Jay Kay Talks Five Years & Under Film Festivals Across the United States (Part 1)

The first five years of any film festival is so crucial for variety of reasons. Developing a reputation for the event, staff, and organizers. The foundation of technology and promotion for the film festival. The dynamic of a home for the film festival within a city and venue. The focus of the film selections (short and feature) as well as programming in addition to those key filmmakers, actors, crew, etc who attend. Also, keeping fans coming back each year as well as driving new business to your event.

This is just a handful of questions going through event programmers and organizers minds 365 days a year as the pressure to perhaps survive, grow and evolve. We sat down with four of the growing genre film festivals across North America. These four key participants bring different perspectives, experience, 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 and how these film festivals grow each year! 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:

Kelly Michael Stewart (Programmer, Festival Director & Founder)Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival (BITS) / 5 Years / Toronto ON (http://www.bloodinthesnow.ca)

Mike & JoAnn Thomas (Founders)FANtastic Horror Film Festival (FH) / 4 Years / San Diego, CA (http://www.fhffsd.org)

Igor Shteyrenberg & Marc Ferman (Co-Founders & Co-Directors)Popcorn Frights Film Festival (PF) / 2 Years / Miami, FL (http://www.popcornfrights.com)

Tim Welch (Co-Founder)Scream in the Dark Film Festival & Hall of Fame (SID) / 3 Years / Omaha, NE (http://screaminthedarkomaha.com)

What made you take that leap and move forward with the idea of running a genre film festival? What were some of the guidelines and ideas to make your festival have its own fingerprint on the landscape?

BITS: In 2012, I was running a monthly movie night called FRIGHT NIGHTS AT THE PROJECTION BOOTH.  During that time, quite a few filmmakers looking BITSto premiere their features were approaching me. Festivals like FANTASIA and TORONTO AFTER DARK of course played Canadian films but they are international festivals so they can only play so many Canadian features. So rather than just play it at my monthly movie event I decided to start a full festival. The first year only came together in a few weeks, so I never really had time to really think it over but the festival was an instant hit so we were off and running from that. Well the main aspect that makes us different is that we play exclusively Canadian films. But beside that, we are really a filmmaker-focused festival. We work really hard to drum up press put on a great premiere for them. So we really feel that our job is more than just to program great movies, BITS is there to make their premiere very special.

FH: Being in relatively close proximity to LA, we spent a lot of time and money to go to fests and movie premieres. Some of which were extremely time consuming due to lack of organization.  Coming from a theatrical and meeting planning background we thought we could do a better job. We started with looking at what we as fans would like to see happen at a fest and used that as our guide. Once that idea was established we looked at things from the filmmaker’s perspective and discovered that after all they are fans of all things horror too and it was easy.

PF: For the longest time, we found our community arid of any genre scene. Of course, conventions were a presence, but they never presented the quality and quantity of films we enjoyed at actual film festivals. The fact there was such a large underserved community, in this respect, in our entire state, pushed us to take a leap and launch our POPCORN FRIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL. The Festival has boomed to unprecedented growth and success in such a short time thanks to the support of our film lovers and partners. We maintained from the start the need to stay true to our love of horror cinema — meaning if we were to premiere any new film to an audience, we both had to truly love it. This definitely raised the stakes, forcing us to be highly selective in our curation methodology and limiting all presentations to premiere levels. This criterion quickly helped establish a credible process that definitely represented itself in the quality of our lineup offerings these last two Festival editions.

SID: What made us take the leap was we are all horror fans, and wanted to give the other horror fans in our area a chance to see what the world has to offer in this genre, it had not been done before here, (a genre based film festival). really the only guidelines we have are no violence towards children, no rape in movies. we are not trying to limit anyone, it just a moral thing on our end.

How many venues has your film festival been housed in? If more than one, what was the reason why you moved into a new venue? If not, what was the reason why this theater or venue worked for your vision? Has that decision to expand programming, guests, films, workshops, vendors or exhibits benefited the overall growth of the film festival?

BITS: We started the festival in a cool little grindhouse cinema in the east end of the city in 2012 that doesn’t exist anymore. After our first year, we moved to the CARLTON CINEMAS for three years (2013, 2014 & 2015). We had a fantastic experience there but we were starting to find we were starting to outgrown the seating capacity of that venue and we had to make the painful experience to move to CINEPLEX at Yonge and Dundas. We are really happy with our new location and partners but we’ll always miss the staff and the vibe of the Carlton for sure.

FH: Our first 2 fests were held in the same theatre in the Gaslamp Section of the city. Unfortunately, the theatre closed this past February and we have had to FHFFfind a new home this year. With a new location our challenges have evolved and we won’t be sure what this season will reveal yet. Three years in and we are still finding our way, and each new year presents its own new challenges and learning experiences. We try to get in as many films as is possible given time restraints and since we are a film festival we do not have vendors or exhibits. We are going for giving fans, filmmakers, producers, and actors the opportunity to experience in a somewhat relaxed way and everyone is family!

PF: The POPCORN FRIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL calls the O CINEMA its home. Located in the heart of the Wynwood arts district, a flourishing arts region featuring some of the world’s most popular galleries and artists, it’s definitely the perfect venue for a Festival like ours that constantly pushes the boundaries of genre cinema. Given our audiences comfort and love for the venue and location, we decided our expansion needed to take place within the venue and not around the city of Miami. In this way, everyone, including us, would be able to just call O CINEMA home for all the Festival events during our marquee dates, including our year-round series of screenings. It creates an easy access point for anyone new to the Festival and limits the drawbacks of trying to multiply our events within a sprawling city. In terms of programming, it was inevitable that our lineup would blossom and grow due to the obvious audience demand and hunger. We have film lovers driving all the way up from Orlando and others near Key West just to experience our events. Again and again, we hear such warm gratitude and appreciation for our hard work, which only goes to reinforce our commitment to continue to strive to provide the best Festival experience to our city.

SID: We have been in two locations in our 3 years, location was the reason for leaving. in our first location we had a vendor area, a celeb signing area, etc. Our new location, because of size we won’t have vendors, but we will still bring in celebrity guest.

Who have been some of the key people in the development of your film festival? How has the area impacted growth, attendance and films being submitted? What have the fans meant to your growth?

BITS: We have a very dedicated team of ten-part time staff members and we have over 30 volunteers that help us during the festival itself. The key people that help run the festival 365 days a year are Melanie Turner (Festival Coordinator, Programmer), Kirk Haviland (Senior Programmer, Media Coordinator), Jason Tannis (Senior Programmer) and Jen Gorman (Sponsorship Coordinator). They help me with the overall business of the festival and do outreach at the many conventions and other festivals we attend. I’m so proud of the team we have and the best part is that they are all friends as well. So that makes it extra fun. Well our outreach at conventions and festivals do have an impact on our attendance and our growth for sure. Our senior programmers Kirk and Jason travel to Fantasia every year to not only look for potential titles but also network with filmmakers that might submit to our festival in future years. As for the fans, well that means everything. Without fans coming out the filmmakers would just be playing the films to themselves. The festival pass holders are key. They are the people that build the buzz for the festival and help the film’s word of mouth later on when the films play theatrically and are released on DVD/VOD.
FH: We have some exceptional Producers attached to the fest: Scott Geiter, AKA Gruesome Hertzogg, Joe Quintanilla, Patty Sharkey, and last but not least our Executive Producer, Matt Chassin, owner and CEO of “Matt’s Marketing and Public Relations and Management Services”. San Diego is a great location, particularly as we have become an international festival, with 11 international films this year. The area provides a variety of things to do and a number of our filmmakers make it a family vacation. As far as growth is concerned we have increased our fan base slowly, which seems to be working well for us, after all it is an ongoing process. We have a lot of fans not all who have been able to join us, however, we are hoping that many of them choose to make San Diego and our fest a new vacation destination.

Popcorn-Frights-Featured-imagePF: Without the support of our partners, in particular, the O CINEMA heater, and our film lovers, the POPCORN FRIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL would not have a heartbeat of a chance to be a success. It is solely because of the shared belief in the Festival’s potential by our partners that we have been able to grow from a weekend event to a full week of screenings offering 34 film premieres and many guests in attendance. Our Festival has registered a serious impact on the Wynwood community, specifically during this past edition. This past month the region was unfortunately struck by Zika which bred a shocking intensity in media fear-mongering about its spread. As can be imagined, the Wynwood business community was completely decimated becoming a ghost town in

less than a week. Yet when our Festival opened, we drew an extraordinary number of new and old patrons to Wynwood, regardless of the Zika scare. Our event was held indoors in a theater so there was nothing to be truly frightened about attending the Festival. We even provided bug spray upon entry to those extra concerned for their

health. By simply hosting the Festival, we helped bring back life to a desperate and struggling community becoming a single light of hope in streets of darkness. Many businesses thanked us for not fleeing to another theater or changing our dates, saying that we literally kept them afloat that week. It’s become obvious that our Popcorn Frights

Film Festival not only functions as an entertainment platform serving film lovers, but also adds a significant socioeconomic impact on our neighbor businesses and city as a whole.

SID: Before we started scream in the dark film fest, we had set up a meeting with the OMAHA FILM FESTIVAL, we brought everything we wanted to do to the table, wanting their blessing, did not want them thinking we were trying to step on their toes, they were open to our ideas, if they had not been ok with our ideas, we would not have continued out of respect. we have had movies submitted from all over the world. the fans are why we do this, we took a leap of faith and took the steps to make this happen.

What is the amount of viewing rooms or theaters that you use per film festival? Does it impact attendance per screening or filmmakers submitting and/or attending their screenings? Have you been met with feedback on this aspect?

BITS: Between 2013 and 2015 we had two theatres in small multiplex theatre but now that we have expanded to Cineplex we’ll be in their biggest theatre at that location. We almost always have the filmmakers in attendance so I think overall they have been happy with your festival and our presentation of them. The bigger challenge for us is that we also have TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL TIFF’s Midnight Madness and TORONTO AFTER DARK in the city as well. So it can be hard to compete for the bigger titles with those festivals here but we have done pretty good with our lineups so far. We sometimes had some feedback back then about not wanting to play a repeat screening which we sometimes did because the distributor was worried that it might affect their theatrical business later on. The irony is that the theatre we are in now has more seats for one screening that what we had for two there, so I never understood that argument.

FH: Since we are only in our third year we are sticking to one auditorium for now with plans to expand in the next couple of years. It has not had any effect so far, but we do plan on expanding in the future. To date we have received no negative feedback, so we think at this time the impact is negligible. We have, however gotten immense word-of-mouth comments on how impressed many of our fans are with the efficiency of our operation.

PF: The O CINEMA theater is a one screen art house. Though we are limited to one screening room, the intimacy and personal closeness this type of SITDenvironment creates makes it all worthwhile. Filmmakers who have attended our Festival have celebrated this activation quality. They have consistently expressed the value in being able to connect with our audience, meet with them after the screening and get to know them and our scene.

SID: In our first location we had 2 screening areas, the main theater, and a smaller screen in the second area. in our new location we will only have one screen. feedback has been good; feedback is what helps you grow.

How has the role of short films impacted programming for you? How many features do you offer? Have these numbers changed over the years of doing your film festival?

BITS: We sometimes had some feedback back then about not wanting to play a repeat screening which we sometimes did because the distributor was worried that it might affect their theatrical business later on. The irony is that the theatre we are in now has more seats for one screening that what we had for two there, so I never understood that argument. As for features, usually we play 8 features each year. There was a bit of jump in year one when we only had 6 programs but since then we play on average 9 programs.

FH: In the past we have limited ourselves to 3 short blocks in the fest but this year we are increasing the number of blocks to 4. There are so many great shorts (we will be showing 27) in the Indie Horror Community, all looking for a great venue to show them. As far as features are concerned we will be showing 12 this year.

PF: As cultural arts leaders in our community, we strongly believe in supporting emerging talent locally and from around the world. The short film platform has presented itself as the most accessible through which we can shine a spotlight on what we believe are the next wave of feature filmmakers who will impact the film medium. We value these artists and hope that by sharing our Festival’s audience with them, they will have the confidence to continue growing their talents and fulfilling their dreams. From the very start of our Festival, we made a commitment to present short films prior to all our feature

presentations. This year we premiered 17 short films, not including those screened during our year-round program. We hope to continue sharing the best short films from aspiring international filmmakers and look forward to strengthening our platform so we can strengthen our commitment and support to them.

SID: Short films seem to be the majority of what we play, our features vary every year but not by much.

During the time that you have been run the film festival, what has been that key film and filmmaker who has really solidified your reputation as a film festival of high quality? How important are the film Q&As after?

BITS: Well it’s hard to narrow it down to one but if I had to I would say playing DISCOPATH in 2013 (which won Best Picture that year) really helped our reputation early on. It was just such a solid film and frankly a bigger title than our festival was at the time it really helped us get on the map. On average we get about 90% of the filmmakers in attendance each year flying in from all over the country. So having the Q&A’s with the filmmakers after is a really important part of our festival. Having the filmmakers there walking the red carpet, participating in the Q&A’s and meeting their audience is a big part of the festival experience.
FH: Our numbers change from year to year based on the length of the films selected. We have to say that the one thing that solidified our reputation is probably The LON CHANEY AWARD for OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT in INDEPENDENT FILM. With two outstanding Indie Horror Icons, Bill Oberst, Jr. and Lynn Lowry as the first two recipients, we couldn’t have chosen any one better. Thanks to Bill and all of the participants at our first fest we became an official event on IMDb. We have found that the average horror fan who is not connected with the industry is not particularly interested in technical details so if there is time and the filmmakers are in attendance we give them a few minutes. After all the important thing is to screen the films to the widest audience. We do encourage fans to talk with the filmmakers throughout the festival.

PF: It’s hard to limit it to just one, as we also must factor in our year-round program that has already presented exclusive screenings of big budget Hollywood films like CONJURING 2 and LIGHTS OUT, and so on. Clearly, such event screenings have helped to put our brand on the city map. We don’t feel it’s been any one film that’s been the difference in setting us apart, rather the quantity of the quality of our film offerings that helped us quickly register with many distributors, filmmakers, and sales reps. It’s a treat for everyone to be able to meet the talent, but it’s always tricky making this happen because of schedule conflicts, life’s surprises, and budget limitations. When we have had talent present it has always been a memorable and highly enjoyable experience for all.

SID: There has not been anyone film maker that has been put over the rest, if it wasn’t for the film makers we wouldn’t have a fest. Q&A are huge after/before the fest as it helps give the viewers the insight on the movie they may not have had before.

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