming too “samey”. We’re not going to put 3 straight comedic short films up before a comedic feature, as an example. But we might do 1 light hearted short and two shorts that are darker but have similar subject matter. It’s a challenge and sometimes certain programs are just a hodgepodge of “dude all this shit is really good, so there!” Criteria for selection is really just a matter of coming in the top 30 or so based on votes. We have hundreds of submissions every year and a TON of great stuff gets left out. So we need to just do everything with a numbered voting system and trust that we’ve made the right calls.
TAD: In regards to the programming team with the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival”, I’m happy to say that what makes us unique is how diverse we all are. As much as we all love certain films and genres, we don’t all agree on everything. Our personal tastes speak volumes to what identifies us. This has made for some interesting programming meetings and decisions over the years, and the final programming selections reflect that. I don’t want to spill all our secrets, but obviously screening solid films we’re confident in, is key, at least from our perspective.
Adam knows the “Toronto After Dark” audience from his years of collecting detailed market research conducted from our audience members. He knows what sorts of films perform well with our festival which helps us in discovering films over the months leading up to the festival. Just because a certain film has a successful screening in some festival in another part of the world, doesn’t mean we’ll also see the same results. This research also reflects how unique and important Toronto film goers are to Hollywood. I believe Toronto is one the best audiences in the world to screen any film. This is proven by the sheer number of film festivals held annually in the city.
How impactful have short films been to the programming?
BUFF: We’ve always considered ourselves a shorts-first festival. BUFF didn’t have any feature films its first year! And we would open with a shorts block for the first several years. To this day we’re very committed to having a robust short film presence though our standby blocks (the transgressive midnight shorts, music videos, animation, etc.) as well as a few blocks that change in theme from year to year.
IF: We unfortunately don’t give enough space to short films for the last 4 years. We are working on giving more slots, as we know that new upcoming filmmakers are cutting their teeth with that format.
NYC: Hopefully my answer from the above question will also answers this one.
TAD: While our short film programming has remained the same, that hasn’t stopped the number of short films submitted to us every year. 2015 broke a record for submission, and before that, 2014 shattered the record. It’s incredible to see that short films are consistently being produced every year, from passionate talented filmmakers all over the world. What is refreshing to see at the “Toronto After Dark Film Festival” is more audience members are appreciating them! From increases in attendance at our International Short Films showcase to the wonderful praise and support of Canadian Short Films that are screened before each and every feature film. In recent years, I made it my mission to give these short films and the talent behind them a little more exposure every year, with focus on getting reviews from our accredited press and schedule interviews.