As genre titles become more popular in the marketplace, festivals such as Fantasia, FrightFest and PiFan are not just for the fanboys any more. Ian Sandwell examines how the industry is embracing fantastic events.

With Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival set to launch its inaugural Frontieres international co-production market at this year’s edition, there is yet more evidence that genre film festivals are no longer the fanboy underground events they once were - they are becoming a key stop on the industry’s festival circuit.

“Maybe a couple of years ago it was more underground film festivals, it was small festivals that were struggling,” explains Stephanie Trepanier, market director at Fantasia. “But now, they’re really organised, world-class events.”

Trepanier admits the launch of a co-production market was, among other reasons, born out of a desire to bring industry to the festival in order to achieve “the premiere status we want to get to”. And Fantasia is not the first genre film festival to introduce an industry-driven event into its annual line-up.

Launched in 2008, the Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF) was the first genre-exclusive market. Running during the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan), NAFF involves three strands: It Project, a genre-exclusive project market allowing film-makers from Asia and the Asian diaspora to hold business meetings with international film producers and key investors; Industry Programs, promoting the global genre film industry; and the Fantastic Film School, a specialised education programme for genre film professionals.

NAFF managing director Jongsuk Thomas Nam says it is now a truly global event. “Because there are, nowadays, many financiers or co-production partners from Australia, UK, US, who are interested in Asian elements, we get the buyers, financiers or co-production partners from all over, not only Asia.”

This year’s It Project has a record 20 projects from 13 territories, including the first 3D animation at NAFF, The Birth Of B/W Man, and Korea’s first genre romantic sci-fi fantasy The Weirdo From Mars.

Such diversity is more indicative of what genre film festivals are all about. “I think it’s a good thing because it has re-educated the general audience that there are more than just horror films when it comes to genre films,” Nam suggests.

Alongside the project market, the educational programme this year will focus on animation, film and new media, and like last year, will be open to professionals from all over Asia.

Sparking relationships

There is often a close-knit relationship between the three industry initiatives that NAFF runs, with film-makers that start out in the educational programme submitting projects for the market which eventually go on to screen at PiFan. In addition to this, NAFF gives its participants the chance to meet with other film-making professionals who often go on to work together.

“One of the prime examples [is] Oh Young-doo, who was one of the directors of [horror anthology] Neighbourhood Zombie, which was in our festival in 2009,” says Nam. “Yubari festival director Tokitoshi Shiota saw the film and liked it so much he invited Oh to Yubari in 2010. Oh’s latest film Invasion Of Alien Bikini then won the Grand Prize at Yubari the following year.”

The spark that leads to new collaborations is common among genre film festivals, even if they do not have official project markets. After meeting at the London-based FrightFest, for example, directors Simon Rumley and Jake West are teaming up for a film version of West’s much-praised documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape.

Also, while not born at the Montreal-based Fantasia, horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre came about as a result of friendships developed at the event.

“The goal of the project market is to have much more of that,” says Fantasia’s Trepanier. “The line-up of projects we have are all projects that have great potential and commercial viability; all those different aspects can be good for co-production.”

‘Our audiences are hyper-informed and embrace films that take risks. They’re also, for the most part, not cynical in the way certain festival crowds can be’

Mitch Davis, Fantasia

Aimed at connecting North America with Europe and Australasia (Asian nations were excluded so as not to conflict with NAFF), Frontieres will present 14 projects including genre veteran Stuart Gordon’s Purgatory, Bafta-nominated short-film director Robert Morgan and Sam Walker’s The Withering and Jorge Michel Grau’s Keep Quiet, the follow-up to Grau’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2010 socio-horror We Are What We Are.

Frontieres will be part of the new Fantasia Industry Rendez-Vous (July 26-29), which also includes the Fantasia Film Market, where buyers and sellers can negotiate rights for films in the festival’s official line-up.

“We are working on a good mix of European and US sales agents that can come and pre-buy. For distributors, it’s mostly going to be US distributors but we’d like to have a couple of European distributors that really cater to genre films and obviously we want to have producers from all over,” notes Trepanier.

Boosters for launch

And for the films involved in the likes of PiFan and Fantasia, either in official selection or their project markets, events can prove the perfect launch. Swedish director Filip Tegstedt, whose debut feature Marianne received its world premiere at last year’s Fantasia, believes the Fantasia launch was essential to his film’s long-term development.

Since Fantasia, Marianne has gone on to play at several other genre festivals and it received a limited theatrical run in Ostersund, Sweden with eight sold-out screenings in 10 days around Halloween.

“When you have an independent production and start out with a relatively small production budget, there is no money left for promotion and you’re completely reliant on blogs and websites, word of mouth, social media and film festivals. Without festivals, you’ve got none of the others,” says Tegstedt.

John Shackleton, managing director of UK independent production company Movie Mogul which saw its first feature Panic Button world premiere at FrightFest last year, agrees. “We had UK offers of distribution, but I’m fairly sure the announcement of our acceptance [to FrightFest] accelerated the deal with UK distributor, Showbox Media.

“It is hard to quantify the precise benefits [of FrightFest] but we did well in terms of reviews and editorial copy. Critic, fan-site and viewer reviews multiplied both before and after the festival, spilling out onto IMDb, social media and the mainstream press. Public and buyer perceptions of the film undoubtedly shifted too, with the Film4 FrightFest stamp of approval.”

Shackleton also highlights another of the key benefits of genre film festivals. “Not having a theatrical release for the film, it was great to see it in a 1,200-seat cinema. We were all very thrilled and couldn’t have hoped for a better launch pad.”

This is something that FrightFest co-director Greg Day believes is contributing to a shift in industry attitudes towards genre film festivals. “I think it’s to do with the fact they are watching with a captive audience and from their response, they can tell quite quickly how successful or how popular the film is.

“In a way, [genre] film festivals will become more and more famous as public events, and distributors embrace that. It gives them an opportunity to put on the films which they wouldn’t normally do, if they had to spend the money on straightforward exhibiting,” adds Day.

PiFan programme director Jin Park agrees. “Since I joined PiFan in 2007, I feel gradual changes in the industry toward genre festivals, as the industry has been aware genre festivals’ specificity appeals to the market as well as the audiences.

“Owing to this atmosphere around genre cinema, I’m sure the film industry worldwide can now take genre festivals seriously as good marketing and showcasing occasions.”

Mitch Davis, co-festival director of Fantasia, attributes the industry’s changing attitude to a “perfect storm”.

“I think the industry had no choice but to take active notice and explore what we are and what we can do for a production. Foreign films and lower-budget productions of the sort that can often be difficult in the marketplace can become blockbusters on the genre film circuit.

“Our audiences are hyper-informed and they embrace films that take genuine risks. They’re also, for the most part, not cynical in the way that certain festival crowds can be and virtually everyone blogs these days with an eagerness to help discover and support new talent.”

‘The film industry worldwide can now take genre festivals seriously as marketing and showcasing occasions’

Jin Park, PiFan

And genre film festivals have started to play a major role in the marketing of a genre film, according to Mike Hostench, deputy director of Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia. One of the objectives Hostench and festival director Angel Sala set for Sitges was to make it relevant for the local and international film industry.

Hostench says: “[This meant] that having a film in Sitges will mean selling your film in Spain, or improve results at the Spanish box office. This has implied that more and more producers and distributors from around the world, major and indie, are taking Sitges very seriously in the marketing plans of their genre releases.”

Alongside the industry’s changing attitudes towards genre film festivals, there is also a shift in the way genre films in general are perceived. This is something Tim League, founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Drafthouse Films and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, sought to change having been disappointed that the “films we loved were being dubbed as ‘low art’, ‘B movies’ or worst of all, ‘so bad they are good’”.

“Due in some measure to the growing audiences for genre film and genre film festivals, I think these odd films we love are garnering much more respect from critics and the media,” League adds. “The subject has been discussed in the media over the past few years as venerable festivals like Cannes and Sundance have programmed their red carpets to be a good bit more blood-soaked.”

But are there now too many genre film festivals as a result of the growing popularity? “If we are talking fantastic [films], probably yes. But the most important ones are co-ordinated in a very professional way. Most are members or adherent members of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation [see below], that also has strong relationships with festivals in the US, Canada, South Korea and, soon, Australia,” Sitges’ Hostench adds.

Fantasia’s Davis takes a different standpoint, stating that while there might be some within the industry who say there are too many festivals, from his perspective as a programmer, every city with a genre fanbase should have one.

“I think I can speak for just about every programmer in any part of the world when I say the reason we all got into this was because, as film lovers, we lamented the fact many of the most interesting productions of any given year never got a chance to come to life as big-screen communal experiences in our cities.”

League does believe though that even with the growing popularity of genre film festivals and their films, there will still be an extent of snobbery towards them as “cinema as an art form breeds it”, citing the 2009 Cannes premiere of Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist.

“When the film takes its now famously vicious turn to become a genre film, the snobs in the audience began to scream and shout, demanding the head of von Trier for sullying their beloved Lumiere with his filth,” League recalls. “The opposing faction of genre-friendly fans got agitated and began to shout down the shouters. At the end of the film, half the audience that still remained were on their feet with a standing ovation, the other half were booing and cat-calling. It was wonderful.”

Potential snobbery is not something PiFan’s Park thinks should affect genre film festivals.

“Though there must be some snobbery toward genre film festivals based on prejudice over genre films, I don’t think snobbery can bother much if you don¹t want to make your festival another Cannes or Toronto.

“If anyone looks down at a genre film festival only because it does not show a Dardenne brothers’ film, it’s not snobbery - just stupidity.”

Fantastic voyage

Established in 1996, the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF) has developed a network of festivals that allows films to reach foreign audiences and increased visibility within the industry.

With the aim of supporting European fantastic cinema artistically and economically, EFFFF created the Golden Mélies competition for best European fantastic film. The competition is organised by the nine affiliated members of the EFFFF with each festival awarding one of its films the Mélies d’Argent. Each winner then competes for the Mélies d’Or, with the ceremony taking place at one of the federation’s festivals. For short films, the competition is open to all European members of the federation.

As well as its nine affiliated members, EFFFF has nine adherent members - including FrightFest and Bruges-based Razor Reel Fantastic Film Festival - and four supporting members: Fantasia, PiFan, Fantastic Fest and Los Angeles-based Screamfest Horror Film Festival.

A Fantastic Tour: selected Genre Festivals

Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan)

Puchon, South Korea
July 19-29, 2012

Showcasing cutting-edge films from around the world, PiFan attracts around 48,000 attendees each year. It hosts events such as an audience party, where guests can be made up as zombies. PiFan’s project market, Network of Asian Fantastic Films, is in its fifth year and was the first of its kind to launch.

Fantasia International Film Festival

Montreal, Canada
July 19-August 7, 2012

Has seen 1.2 million visitors since its launch in 1996, and is cited as one of the world’s most influential festivals.

Film4 FrightFest

London, UK
August 23-27, 2012

Now in its 13th year, FrightFest is driven by fans, with film-maker Guillermo del Toro proclaiming it to be “the Woodstock of gore”. FrightFest also runs a strand during the Glasgow Film Festival in February.

Fantastic Fest

Austin, Texas, US
September 20-27, 2012

With an audience of around 30,000 each year, Fantastic Fest offers unique experiences alongside the films, from freestyle nerd rap competitions to boxing matches between stars and directors.

Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia

Sitges, Spain
October 4-14, 2012

In terms of budget, number of films, talent invited and industry relevance, this is the number one genre festival. Some 170,000 attendees last year, including to its free access areas, with 64,000 tickets sold.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival

Brussels, Belgium
April 2013

BIFFF welcomes more than 60,000 spectators each year and has been running for 30 years. Also holds events such as an international body-painting contest, a vampire ball and a zombie parade through Brussels.