Interviews: Five Years & Under Film Festivals Across the United States (Part 2)

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 (

Mike & JoAnn Thomas (Founders) – FANtastic Horror Film Festival (FH) / 4 Years / San Diego, CA (

Igor Shteyrenberg & Marc Ferman (Co-Founders & Co-Directors) – Popcorn Frights Film Festival (PF) / 2 Years / Miami, FL (

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

How big has technology been in the last five years for not only screening films but with outlets like WITHOUTABOX, FILM FREEWAY and others for submitting films? Has filmmaking technology (camera, sound, editing) made the films a higher quality or is it still story that dictates the selection process?

BITS: We started using FILM FREEWAY half way through our selection process in 2014 and we haven’t looked back. The system is fantastic to work with andfhff1 definitely increased our national reach. We used to accept mailed in DVD screeners but we discontinued that in 2015. Story always dictates over technology BUT I will say that there are getting less and less excuses to have bad sound, bad picture and overall bad technical quality in this day and age. I know what you can do with a simple camera and a laptop so the quality has gone up and frankly it’s harder to take the film too seriously if they don’t pay attention to these technical details.
FH: The quality of Indie Horror films has been getting better with each passing year. Although, we still accept films and screenplays directly, the impact of using FILM FREEWAY and WITHOUTABOX has been instrumental to bringing us new filmmakers and writers who might never have heard of our festival into the fold. The ease of viewing and reviewing submissions is greatly enhanced. The story is always important but with new technology to enhance the story we find to be a total plus for the fans of Indie Horror.

PF: Story will always be the most essential factor when evaluating a film. In the process of evaluating our thousands of submissions, we have certainly seen some beautifully captured films (style) but we found so many lacking any overarching sense of purpose, depth, or narrative (substance). So though technology has democratized the medium of film, the power of story has still been that rare element that sets a great film apart from a mediocre one. On this same point, we have found that limited resources actually inspire the best creativity in filmmakers, so we always encourage aspiring talent to invest in their story and not their rental equipment.

Our Festival submission process is managed through the FILM FREEWAY online platform: We have found it to be an easy, seamless, and highly accessible and effective tool for processing and managing all submissions. We have a screening committee that views each film, grades it, and then determines which make the final cut or not for our marquee Festival.

SID: Technology has been huge for us, because now we can just download copies of the films, not having to wait for a physical copy by mail, makes things go fast/easier. We take all things in to factor when judging the movies, if sound quality is bad, it could impact out dissection, same goes for all aspects of the film.

How do you stay relevant and operating as more film festivals open across the country? How impactful is social media vs work of mouth?

BITS: Being in Toronto is both a blessing and a curse. We have a great festival culture and a very active horror community here but we also have the challenge of kms-bitsthere is almost too many events here. There are over 70 festivals and 5 of them are genre based. So I think our way of standing out from the pack and staying relevant is that we do our best to have our own voice and style. Just the fact that we are still the only festival in to only show exclusively Canadian genre features and shorts has certainly kept us unique. 90% of our promo is either word of mouth or that is usually connected to social media. I’d say that social media has got so important for word of mouth that it is has made traditional posters and postcards almost redundant.

FH: FHFF primarily shows new cutting edge films generally completed in the most recent 3 years. Social media and word of mouth play an important part in keeping us going from year to year. They both bring in more fans, filmmakers, producers, and writers, locally and from around the US and world, and by all accounts that is a great thing.

PF: As the premier genre film festival in the state of Florida, we don’t find ourselves in conflict or overlap with any particular local market. In this way we are fortunate but also unfortunate, as so much pressure rests on us to deliver a quality experience for a large, underserved community. The exponential growth our Festival has experienced is due to a multitude of factors, including great social media growth and having positive word of mouth. Being clever in our outreach efforts through social media has helped create viral campaigns, especially when we were just trying to establish our brand recognition. It also allows us a privileged opportunity to connect with our community more directly and intimately.

As our year-round events are all distinct and purposely special, they have helped generate great word of mouth about our unique brand. There is an expectation of experience now when anyone attends a POPCORN FRIGHTS event, one that is wholly different from going to a commercial movie theater or anything else hosted anywhere in our city. It is an experience entirely its own and one that many hold as something personal and sacred to them.

SID: Staying relevant is something we always have to keep in mind, that being said is why last year we started the scream in the dark horror hall of fame, it’s an award ceremony where we induct the actor/actress and or their character from the movie they were in, we inducted six figures last year. We had three celebrities that were present at the ceremony.

Compliments are nice to receive and help boost morale as you the process of the film festival is a 365 days a year journey. However constructive criticism, I would believe benefits the process more in growth, evolving and reputation. Care to share some of the lessons learned to date?

BITS: We did our first customer survey this year and I have to say we got very little negative feedback. Most of the more negative aspects was the fact that we had outgrown our venue so we certainly did listen to that feedback which led to the move we did this year to the larger theatre venue.

FH: Acknowledging mistakes and correcting them in a timely fashion is hard but a good place to start.  Communication is the key to a successful festival and not always easy. In order to keep the lines of communications open for our filmmakers each year we create a special Facebook page for our selections and award nominees, where we keep them informed. It is all part of the process.

SID: We take what everyone says to heart, it’s what helps us grow every year, if it works we leave it, if it doesn’t we find a way to fix it, everyone’s opinion matters to us.

The meal break is so key to a smaller film festival so fans, filmmakers and more can experience the other aspects offered during the event. Do you schedule meal breaks? Do you have time for networking and how important is it to offer that aspect?

BITS: Our festival is pretty compact over one weekend so there aren’t really many breaks between films. It is possible to see everything but we do plan the festival with the assumption that you won’t make every screening. So we keep the festival pass price low enough so that even if you just make 6 of the 9 screenings then you are still getting your money’s worth. Networking is a HUGE part of BITS. We put a lot of effort into our opening and closing parties, which are really networking events and we also put on a series of industry panels during the daytime throughout the weekend as well.

FH: We do not schedule meal breaks at this time, however, networking occurs throughout the fest.

PF: Whenever we have talent present we always treat them to a dinner or drink before, during, and/or after their premiere. It is important for us to nurture a spirit of comfort, belonging, and confidence in all visiting guests so they can feel their best and get to know us and our community. We also believe it is imperative to treat all staff and volunteers with respect by providing them every opportunity to enjoy the celebration of the Festival. Sharing meals and drinks is a fun and healthy way to socialize and personally communicate with your team and grow your friendships.

SID: Yes, meal breaks are very important, there are many restaurants very close to our new locations, we do have them scheduled. we have found that there has been lots of networking at our fest, after the fest we do see how our guest have come together and work on future projects, it very nice to see.

Talk about working out the film festival schedule? How has that changed in the years you have been doing this event?

BITS: It really hasn’t changed too much since year two. We are changing a few things around this year though by having our festival start on the Thursday pfffinstead of Friday so we have more time for an opening party. We’ve also added two midnight screenings this year, which we haven’t done before.

FH: Scheduling starts early for us. We block it out as soon as we have our dates set for a particular season. Once we announce our selections we fine tune the schedule. When the fine tuning is done, we setup online ticket sales and then we announce the schedule.

PF: The Festival program has quadrupled in growth and immediately registered our platform as Florida’s premier organization dedicated to presenting genre film from around the world. We screen films all week long at our host venue, the O Cinema theater, but have a commitment to quality and not quantity when making film invitation evaluations. As Co-Directors, our tastes cannot be more different from each other’s, but oddly enough, that is the very essence of our Festival’s success. Through our differences, we are able to connect and serve a much wider and diverse audience that appreciates the variety offered in our program. Does that mean we don’t get as bloody and vicious and gruesome as a Game of Thrones episode when arguing over our film program? Of course we do! But we also share a trust knowing that our end goal is the same and that’s providing our community with the best and most unforgettable film experience possible.

SID: Setting up the film schedule has been a learning experience, but we have gotten better with it as we grow every year. It’s all a learning process, but we have got it down now.

How personal is it for you? Has there been a time you wanted to walk away?

BITS: The festival is very personal to me. I really consider it almost a lifestyle at this point. In fact, my Festival Coordinator and I got BITS tattoos on us in sitd-twDecember 2014. So you can’t get more dedicated than that. I think you’d be crazy if you don’t have moments when you feel “Why am I doing this?” and to be honest I had few in the middle of 2015 but it was only fleeting. I realized it had more to do with stresses in the rest of my life and really had nothing to do with the festival itself. But I really do love this festival and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

FH: Organizing and running the fest is very personal for both of us. All of the plot twists notwithstanding. Wanting to throw in the towel comes up occasionally, but is never really an option. Having invested a lot of time and money into this adventure we plan on seeing it through for years to come.

PF: We don’t receive a salary running our Festival. We each have full-time jobs outside this Festival and serve it only after work hours and on days off. Every dollar we’ve earned through the Festival’s revenue is reinvested to further the platform’s growth and continued success. Everything we do is encouraged simply by our passion and the love we receive from our community. Can anything be more personal or meaningful than that?

SID: This is very personal to me, as for someone who works in the industry, it gives the guest a chance to see the hard work that goes into making movies. I bleed this industry, and it is another way to take part in the industry, it lets us show the finished product.

What can we expect for the next film festival? When can we expect the next film festival?

BITS: The next festival will be November 24 to 27th, 2016 at CINEPLEX theatres at Yonge and Dundas. Festival passes are now on sale and individual tickets go on sale on October 15th.

FH: We just announced our October 28-30, 2016 selections, which can be found on our website home page. The schedule and online tickets will be done soon. Meanwhile, we are open for submissions for 2017, with new lower submission fees. For the most up-to-date information we recommend checking out our Facebook page and our website

PF: As we’ve wrapped our Festival’s second edition just days ago, which experienced unprecedented growth and record-breaking audience attendance, you can imagine we’re a wee winded and not fully stable to look ahead to the next edition as yet. We imagine our growth will be sustained and our investment will be doubled in the Festival, bringing even more great cinema and guests to our city in August 2017.

SID: Every year we bring in a celeb guest, this year we are bringing in Robert Mukes aka Rufus Jr. from rob zombies HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES, and will be screening the movie with him in attendance, he will also be signing autographs and meeting the guest. you can see our past guest on our website . this year our fest is October 14th-16th.


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