Putting together a genre film festival of any type takes time, commitment, a reliable team, a diverse lineup, luck, plus so much more. The western part of North America is rich with talent, history and film festivals that break the mold and continue to redefine the experience for everyone that becomes part of the events. From the Californian cities of Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, to Seattle Washington, to Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, we sat down with five diverse film festival programmers to ask questions that not only connect these festivals but explore their development, growth and survival. These five key organizers and programmers bring different perspectives, experience, a selective eye, and personality to this discussion. We covered a wide variety of topics, gaining insight into what makes this annual celebration of film, fans and filmmakers a must to attend!
Broken down into two parts, we present the usual suspects and film festivals that bring to life the magic, terror and tension of genre filmmaking. They included as part of the panel:
BoneBat Comedy of Horrors Film Fest: 7 Years (BB)
Co-Host and Festival Director: Steven J. Holetz (SH)
Co-Host: Gord Caulkins (GC)
DEDfest International Genre Film Festival: 9 Years (DF)
Festival Director: Derek Clayton
Horrible Imaginings Film Festival: 6 Years (HI)
Festival Director: Miguel Rodriguez
Sacramento Horror Film Festival: 10 Years (SH)
Festival Director: Tim Meunier
Shriekfest Horror Film Festival: 16 Years (SF)
Founder and Festival Director: Denise Gossett
Diabolique: What are the criteria for finding diverse and well-crafted films within the annual horror film fest circuit entries? How have film submission platforms like FilmFreeway or Withoutabox changed the game?
BoneBat (Steve J. Holetz): Gord and I are fans of the form first and foremost, so we are constantly on the lookout for great new films. About a third of our entrants we solicit directly based on our own research: word of mouth, articles, and forthcoming trailers; another third come from previously accepted filmmakers whose work we know and love; and the final third come from new blood. The growth of digital submission platforms has made it that much easier for that final third to find us. The downside is that it has made it easier for the truly terrible films to find us as well.”
DEDfest (Derek Clayton): We don’t receive much public support, so we rely on getting butts in the seats. To that end, we generally have to program films that have buzz. But more and more we’re getting features via FilmFreeway that we want to make room for.
Horrible Imaginings (Miguel Rodriguez): I will answer the second part of your question first. Although I have worked in some capacity with film festivals for many years and seen the challenge of shipping and insuring prints, cataloguing and safekeeping films in the days surrounding the festival, and the other fun elements of dealing with physical media, my film festival Horrible Imaginings started after the Withoutabox revolution.
Now, Withoutabox didn’t eliminate physical media—I used to get mountains of DVD and Blu-Ray submissions—but it did a lot to help with cataloging and communication with filmmakers. In my opinion, though, FilmFreeway has really changed the game in terms of their services, online screener capabilities, online communications, online judging, and so forth. I really love FilmFreeway right now and hope they don’t rest on their laurels in a couple of years’ time.
So, with the submissions process made easier for both filmmakers and film festivals, we now get a landslide of submissions. One of the biggest challenges is the watching and careful consideration of those submissions. That is why my selection committee has grown every year since the first year, when I was the only one. Finding a selection committee is a challenge in and of itself, because I look for cinema professionals or critics, and not many want the extremely hard work that this entails. I have a brilliant core group right now, and I do sincerely believe I owe the strength of our program to them.
That leads me to the first part of your question. The criteria for selection are tough enough, and we made it all the more difficult by keeping many things in mind as we go through submissions. We are at the point where we get over 1000 submissions now, so we have to break the half-year-long process up into rounds.
Round one is all about the films that are definitely not a good fit. There are two main reasons for this: the film is either not thematically appropriate or it is simply not technically up to snuff. We are very broad in our definition of the genre, so it has to be really outside the scope to be dropped for the first reason but it happens. As for technical grounds, we are extremely tough on this aspect. We want films that look beautiful, have professional sound work that helps engage the audience, and has something to say about horror. Sound issues are probably the number one issue in this round.
Round two is where we start to think about our mission statement and other considerations. We spotlight local San Diego filmmaking, as well as youth and student filmmaking, and both those things tend to receive a tad more leniency in our decision making. Our partnership with the LGBT film festival FilmOut, as well as sponsorship from a webcast called TG Geeks has ensured an LGBT block, so that is a consideration in this round. We have a category we started last year called ‘Horror for Humanity,’ which spotlights genre that skilfully speaks about sociopolitical topics, so that has to be in the back of programmers’ minds. This year, by the way, the Horror for Humanity title was a brilliant short film from Australia called The Disappearance of Willie Bingham. Look for it!
The other considerations in round two offer a little more freedom to programmers. As they watch films, they look out for some overarching themes. Hopefully, we will find some unique themes that we can spotlight and discuss in a single block. For instance, one of my favorites was from last year called Child’s Nightmare, where all the protagonists were children. Some spotlights from that block were the earlier-mentioned The Smiling Man, and a very beautiful and disturbing Spanish short film called The Huckster.
Round three is the worst part. This is where we have to solidify the program with the films that fit the very best. There are lots to think about here because thematic fit and relationships to the mission are very important. I say this is this worst because this is really where we have to decide to say “no” to some deserving and brilliant works of art. I say this all the time, but every “no” I give is like an ice pick in my heart.
Sacramento Horror (Tim Meunier): Submission sites have made the handshake between filmmaker and festival more accessible. Both are crucial tools in my view for both the filmmaker and festival alike. Without them, a great amount of dollars would need to be invested in marketing in order to attract submissions.
Shriekfest (Denise Gossett): We have voter sheets that our judges use, and a scoring system. Each film has to be a complete package. Good story, good acting, nicely shot, etc. The full package. Very helpfully, my judges can now be located anywhere because they just log on and watch the films I assign them. No more picking up DVDs. Plus, we get a lot more submissions using these services too; it’s easier on the filmmakers as well.
Diabolique: How much does reputation matter in the landscape of horror film festivals? How has the area helped your film festival grow? Does the close proximity to Los Angeles help the festival on any level?
BoneBat (Gord Caulkins): I suppose technically Seattle is minutes from Los Angles, but it’s a hell of a lot of minutes. For us, reputation is everything. When we look at a sell-out crowd and see that most of the seats are filled by butts that were at our last festival, we know we are doing something right. Attending an all-day film fest is not an impulse decision. You commit to it because you know what it is, and it’s good. You stick this on your calendar. And some folks buy plane tickets and book hotels for this event. Seattle is a perfect spot for our festival. The city has a strong community of people who are willing to plunk down the cost of admission and spend an entire afternoon at a comedy-horror film festival/concert. We couldn’t do this in a college town without heavily discounting the tickets, and then the economics don’t work. And having a festival in Seattle is great because Seattle is a destination city. When we have fans, who show up from Portland, or San Francisco (or Maryland for godsakes!), they aren’t just here for the festival. They are also here to spend time in one of the nicest places on Earth. I don’t think we’d have that kind of success if we did this in Reno (sorry, Reno but… I mean seriously, look at yourself). And while it’s true that there are more filmmakers in Los Angeles, there are filmmakers right here in the Pacific Northwest that we work with and we want to promote.
DF: I think reputation is very important. We’ve tried our best to build as solid a reputation as possible. The irony is that we are more respected outside of our city than within it. Los Angeles helps with bringing guests in but we haven’t gone there enough for it to have much impact. The majority of the films we bring in are from other festivals like Fantasia and Fantastic Fest.
HI: I think reputation is mattering more and more as filmmakers become more keenly aware of how film festivals operate and they can spread the word about film festivals to other filmmakers. FilmFreeway just initiated a review element to their platform where filmmakers review their experiences with film festivals. I think this is a fantastic option that can keep us honest and working to our best potential, though I suppose there is a danger of ‘Yelpification.’
San Diego, as I mentioned before, is a city that is largely unfriendly to the genre. Oddly enough, we have gotten a lot of press and attention from PBS and the local NPR-affiliated KPBS, but the local rock stations, which would seem more suited to helping a genre event, have paid little mind. We have been around long enough, though, that we have won the respect of the local community, and get press in the city and neighborhood papers and local businesses, but it has be one hell of an uphill battle.
Yes, Los Angeles being our neighbor to the north does help quite a bit because a lot of guests decide to make the visit if their film gets in—though it still is a challenge as the traffic can make the drive up to five hours long. There is just a huge repository of filmmaking going on that city, of course. A lot of it is making ourselves visible there. I find myself in Los Angeles virtually every month at some horror event or another. I have a great number of friends there, but it is a very busy city, and an unfortunate side effect of that is a bit of out of sight, out of mind.
The best any film festival can do is have a great program with networking opportunities for filmmakers, press for their work, and extraordinary hospitality.
SH: Our strongest suit has always been in our curation. We do help films get distribution from time to time. If filmmakers want an audience that is extremely responsive, then the Sacramento Horror Film Festival is home to one of the most liveliest audience groups I’ve ever seen at a film festival.
SF: Well, it’s like anything, the good rise to the top. If you screw people over or treat them bad, they will tell other filmmakers…. it’s a tight knit community. I’ve seen many horror festivals start up and fail or close after one or two years. I think people get into it thinking it’s going to be easy and when they find out it’s not, they falter. Honestly, I don’t’ think so. There’s a festival going on every weekend in Los Angeles. It’s old hat here.
Diabolique: What does it take to not only host and run a successful film festival but to have staying power? How do you handle fan feedback and critics of the festival?
BB (GC): The answer to these two questions are really the same. We listen to the fans and we give them what they want. I read an interview with Metallica, back before they were self-righteous d-bags who dress like male prostitutes, and they said that they always asked the question, “Is this what the fans want?” We talk to our fans. We are Facebook friends with our fans and when we get criticism we welcome the discussion and address it head on.
BB (SH): The great news for us is that the fans want what we want. We know that if we produce the awesomely entertaining festival we would most like to see, it will make our attendees happy as well. That is the blueprint. We make it happen.
DF: Right now we face an uphill battle not in terms of our audiences but in terms of our costs. With the low US dollar, they rise every year, and our civic funders are sometimes too myopic to see the need for us. Our major festivals get about double in one city grant what our entire yearly budget is, and that’s without us paying anyone. Yet every year we win best film fest in audience polls. The challenge in the future will be convincing the city that we are vital and deserving of support.
As for critics, most of our core horror crowd are film fans as well as horror fans, so bringing in other genres never fazes them. They respond to it quite well. We find the few horror fans that resent us stepping out of the genre are generally quite narrow in their tastes anyways – even within horror.
HI: For this film festival, it has been about establishing ourselves as a community organization. We have year-round programming; I work with several other film festivals throughout the year, I work with schools and teachers, and I work with museums—all of this establishes our brand and our dedication to our mission statement. Without these connections, remaining relevant would be far more difficult. Thankfully, this aspect, and the responsibilities of being a host, are what I most excel at. They are the ‘easy’ part. The thing is, I am simply doing what I love in my heart with all sincerity, and my passion is to share that love with other people. Every introduction, every panel, every Q&A, every conversation I have—I think that sincerity is evident and people are drawn to it. Sincere people who join the community. We are a slowly growing horror snowball!
The most difficult part is the part that is the same ole song ‘n’ dance for every festival, every event, every filmmaker, every creative out there: money. To have staying power, money is a sad requirement. We don’t live in a country that is particularly friendly to creatives. There is little in the way of government grants like there is in Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and other countries—especially for genre events. Proving ourselves as a viable arts and culture institution is a bit quixotic, to say the least. I am still struggling with this, and suspect it will always be a struggle.
I am happy to say that feedback is almost always stellar. Just last night I finally got to sit and listen to the wrap-up episode of this year’s festival on the Cinema Junkie podcast, hosted by Beth Accomando. She interviewed filmmakers and actors like Justin Denton (Burlap), Izzy Lee and Kasey Lansdale (Postpartum), Mark Brown and Phil Haine (Stained) and filmmaker/panelist Aaron Soto. I was touched to hear every one of them praise the festival as one of the best they have been to, and I am humbled to see the amazing reviews we are getting on FilmFreeway and Facebook. That is all just amazing.
My greatest critic is probably the aforementioned Beth Accomando, who has been one of our team since the beginning. She has been a professional film critic for almost 30 years, she edited the Killer Tomatoes sequels, now hosts the Cinema Junkie podcast and, especially as a mainstream critic, is a true champion of genre cinema. One thing about Beth is that, as much as she loves the festival and offers her praise, she has an absolute zero approach to sugar coating. Reflections with her are the most valuable for me, and have galvanized me to improve every year.
In our seven years, there has been only one major complaint from a filmmaker. This happened in year three. The complaint was about the projection quality, and it is probably what most prompted our move from the first venue to the next one. After that, I am more of a stickler for projection quality than ever, as my projectionist can attest!
SH: I run not only the Sacramento Horror Film Festival, but also the Love Horror Film Festival, and I am launching a new genre festival in 2017: Reel Kinky: The Sacramento Erotic Short Film Competition. In addition, I also run Sinister Creature Con, an SFX and horror-in-culture convention and expo. It’s about time management, passion, and having a great team to delegate tasks to. Passion above all else. We care about fan feedback. If we receive a negative review, we listen for the merit of the complaint and often offer that individual complementary tickets to a future show for them and a friend in order to give us one more chance. Maybe we did screw up. Maybe they had a bad day. Either way we want to show people we care about their opinions. If it has to do with our presentation, hosts, timing, things we have control over—we do listen. When it comes to content, we try to let everyone know that art isn’t safe. You might love this. You might be offended. But you won’t be indifferent.
SF: It’s a business and you have to treat your customers/clients with respect. It takes a lot of work to have a successful festival. We almost always get good feedback and praise, every once in a while there will be someone who is upset because their film didn’t make it in, but, that’s about it. 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.
Diabolique: Do you schedule meal breaks? Do you have time for networking and how important is it to offer that aspect?
BB (GC): Yeah, this is something that we heard from our attendees early on. So we now have multiple meal breaks. It’s actually rather heartbreaking for us, because for every minute you spend eating a burrito and chatting up a director, we are cutting a minute of programming. It probably took three years of people telling us to add more breaks before we finally did it seriously.
DF: 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. We want to make as much time as possible for people to not only see movies, but to talk about them as well. Thankfully we’re in an area with many restaurants nearby. And we always program after parties and events outside of the theater. It’s vital to build a sense of community.
HI: Our festival can be an endurance test of film overload so, yes, mealtimes are very important and one hell of a challenge in our current location! As much as I adore the theater we are in now, it is in the middle of a gigantic park that closes and becomes a ghost town at 5pm. No. food. Anywhere. To add to this, there is no food allowed in the theater itself. I had to battle like Conan to allow bottled water. So, I had to compensate for all of this.
On the long weekend days, filmmakers get free dinner. In fact, 100% of the money that comes from submission fees is dedicated to filmmaker hospitality. Both Saturday and Sunday are catered by stellar food sponsors. This year, we had a new one called Emme’s Catering, and our great loves Bread and Cie returned as a partner. (Incidentally, Bread and Cie is owned by Charlie Kaufman, brother of Troma‘s Lloyd Kaufman and director of Mother’s Day, so it is a match made in heaven!)
We also have a green room stocked with snacks, and the bars in the park are open until later and are great for drinks, but the food is slow and expensive. So, yes, filmmaker hospitality is a huge priority. We have a sponsor hotel that is movie-themed and gorgeous, so all the filmmakers stay in the same place, which is also a bonus. There are regular watering holes that we hit after the festival ends each night. Beyond the Gates director Jackson Stewart told me several times that he and his cast and crew felt like they had never been treated better. Those are the words I love to hear!
All of these aspects help with networking, which we are hoping to make a greater and greater aspect of the festival. We have lots of panels, but want to start workshops, and other networking events. You asked before how I feel about being part of a filmmaker’s growth, but I think what makes me more excited is seeing filmmakers meet at Horrible Imaginings and collaborate on their next project. Director Pablo Absento, who directed a great atmospheric short called Shi that we screened last year, flew all the way in from Tokyo. At our festival, she met composer Eric Elick. This year, she premiered her newest project Japanese Legends at Horrible Imaginings, which Eric scored. This year, some other partnerships were formed, but it is probably too early to mention them.
SH: For years, we placed an hour or half hour in between blocks for people to go on a break. Our entertainment these days is rapid fire. About 20 minutes between each block. We also feature one full hour of horror inspired performances each evening. If that’s not the average film festival goer’s cup of tea, they can feel free to come and go as they wish. We do have a bar and grill next door to our venue should people need food. But breaks aren’t so much a priority anymore.
SF: There are short breaks between films, not necessarily a meal break…. We make sure we have at least two parties for networking, though.
Diabolique: How personal is it for you? Has there been a time you wanted to walk away? What have the fans meant to your growth and energy?
BB (GC): Ha! This is intensely personal. This is what we do. This isn’t a corporate event brought to you by a disinterested committee of PR hacks. This thing is brought to you by two guys: Steve and me. Steve is wearing out his shoes, going from sponsors to artists to venue to printers, to sponsors, etc. I’m wearing out my eyeballs watching hundreds (literally hundreds) of short films, and banging away on my PC in the dark, chasing down rumors of films yet unseen. By the time the festival is actually shown, I look like a nocturnal cave dweller, with pellucid skin and huge, frightening eyes. And Steve has carpal tunnel syndrome from all the tweets, emails and social media posts.
BB (SH): All true, and yet when we finally get to see our creation live, and hears the gasps, screams, and laughs from a sell-out audience, and see the enormous smiles as the theater empties at the end of the whole sordid affair, it almost makes our grotesque festival-related deformities worthwhile.
DF: The fans keep us going. We face many who want to shut us down for our content, want to shut us down because they feel we only need one film festival here, and many who want to shut us down because we try to promote and build the film industry here. Every year gets more difficult for us. But the fan response keeps us going.
HI: This is the ultimate emotional roller coaster. It is so personal and melded to my very being that the highs are very high, but the lows are crushing. Every year there is something that makes me want to walk away. Last year, we had some technical difficulties with some of the films during one of the short film blocks. I won’t forget it. Erik Gardner directed a really excellent monster short film called Hag and it had trouble playing. This was right in the middle of a block of maybe 12 short films. Hag had one of the actors present representing it.
If there are other people reading this who want to start a festival or similar event, then this is some good advice for you: your audience will forgive you for anything as long as you are up front about things and can talk to them while you wait for technical problems to get fixed. What they hate is sitting in a darkened theater with nothing on the screen and wondering just what the hell is going on.
Anyway, a film called Sleepwalker by Calvin Weaver and another film called The Peripheral by JT Seaton had already played in that block, so when the technical problems started I had them raise lights, explained the problem, called those directors up to the stage, and did a Q&A with them while everything got sorted. The Q&A was great, Hag did play and looked beautiful, and it seemed to work out.
The thing is, stuff like that I take extremely personally, and all that stuff I did was a total front with me barely holding it together. During the next break, I got approached by two people who run the Oceanside International Film Festival. They said to me, “I’ve never seen someone handle a technical problem so amazingly before. That was perfect—good job!” I responded by immediately bursting into tears right in the theater lobby in front of everyone. So, yeah—an emotional roller coaster. And, to answer your question, the fans—the audience—are absolutely everything. I love my audience more than I love my life. Not an exaggeration.
SH: It’s very personal. It’s a brain child. You raise it, see it grow, see it succeed because of your guidance and see it fail due to your mistakes. There have been times I wanted to throw in the towel. What changed was seeing how many people looked forward to it. Those numbers doubled and doubled again. Soon I began seeing the same faces annually and would hear murmurs of individuals calling SHFF their “horror family”. I began friendships with filmmakers and fans and we would bond over this crazy genre called horror. They’d reveal to me personal things and how SHFF was an event that could take them away from their problems. I’ve even had a fan tell me that my event saved their life. When you hear something like that, even as I type this I get choked up, it does more than validate why I do what I do but it inspires me to continue to work hard, to never ever call myself an expert in this field, to always be a student, and to continue being in service to a genre that at one point saved my life.
SF: Of course… It’s tough, this is my baby, if it isn’t successful that’s on me, no one else. Something with my name on it better be run the best it can be. Love them, yes, they keep me going, but, it’s also the filmmakers/screenwriters that feed my energy. I love to help them.