I squealed. Out loud.
After 22 years in the entertainment industry and nine years attending Austin’s Fantastic Fest, priding myself on cool, professional discourse with filmmakers, celebrities, and talent of all stripes, when Chan-wook Park, visionary auteur and writer/director of THE HANDMAIDEN, crossed the Highball’s dance floor at 10am on a Friday morning, I squealed. I was in the middle of a conversation with a colleague and actually, it was a more of a mangled cry. The sort of OHHWAUGGGHH-wail a 60s-era 16-year-old might have made when laying eyes on her first Beatle.
And I wasn’t ashamed. Okay, maybe the slightest cheek-flush of embarrassment, but when my pal murmured oh yeahhh and I side-eyed my fellow reviewers, bloggers, and industry folks madly tapping behind their laptop screens among the bar’s dining-booths-cum-morning-journo-pool, all I saw were head-bobs of acknowledgment, even if some didn’t bother looking up. Another awesome somebody, those nods assured me. That’s why we’re here.
It’s par for the course at Fantastic Fest, as anyone who’s experienced it will tell you, likely wrapped inside their own stories of shock and excess ranging from sublime to ridiculous. But Fantastic Fest is even more than that. Over a typical eight-day run at the largest, most-beloved genre film festival in the United States, first-timers are told to expect anything and everything. Veteran attendees know the truth of this statement, which is why they keep coming back.
For those unfamiliar with the term, genre films refer to the outer corners and bleeding edges of mainstream movies: Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Martial Arts films, as well as foreign and independent efforts deemed “important to see” by a team of elite festival programmers stationed around the world, and part of a global network of 20 festivals working in partnership called the EFFFF- the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation.
Now in its 11th year, Fantastic Fest- the festival brainchild of Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League- now also boasts the Fantastic Market, where aspiring filmmakers network with industry buyers to pitch their projects; the Fantastic Arcade, providing hands-on discovery of the newest and best of independent video gaming; and partnership showcases with companies like Mondo, the high-art arm that reimagines classic movie posters, clothing, and other collectibles. Virtual Reality company Dark Corner brought a wholly immersive element to short-film shockers, sharing the Bollywood-adorned splendor of Drafthouse Lamar’s lobby not only with VR helmets but with a mechanized wheelchair, chain-linked enclosure, and full-sized casket to sample the full spectrum of their wares.
This year’s “Dishoom Reigns” theme (named for the sound a punch makes in Bollywood films) possessed the high-flying, over-the-top independent spirit of India’s movie-house history both past and present, festooning both the theater and its adjoining bar and restaurant with brightly colored fabrics, furniture, and balloons aplenty. But just as the lineup of films themselves, the decor also provided a few counterpoints: a stroll down the theater hallway revealed a simulated morgue, complete with blackboard, evidence, and Y-incisioned corpse, courtesy of IFC Films’ THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, later to be replaced by a towering bank of monitors broadcasting mysterious and barren landscapes, random messages, and possibly a ghoul or two, compliments of Shudder’s SADAKO VS. KAYAKO.
In 2000, Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON found popularity that bridged the art-house divide, finally inviting the embrace of viewers unaccustomed to “reading their movies.” With foreign-language films more attractive (and bankable) than in previous years, those doors have continued to open, to the benefit of us all. However, as theater exhibitors struggle to keep their doors open in the face of increasing platforms to view film (VOD, SVOD outlets like Netflix and Hulu, and standalone OTT channels), we have to reconcile a surplus of content against a dearth of physical real estate: patrons still want their blockbusters, and the theaters must deliver or die trying, despite noblest intentions to provide as wide and colorful a cinematic palette as possible.
For the cineastes, adventurous, or simply curious, there’s been one consistent and reliable alternative: Film Festivals. Festivals have been both a moveable feast and proving ground for new talent, narrative innovation, and technical achievement for the last 50 years, with a landscape that has ebbed and flowed across the globe for that time. While most film festivals don’t live to see their third birthday, a double-handful of fests have stood the test of time- and with the help of generous, forward-thinking donors and tireless operations teams, have provided audiences with a venue to discover masterworks both old and new, possibly years before they might be able to find those titles among their more commercially-edible counterparts.
For this reason alone, festivals matter. Cultural stagnation, or worse, the ham-handed variants of beg, borrow, and steal that comprises the remake-engines of studios uninterested in claiming the products of directors’ original visions, is wholly dependent on what viewers are offered to watch, or have been relegated to seek out among the backchannel and bootlegged options outside their regions. Luckily, we’ve come a good way from those days, but without the ongoing willingness of studios to consider film festivals a critical component of a movie’s lifecycle, early critical opinion, adoption, and ambassadorship of newfound fans may leave us once again in an alternative-content drought.
Added to the dizzying number of feature films and short subjects painstakingly searched, negotiated, and slated to its week-long run, Fantastic Fest also hosts a week of events that have become as must-see as the movies themselves. This year’s fest brought back the ever-popular Karaoke night spectacle, as well as the Fantastic Debates, where screen luminaries and critics voice their divergent opinions on current film tropes and theory, then don the gloves and duke it out in the square circle. 2016 also had the “Puke And Explode” food-eating contest (with a menu I shudder to think about even now), Nerd Rap battles, a STAR WARS mixology competition, live broadcasts of “Maltin At The Movies,” “Everything Is Terrible,” “Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption,” a repertory screening of Fabio Frizzi’s THE BEYOND at a local church with live accompaniment, and the much-beloved “100 Best Kills” show. FF’s parties are notoriously off the hook, with this year’s revelries highlighted by Japanese electronica/marching band Itchy-O and dueling, dancing monsters at every turn. Previous years have offered filmmakers Texas-sized playtime that’s included hunting boar by helicopter, outdoor-machine-gun-shooting-ranges, and haunted houses built within the hidden backdoors, stairwells, and unoccupied rooms of the the theater itself.
But Fantastic Fest provides one more thing that sets it apart, making it not only the standalone choice in the US for festivals of its ilk, but a destination for filmmakers and fans around the world- The Love. You can’t quantify The Love, but you know it when you feel it. Fantastic Fest is a Homecoming for the die-hard, freaky film fans who took their love of film to heart early on, and made it a badge of honor their whole lives. To look at the crowd, the median age could easily be 35, but it is a bulwark and safe haven for every kid who ever sneaked a peek at a scary movie without mom and dad’s permission; for every teen who gathered up their friends to watch a scratchy VHS copy of a film no one heard of, but everyone loved afterwards; for every adult who had to explain why being a movie fanatic isn’t childish, but connects them to a creativity and out-of-box understanding of the world that far surpasses a three-act structure.
There’s a reason why the lines stop abruptly, causing you to bump into others: every day, every night, people are hugging. These fans aren’t isolated, shut-in basement-dwellers (well, at least not here). At Fantastic Fest, they’re a Tribe. A global community- educated, opinionated, well-spoken, and ready to share and learn with others of like mind. In many cases, they’ve been talking for years but only now meet their compatriots face-to-face. In others, they’ve been doing business- publicist-to-press-writer, producer-to-kickstarter-supporter, filmmaker-to-longtime-penpal, star-to-star, fan-to-fan. There aren’t boundaries at Fantastic Fest, no hoi-polloi-exclusions that keep “the talent” separated from the hordes. Here, there’s just The Love, and everyone is in it together.
The Love is palpable: you see it in excited discussions among strangers before every show, in the exhausted commiserating after four days of watching five films in a row and drinking for 14 hours straight, in the dancing-with-strangers freedom rarely allowed in the outside world, in the rush to help someone who trips over their brother in the dark- even in the dreaded Fantastic Flu, a virulent strain of bronchitis that spreads among attendees and staff alike, hitting immune systems either during or after the event.
It’s a celebration, a reunion, a once-a-year reveal of who you really are and the creative drives that set you apart from your multiplex-marching colleagues. That is why Fantastic Fest is a must-attend experience. Recall the stories of Asgard and the grand Hall of Valhalla, where only the most dutiful of warriors convene to shout, sing, and recall the stories of their fellows in battle, safe among their own. It’s as close as you’ll get this side of paradise. –cdo