While Utah may be best known for the Hollywood hullabaloo of Sundance in Park City, another festival not far away caters to filmmakers and audiences who love fantasy, horror and science-fiction cinema.

The FilmQuest festival—located just outside of Salt Lake City—celebrated its second annual program in June with a 10-day smorgasbord of full-length features, short films, music videos, panels and specialty workshops.

At the center of all this is the tall, smiling figure of Jonathan Martin. As the founder and director of FilmQuest, he’s been hip-deep in production work for weeks in support of opening day: a phone call here, a handshake there and boatload of miscellaneous to-dos. Martin and his staff of passionate volunteers have their work cut out for them. There are over 1,200 submissions from around the world, spread out over 39 different categories with over 250 films selected to screen. Many of the submissions are angling for the coveted Cthulhu award, a statue whose quality, weight and craftsmanship reflects the seriousness and dedication seen in many of the films.

Hosted at a massive suburban multiplex in Sandy, Utah, the festival prides itself on appreciating its participants with a red carpet treatment not always seen at genre-driven festivals. Upon check-in, visiting filmmakers are greeted by a friendly staff and given a beautiful and comprehensive festival guide—along with an appropriately geeky gift bag, containing everything from an Alfred Hitchcock bobblehead to a box of delicious handmade caramels.

Not far from the red carpet, a specially outfitted FilmQuest lounge awaits filmmakers and attendees. Decorated with fantasy photo backdrops for impromptu selfies (with props!) and overseen by a large bronze sculpture of a Cthulhu-esque mermaid, the area is a geeky chill space where festival participants and fans can mix and network.

A gathering of Harry Potter cosplayers turned out Saturday for a evening of Harry Potter themed films, including Mudbloods, a documentary about a real-life Quidditch team from UCLA.

A gathering of Harry Potter cosplayers turned out for a evening of Harry Potter-themed films, including Mudbloods, a documentary about a real-life Quidditch team from UCLA

“I thought the festival did a good job with juggling things, and keeping attendees socially engaged,” said Michael Entler, director of the animated short “Haunt.” “The fest guide books were top-notch and the swag bags were a bounty of bodacious booty!”

In the short weekend that I visited FilmQuest, I received a good taste of what they had to offer. The variety, creativity and production quality of the films impressed beyond my expectations and helped banish the notion that genre events are somehow less serious than traditional film festivals. Whether your thing is mind-warping horror (The House at the End of Time), time-travel comedy (“One-Minute Time Machine”) or dystopian sci-fi (“Helio”), there was much to take seriously.

A highlight of the features category, the fantasy comedy The Better Half walked away with the Best Actress honors for Kathleen Rose Perkins, who plays a woman with a split personality stuck in purgatory after a gym accident. Perkins is in top form juggling two different personalities in competition, and made the film hilarious and heartwarming to watch during its well-attended Saturday evening screening. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we put a lot of love, time and effort into it,” said director Michael Winnick after the Q&A. “To see this audience responding favorably to it is a great feeling.”

Media time on the red carpet with THE BETTER HALF director Michael Winnick (left).  THE BETTER HALF claimed the Best Actress award for Kathleen Rose Perkins.

Michael Winnick (left), director of The Better Half, which claimed the Best Actress award for Kathleen Rose Perkins

When it was time for a break from the darkened rooms, there was always a panel discussion to check in on. My favorite session involved a group of film music composers, some of whom had projects in competition. The stories of struggles and successes resonated among the group and provided a great window into the creative decision-making and business dealings that go with scoring a film.

For those looking to gain new film industry insights, FilmQuest 2015 offered optional workshops with Hollywood pros looking to share their skills and perspective. One of the highlights of my visit was spending part of the afternoon with actor Damian Clarke (Graceland, N.C.I.S. Borderlands), who hosted a workshop on voice acting. Working with a small group out of a nearby recording studio, Clarke led an informative and energetic class of all ages and talents that addressed the creative and business angles of professional voice work. “You are not just an actor, you are in the business of you,” said Clarke while explaining the importance of personalized marketing. Covering topics from finding the right voice coach to the importance of managing a social media profile, Clarke took time with each student, offering coaching in and out of the booth.

The evenings at FilmQuest offered more opportunities to socialize and talk shop over drinks. Friday evening’s afterparty occupied the private room of a nearby club and provided a few hours to break the ice with fellow filmmakers. Between the free catering and wall of flat-screens covered by flying dragons, there were plenty of thirsty souls to network with and much to discuss.

“Every person I met who worked there was helpful and passionate about films,” said writer-director Teddy Cecil, whose short film “Helio” was nominated for Best Sci-Fi Short Film.  “By the time I had to head back to L.A., I had dozens of new contacts that I actually was excited to have.” MM

FilmQuest 2015 ran from June 18-27. For more information, visit the festival’s official website here.