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!
So, take a read, share each part of the mass panel interview and, most importantly, come out and support them! 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 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 give your festival its own fingerprint on the landscape? Any influences from peers or other festivals?
BoneBat (Gord Caulkins): Good Lord, man. People put thought into this? Ours was a completely organic process. Steve came up with the idea after attending one too many Crypticon conventions and staring deep into the cover art for an Iron Maiden album. He said “Let’s have a horror film festival.” And I replied, “Yeah, but let’s make it funny too.” And thus the world’s first horror-comedy film festival was conceived. The idea of adding live bands to a film festival came to be in a similar fashion. We didn’t look around at all the film festivals of the world and try to do something new. I said, “This thing is going to have music too, right?” and Steve replied, “Duh!”
BoneBat (Steve J. Holetz): Not exactly, but close. Gord and I have been hosting The BoneBat Show, a comedy and pop culture podcast that features independent music, since 2007. In 2009, independent filmmakers started to reach out to us about interviews and reviews on the show, so we had access. About the same time, our friends at Drunken Zombie decided to produce their first film festival and we figured, “Well, if they can do it…”. So, we had the means, and we had the motive. That said, if we were going to do this, it was important to us to bring everything that makes The BoneBat Show great to the event, so adding independent music to the mix was a must. My friendship with the late Jorge Meneses of Barefoot Barnacle cemented the deal, as we had our band and graphic designer in one fell swoop, and in 2010 the Comedy of Horrors Film Festival was born.
DEDfest (Derek Clayton): Purely selfish reasons…. We wanted to see films on the big screen that the major film festival here wasn’t booking. Plus, we could watch these films with a rowdy crowd of our inebriated friends! At the time we were pretty green. We really just wanted to pack the house and have a good time. But, as we became exposed to events like Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, we realized we could be an incubator to get these kinds of films made.
Horrible Imaginings (Miguel Rodriguez): I started Horrible Imaginings Film Festival at around the same time I moved to San Diego from Baltimore, Maryland. Horror is part of my DNA—it has played a major part in my growing up, and a window through which I filter a lot of the negativity I experience either directly or indirectly.
When I arrived in my new city to discover a horror festival of any kind didn’t exist here, I was disappointed. Starting the festival seemed more like a therapy move at the time than anything else. I was in a new city, knowing no people, and I didn’t want to have to drive to Los Angeles every time I wanted to celebrate this genre. So I built one.
I had some experience with programming for film festivals, and loads of experience with introducing films at screenings. This was my first time founding and directing a festival, though.
The mission statement hasn’t changed much. I want to expand the definition of what we call a horror film far beyond what is typically thought of as horror—I look for films that express fear as a central theme, and that can be quite a broad and eclectic collection of work. I also wanted to include relevant alternate art forms and panels in the programming. More and more, we have extended our offerings in this way. That is on the programming end.
On the experience end, I have worked hard to imbue the festival with a community-building mission. San Diego is an unfriendly city to horror in general, so it feels even more important to me to provide a celebration where horror fans here can feel a part of the proceedings. I wanted to avoid the trap that a lot of film festivals fall into where there is a clear line between the filmmakers and festival curators, and the audience. My mission is to make us all part of the same community and foster that sense of belonging.
Sacramento Horror (Tim Meunier): Multi-genre festivals filled my city. Other than an exploitation summer series, there were no other genre fests. I wanted to produce a festival in a specific genre that would have an audience and I knew that to be horror. Greg Ropp from Eerie Horror Fest answered all my questions and never shied away from me. His advice was instrumental to my launch. My festival would need to be anchored with a reputable horror host, filled with horror inspired performances by the area’s best performance artists, and a respectable selection of genre shorts and features.
Shriekfest (Denise Gossett): Being naïve. Seriously, naïveté will take you far. I came up with the idea after having starred in a horror film and I told my sister-in-law and we thought it would be something fun to do around Halloween! Little did we know it would blow up so large and be so much work. Honestly no, because we were one of the first horror film festivals out there and I’d only ever attended one other film festival to see a friend’s film that ended up being delayed two hours…. Well, I knew that would never happen at my festival.
Diabolique: How many venues has your film festival been housed in? If more than one, what was the reason you moved into a new venue? If not, what was the reason this theater or venue worked for your vision? Has that decision to expand programming, guests, films, workshops, vendors or exhibits benefitted the overall growth of the film festival? How has the technology changed for projecting and playing the films?
BB (GC): We are in our third venue. Each time we moved it was to add space to accommodate a growing crowd. I guess our first move was for other reasons as well. We got a nicer theater in a better location. We also got access to a top-notch kitchen and food service for our patrons.
BB (SC): We simply outgrew our first two theaters, and moving to larger venues has given us the opportunity to add bigger bands, author readings, and director Q&A’s to the mix, which in turn has helped us draw filmmakers from LA to Texas to Germany to join us, as well as attendees from as far away as Maryland. Since 2010, while the mode of submission has changed from mailing discs around to almost completely digital screeners, our projection has always been digital, so no change there apart from the ability to screen really great looking films in HD by way of DCP (Digital Cinema Package, a means of shipping films on a securely coded hard drive).
DF: Our old venue was a 200 seater in the middle of our city’s theater district. We had some interesting times – once we played Silent Night, Deadly Night and one of our good friends – a very tall and large fellow – did his best “Bad Santa”. By the time the movie started, his too-small Santa suit had ripped in the crotch and he was covered in jäger and beer. He played it to the hilt. Then, next door, the intermission for the play A Christmas Carol began and a load of season-giddy children flooded into the lobby and saw our demented Claus. We hid our Santa right away.
We’ve been partnered with the same theater for nine years now, and a few years ago they had the opportunity to move into one of the city’s most historic movie theaters: a gorgeous 500 seater venue. It’s a fantastic building, although it can be a challenge to fill it. We are more confident bringing guests to town, however. It’s helped us grow immeasurably. The theater is fully equipped with everything except 3D. DCP technology has definitely helped our shipping costs, although we always try to bring out a 35mm film once in a while.
HI: We are now at our third venue in seven years. Part of the reason for this is a distinct lack of independent or arthouse cinemas in San Diego. Most cinemas are parts of huge chains. Even cinemas like the Hillcrest or the Ken are owned by Landmark, so it can be a challenge to put on a film festival there. I really want to have a certain community feeling those venues don’t really provide.
Our first venue was an extremely DIY art space called 10th Avenue Arts Center. I still love it as an art and theater venue because it provides that community element in spades. I also love it as a horror venue because it is just genuinely creepy to be in. The building is a former Baptist Church for the military that was built in 1929—complete with stained glass, bizarre echoes, dark corners, and “confirmed” hauntings. Even the elevator (also built in 1929) looked like it could be potentially lethal.
That venue housed about 120, so the size was good for a starting festival. It also had a great space for an art gallery, which added a great dimension to the festival for traditional horror art, readings, panels, performance, and more. Unfortunately, what that venue doesn’t do well is cinema. All of the cinema aspects were put together by me—renting a projector, setting up sound, lousy film formats (DVD and Blu-ray)—and they had to be done pretty much on the day of the festival. This caused pure Hell, but we did stay there for three years.
The next move as a micro-cinema called Digital Gym Cinema. The community aspect is fantastic here because of the intimate setting, and its location in the Media Arts Center provided the opportunity for panels, performance, green screen rooms, and more. The projection and sound in this little cinema is great. The problem there is simply that it was too small. It held less than my previous venue, so I was trading audience capacity for quality of film presentation. That was worth it to me at the time. I still program regularly for the Digital Gym Cinema for our year-rounds.
Last year, we made a move I am still quite proud of. It is unlike almost any film festival I have been to—certainly any genre film festival. We are located at the Museum Of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in Balboa Park. The location at the museum is not only beautiful and in the heart of a major tourist destination, which adds to the experience, but the theater itself is magnificent. There is dual changeover 35mm capabilities, DCP, you name it. We also use the park itself for extra events like this year’s aerial and circus performance and “Campfire Horror Readings.”
Our current location at MOPA also affords us greater legitimacy, which has earned us coverage in more mainstream press here, as well as attracted the attention of press at the festival itself, which is such a great thing to offer filmmakers. The size of the theater at 226 is still a great fit for us, as well.
SH: The Sacramento Horror Film Festival has called the Historic Colonial Theater home for 10 years. We have no reason to move. It is also the home of our sister horror film festival that we produce in the summer months, entitled the Love Horror Short Film Festival.
We expanded programming to a single day in the summer film festival. It began as a “best of” show for the marquee event the year prior. Its popularity has warranted the addition of new films and now has its own entry and selection processes.
When we first began in 2007, we had to use a variety of beta decks, DVD players, Blu-ray players, and switchers to seamlessly play films in succession. It didn’t always go smoothly. These days, films are turned in on a digital format which makes seamless play by play much more possible.
SF: One, Raleigh Studios is hard to leave, it has the best projection, best sound; it has to because it caters to studio executives. The whole purpose of a film festival is to get the films out there and they need to look the best they can look and Raleigh Studios allows that to happen. There are three theaters there that when we sell out one theater we can add more. Technology is so different than it was 16 years ago when we started…. Back then we had to get all submissions on DVD or some even came on VHS. Now, almost all submissions are via online services like Withoutabox, FilmFreeway and Vimeo. The quality of film screeners is better too, we don’t screen on Digi Beta or tape anymore… now, it’s DCP’s, QT files, Blu-Rays.
Diabolique: Who are some of the key people in the development of your film festival? How has the area impacted growth, attendance and the films being submitted? How have you assembled your team for creating this event?
BB (GC): Key people are Steve, me, and Steve’s family. My family still hasn’t figured out why he disappears in the spring. But Steve’s wife and kids are a well-oiled, festival-producing machine. Because our core team is so small, we form partnerships with just about everyone we touch: our sponsors, or vendors, our fans, the bands, and the people behind the films themselves. We’re like a massive amoeba that wraps its pseudopods around everything it touches and whispers, “Work with us in a mutually beneficial fashion.” Hmmm…. On second thought, we don’t really whisper. But we offer a lot of buzz to our filmmakers and sponsors via the festival and our podcast. And that in turn generates buzz for the festival. And I know this sounds trite, but we depend on our fans. They return year after year, and they are our biggest advocates. We make this for them, and they return the favor by buying tickets and spreading the word about the festival.
BB (SH): While our cast of internal players is small, there have been many people outside the organization who have helped us to learn and grow. Fellow festival producers such Bryan Wolford of the aforementioned Drunken Zombie Film Festival and Eric Morgret from the MIFFF/Crypticon Film Festival have been supremely generous with advice and guidance, and fellow podcasters such Matt and Shannon from Seattle Geekly, DZ from Cinema Diabolica, Brother D. from Mail Order Zombie/Monster Kid Radio, and Vaughn from Motion Picture Massacre have been tireless champions of our festival, providing encouragement and helping us get the word out to a wider audience.
DF: It was originally a bunch of friends (and still is), but as the festival developed we had more and more people willing to help and come onboard. We have Board members from other festivals, some industry people, and an amazing crew onboard this year.
HI: I have a selection committee of six people and a revolving jury of judges consisting of 10 people. All are either filmmakers themselves or film critics in the mainstream media. My most critical partner is Beth Accomando, who is the Arts and Culture reporter for our local NPR affiliate. She is involved in selection, judging, and planning, with her “Killer Konfections” hospitality. Another key player is my wife Tiffany Rodriguez, who acts as treasurer, and keeps our numbers in check. Ty Mabrey, a local filmmaker and designer, uses his Bang Zoom Pow business to help us with marketing and design. Jen McCleary Allen is our Volunteer Coordinator, and we have a regular group of volunteers that should be called lifesavers for me. I am happy to say that Jon Condit of Dread Central has also jumped on board as a critical member who has helped with photography, videography, and more at the event itself. I am currently looking for a regular sponsorship director and other team members!
Now, as I mentioned before, San Diego is not the friendliest city toward the genre. I think it is one of our proudest accomplishments that we are gradually changing that. I am now regularly invited to program for or curate genre programming for some of the city’s largest film festivals, including the SD Latino Film Festival and SD Italian Film Festival. We also have prestigious partners in the museums and colleges in town who are interested in how we add an educational component to all the festivals. So our area has impacted us in that it has spurred us to work harder to either educate or even change people’s minds about the validity of the genre.
All of these things have served to get us noticed not only in San Diego but in the filmmaking and horror community in general. Every year, we get more and more film submissions. The first two years, I was the only programmer. I have had to increase our selection committee numbers in accordance with the sheer number of submissions we get. I insist all submissions get watched and considered, so it is quite a difficult job! Finding my team has been a gradual effort over the years as the growth has continued an upward trajectory. I choose them from their work in other film festivals, the quality of their film criticism, and other such factors.
SH: Mr. Lobo, The Queen of Trash, Sidney Sin, Jamie DeWolf, Bloody Bethy, Blake Reigle, Brian Jones, and many more have helped give the event an identity over the last 10 years. I select hosts and MC’s that have a passion for the product and are knowledgeable in the filmmaking process. You can’t fake passion. Audiences can read that from a mile away.
SF: No one in particular other than myself and my husband Todd, who helped out quite a bit the majority of the time. Bigger press helps, bigger sponsors help. How has the area impacted growth, attendance and films being submitted? Los Angeles used to have the most submissions, now, there are submissions from everywhere, people are realizing you don’t have to live in LA to have a film career. How have you assembled your team for creating this event? It’s been hard…. I now have a strong core of people that help out, but I still need more…. It’s really hard to find hard working, committed, passionate people.
Diabolique: How has the role of short films impacted programming for you? How do you set up your short film programming to the fullest effect for filmmakers, fans and your sanity? How many features do you offer? Have these numbers changed over the years of doing your film festival?
BB (GC): I’ve never understood what the role of short films is. That’s like asking, “What is the role of chocolate chip cookies?” They’re great and should be enjoyed in excess. Boom. Done. End of story. But unlike chocolate chip cookies, short films are actually better when you share them with people. We have three or four blocks of short films, and each block is about an hour long. We construct each block like a mix tape, with an overall flow, but enough variety that it never gets boring. No. Check that. It never gets COMFORTABLE. The audience never knows what’s going to happen next, and that keeps them engaged over the course of an eight-hour festival. Making the blocks of shorts is the hardest thing we do, but it’s also the most rewarding. Once you get that perfect block of films that wraps up your audience and takes them where you want them to go, it’s a lot of fun. Regarding the feature films, we usually show two films, and we pack them in between the blocks of shorts and the musical acts. Some years, a feature is the finale. Other years our finale is a block of shorts. It really depends on the material we have to work with and how we feel it would best come together. One year we had a brilliant film that was an hour long. An hour. That’s not a short. That’s not a feature. But we really wanted to show it, so we changed the whole format of the programming and stuck it in there.
DF: We expanded from a weekend, to four says, to six. And we may have to expand next year. We are either going to grow by a day or two or potentially run a spin-off action festival in the spring. As for short films, websites like FilmFreeway have proven invaluable for finding amazing content. Currently we program a short or two before each feature but the quality and quantity of shorts this year may move us to curating a short film block.
HI: I think I will just have to quote filmmaker Izzy Lee on this one: “Horrible Imaginings knows how to treat filmmakers! They treat short film directors with just as much respect as feature directors. I’ve never been treated better by any festival.”
I am happy you asked about short film programming because I do think it tends to get a bit ghettoized, and I understand why, but we give short films a lot of attention at our festival. They are a major part of the programming.
First and foremost, our mission is to expand and explore the nature of fear in storytelling. Short films are tailor made to meet that mission because they offer such a rich variety—even within thematic groups. I personally feel that horror is particularly suited to the short format because it can be so situational in scope. Rather than a character arc, we can explore a situation, a moment of fear, a concept. Many short films are proofs of concept for a feature, or calling cards, and that is fine so long as they work on their own merits. The possibilities are wonderful, and engage me completely as a programmer. This year, we had 10 features and over 60 short films. The ratio has always been pretty similar because I try to mix it up, but this year was five days long so we were able to increase the number of titles we put on the screen.
As far as setting up the short film programming, I try to alternate short film blocks with feature blocks and panels. I also group short films by thematic surveys like “supernatural,” “child’s nightmares,” “human killers and psychological terrors,” “creature features and science fiction,” and so forth. Within each of those blocks can be 10 or 11 times the exploration and discussion potential that one feature provides.
Our audience has come to expect this, and the surveys universally love the short film programming. Frankly, we get BRILLIANT short films every year. Just this year we had Little Boy Blue (still cried while watching it for the fifth time), The Disappearance of Willie Bingham, When Susurrus Stirs, They Will All Die In Space, Leshy, Night of the Slasher, Deathly, The Brentwood Strangler and Postpartum – all these I am just rambling off the top of my head because they were so damn memorable. I get really excited about the short film programming.
The only trick can be a technical one—getting all short films to play with proper audio levels, aspect ratios, and without glitches, one right after the other can be a technical problem. With the help of my awesome projectionist Erica Gleichman at MOPA, though, we knocked it out of the park. I’m super proud of the films.
SH: Short films are the buffet of programming. It allows viewers to sample many perspectives, styles, and craftsmanship from filmmakers across the globe in a single viewing. They are very popular. Programming a shorts block as a film festival director is like planning a set for an EDM concert as a DJ. Know and understand your audience to the best of your ability and program the event to the flow you feel will be best received. Come out the gate swinging and leave them wanting more.
We have screened approximately the same number of features per year since we began. Features need to hold the audience’s attention for an hour and a half. The craftsmanship needs to be top notch next to the storytelling. An hour and a half feature can easily be swapped for 10 quality short films. We at the Sacramento Horror Film Festival don’t adhere to a quota for features. If it’s good and deserves an audience, we will play it regardless of time length.
SF: We have four blocks of short films, it’s great, they are fun to watch, we have fans that just come for the shorts. We only screen 10 feature films, so, the competition is fierce! The shorts are sometimes more or less, we are thinking of adding another night to the festival though, so we can fit in a few more feature films.
Diabolique: What two films and/or guests have really put your film festival on the map? Which filmmaker(s) have you seen grow over the years with the festival? How does it make you feel to be part of that growth?
BB (SH): Feature wise, communicating the neither-fish-nor-fowl concept of a dedicated comedy-horror film festival has always been one of our biggest challenges, but I think our 2013 feature Grabbers really put us on the map. It illustrated in bold strokes that while we may be about cinematic independence, edgy material, and low budgets, we are also about presenting THE BEST quality entertainment we can find, which resulted in the 2013 fest being named one of the “Top 5 Coolest Comedy Film Festivals on the Planet” by Moviemaker Magazine. That exposure helped us secure the 2014 US premiere of Love Bite, which raised our profile as a festival to be taken seriously, and our 2016 bill of Patchwork and current Netflix darling Ava’s Possessions proved that we could deliver the giggles-and-gore with unwavering consistency.
DF: In 2011 we brought Michael Biehn, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, and a number of cast/crew from the films The Victim and The Divide to both Edmonton and our neighbor city Calgary for screenings. That was our first BIG guest. Getting Henry Rollins in last year was a coup as well. In terms of emerging filmmakers, it’s been fantastic to have Jeremy Gardner from The Battery come to DEDfest twice so far. He’s becoming an honorary Edmontonian.
There are also the local filmmakers. A few years ago two Edmonton directors, Cody Kennedy and Tim Rutherford, were submitting shorts on a near monthly basis to DEDfest. They got a huge following, and soon enough we were part of their team helping make films. In 2013 we saw the boys premiere their short The Last Video Store at Fantasia, and tour it around the world, including festivals like Fantastic Fest. One of their shorts, M is for Magnetic Tape is on the ABCs of Death 2.5 compilation.
HI: I feel like our repertory programming has gone a long way toward putting our festival on the map. Showing Bluebeard on 35mm with a panel on Edgar G. Ulmer that included his daughter Ariane Ulmer-Cipes and biographer Noah Isenberg, for example. Or Christmas Evil with a discussion by Lewis Jackson. Part of exploring the genre is exploring the roots of the genre, so repertory screenings of classic films has been a major part of the program.
Michal Kosakowski’s Zero Killed documentary and Chris Powers’s Long Pigs were both award winners at Horrible Imaginings and I think they have achieved some notoriety. Kosakowski in particular recently completed an anthology called German Angst with Nekromantik director Jörg Buttgereit.
Our first year, we had the Soska Sisters show Dead Hooker in a Trunk. We San Diego-premiered their American Mary, and now they are just exploding everywhere. Short films The Stomach by Ben Steiner and Invaders by Jason Kupfer are now viewable on Shudder. Last year, we had award-winner AJ Briones attend and show his film The Smiling Man, which has now garnered over three million views on Crypt TV. Gigi Saul Guerrero was a special guest and panelist last year, and her Luchagore Productions is growing more and more every day.
Yes, it feels fantastic to think we played any part in that growth, but our focus is more about each individual work and what it brings to the conversation.
SH: We were the first horror film festival to host Srjdan Spasojevic, the director of the notorious A Serbian Film. Director Jourdan McClure (Children of Sorrow, Rogue River) is a talent whose films loyal patrons of the SHFF still talk about annually in regards to his shocking but seductive style of filmmaking. I’m proud to see that director Blake Reigle, who took home the Best of Festival Feature Film award in 2007, has returned to the 10th annual event with his second feature film.
SF: All of them do. When you go to a Blockbuster (when they were around) and see Shriekfest on a large section of the horror department, that’s a big deal…now, it’s Netflix. Shriekfest films are everywhere! Gregg Bishop, Patrick Rea, John Fitzpatrick, Mike Flanagan, and many, many more. I love seeing what filmmakers do through the years, I’m their number one cheerleader. I love to support talented people.