Slaying the Horror Festival Circuit: How To Navigate the Deep, Dark Maze of North American Horror Film Festivals

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No continent in the world hosts as many horror film festivals as North America, so the task of selecting a handful to submit to can be a little frightening.

Incredibly, almost every major (and many minor) city in the United States and Canada have their own dedicated horror film festivals: There’s a Chicago Horror Film Festival, New York City Horror Film Festival, Atlanta Horror Film Festival, New Orleans Horror Film Festival, Sacramento Horror Film Festival, Montreal Horror Film Festival, Tucson Terror Fest… even the small towns of Erie in Pennsylvania, Big Bear in California and Fargo in North Dakota host annual horror film festivals. How does a moviemaker make sense of it all?

The Upper Crust

One place to start should be quite familiar to any filmmaker: a top-tier North American film festival. The South by Southwest, Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals have specially curated midnight horror showcases—South by Southwest Midnight, Sundance Midnight and Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness respectively—that share both a prestige uncommon to most dedicated horror festivals and an uncommonly high standard for acceptances.

Colin Geddes, TIFF’s international programmer, selects cutting-edge films for the festival’s Midnight Madness program. The Midnight Madness section was started in 1988 to show horror and genre films the respect they weren’t getting on the international film festival circuit—“to celebrate the fun spirit that the films were made in and also treat them as art,” says Geddes. Since then, the selection has grown in popularity, bumping up from 800 seats to one of TIFF’s largest venues, the 1,200-seat Ryerson Theatre. 

Geddes tries to program only films that set a high bar for tone and energy, to keep the audience engaged and excited at 2 a.m. “This audience is never there for a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ film. They’re there for a ‘so-good-it’s-great’ film. As a curator I would never waste their time with B-grade junk.” He believes that the festival’s People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award speaks volumes about its “smart and savvy cinephile” audience’s good taste in horror. Past winners have included Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones, Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows.

Could your film conceivably be described as “B-grade junk?” If yes, TIFF will most likely not show it. But it will screen your film if it breaks new ground. “Anything that brings a fresh take on the genre is welcomed by Midnight Madness fans,” Geddes says. “They don’t want to see the same old slasher films or the same old haunted house stories. They expect to be surprised. That’s what I’m always searching for.”

Eli Roth gleefully attacks a piñata at Fantastic Fest’s 10-year anniversary bash in 2014. Photograph by David Hill

Horror’s Crème de la Crème

If a prestigious mainstream festival with a limited horror sidebar sounds a little too narrow for your film, look instead toward two of the most famous genre film festivals in North America: Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada.

Don’t be fooled by the similarity in the names—these fests are different beasts. Kier-La Janisse, a film author and programmer who has worked for both festivals, notes that the 19-year-old, three-week long Fantasia is more influenced by veteran European counterparts. “Fantasia’s film market, Frontière, is a much more integral part of the festival overall, partly because there are funding bodies in Canada that prize these sorts of events.”

Evrim Ersoy, lead programmer at Fantastic Fest, says that “Fantasia is like a family reunion,” with a warm, welcoming sense of community. His own festival, on the other hand, is “summer camp.” Decade-old Fantastic Fest, informed by the zany Alamo Drafthouse theater chain that houses and produces it, has been likened to a frat party for movie nerds. Ersoy intends Fantastic Fest attendees to have the “most gonzo, most intense experience of their lives. Fans and guests alike are thrown into a beautiful chaos, It’s Valhalla with a Texan twang for film fans; there’s nothing else quite like it.”

Fantastic Fest is “special event-based,” Janisse says, citing “field trips and crazy themed parties.” While she believes “Fantasia is better at making everyone feel like they fit in, Fantastic Fest will probably leave you with more crazy stories—like waking up with a Kim Jong-Il tattoo you don’t remember getting free at the closing party.”

Todd Brown, director of international programming at Fantastic Fest, adds “What the two share are a deep, deep sense of community and a dedication to blurring the lines between the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies. Every year it seems you can point to a movie or two that happened because the people involved met at Fantasia or Fantastic Fest a couple years before.”

Choosing between submitting to Fantastic Fest or Fantasia Film Festival? Don’t. Submit to both. While both celebrate genres of all kinds, they love to lead with horror films that fulfill their creative requirements. “There are two types of horror that play best,” says Brown. “There’s the really crazy stuff—Takashi Miike films and the like— and there’s the character-driven, creeping-dread stuff, like It Follows or We Are What We Are. Those always play huge.”

Ersoy concurs: “We’re not interested in well-worn tropes. Misogyny is frowned upon; we love a solid film with an ass-kicking, strong female protagonist.”

More than anything, “We love the stuff of nightmares.”

A Fantasia audience goes wild during a 2015 screening of Ryan Wise’s documentary I Am Thor. Photograph by King-Wei Chu

The Happy Medium-Range

Competition for a horror film spot in the aforementioned unofficial big five is stiff. If you’re looking to make a slightly more modest splash, you may want to save on these larger festivals’ submission fees, and focus on the less internationally prominent festivals that draw in smaller crowds but still carry a reputation for quality. Colorado is home to three of these: Telluride Horror Show, Mile High Horror Film Festival, and Stanley Film Festival. Also noteworthy are the medium-sized Toronto After Dark and Buffalo Screams festival events, named after their respective cities, as well as Los Angeles’ Screamfest and Shriekfest Film Festivals. Looking outside of North America, the Macabro and Morbido Film Festivals in Mexico and the Puerto Rico Horror Film Festival dominate their local scenes.

One of these “better-bet” medium-sized film festivals is the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego, California. It’s actually a nonprofit organization that charges no fee during their early submissions, and between $10-25 for regular and extended submissions (Compare that to Sundance’s $60-110 entry price tag). Why submit to a fest like Horrible Imaginings instead of, or in addition to, Fantastic Fest and Fantasia? First off, Horrible Imaginings’ reduced scale means that each filmmaker is likely to get individual attention. Fans and filmmakers mingle more directly, and unpolished filmmakers still have a chance to be seen and appreciated.

“Our focus is far more centered on the themes and ideas of the films, rather than on peripheral events like parties, red carpets, or ceremonies,” explains Miguel Rodriguez, Horrible Imaginings’ founder. “That might seem less exciting to some, but we strive to make the films the most important part of the festival.”

Larger festivals tend to be more concerned with what is best “for the festival,” and will often accept films only on the condition of a world premiere. On the contrary, Rodriguez says, “our priorities will always be what are best for the films—if a film was accepted at a larger festival that makes premiere status one of its criteria, we would understand if it had to drop off our program.”

Another bonus of screening at a festival like Horrible Imaginings is that the programmers are free to screen more artistically challenging films, without the element of bureaucracy or industry politics at play. “We believe films with dark content serve a therapeutic purpose that they are rarely given credit for,” says Rodriguez. “Horror can be found in hunger, despair, war, anxiety, parenthood—you name it. It doesn’t have to be stuck in the domain of monsters, slashers, or ghosts, though those have a place as well. Many of the films we program or the themes we present may not be considered ‘horror’ by some, but breaking the expectations of that genre label is the entire reason we are doing this.”

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