Screamfest horror film festival director Rachel Belofksy says she didn’t grow up loving scary movies. “As a little girl, I was terrified of everything,” she recalls. “All the vampire films freaked me out. Even as a teen, it wasn’t my thing.” Belofksy’s fear has since been supplanted by fandom. Now if you show her a good “decap” scene, she can explain its artistic merit, point by point.
Unlike Belofksy, I never shed my girlhood aversion to slash and gore. When I tell her that I still routinely fast forward through episodes of “Lost” to avoid watching the scary parts in real time, Belofsky calls me “adorable.” I’m relieved that this doyenne of the horror film world can appreciate me as cute, and not cast me off as total wimp (which, in fact, I am).
Horror is not, nor has it ever been, my thing. That’s why when MovieMaker asked me to find out why so many horror film festivals have started up in recent years, I hesitated at first. But then I reconsidered: I thought that perhaps people like Belofsky could explain the appeal of this seemingly unseemly genre and shed some light on why so many indies are making films about zombies, slashers and headless horsemen on their own dimes.
In talking with film festival organizers (many of whom are aspiring moviemakers themselves), I learned that some festivals (Screamfest included) are succeeding at attracting industry heavy-hitters who can potentially catapult a moviemaker toward bigger and better opportunities. This spells good news for independent moviemakers who can translate their love of gore into original, well-edited films.
Belofsky herself could be considered something of a den mother to this rising generation of horror-makers. A film producer in her own right, she co-founded Screamfest in 2001, back when there weren’t many major industry festival events devoted exclusively to horror here in the United States. While some fests can take many months (if not years) to launch, Belofsky and founding partner Ross Martin organized the inaugural Screamfest in a mere six weeks—just in time for Halloween.
Even though the last decade has witnessed a steady rise in the gross receipts garnered by horror films at the box office (a market share increase of 2.85 percent in 1995 to 5.96 percent in 2006, according to www.the-numbers.com), Belofsky says she was tired of seeing horror being dismissed as “the bastard child of the industry.” She wanted to catalyze a change and thought that a horror-themed film festival could help emerging talent get noticed by industry executives. Her experiment seems to have paid off.
Today, Screamfest has grown from a two-day blip into a 10-day extravaganza that whittles 500 submissions into a program showcasing 30 to 40 films annually. A few years ago, Belofsky even managed to recruit special effects master Stan Winston of Terminator 2 and Aliens fame to join her as an official partner and sit on the festival’s advisory board. Horror legends like Wes Craven and Sam Raimi soon followed.
In 2006, Screamfest drew an estimated audience of 5,000 and some even resorted to buying scalped tickets outside the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where the festival takes place. “It was pretty hilarious,” says Belofsky of the sidewalk bidding wars she witnessed.
It doesn’t hurt that the festival’s popularity has helped to land distribution and development deals for several of its past award-winners. Spanish-bred director and special effects artist Víctor García credits Screamfest with launching his Hollywood career. In 2004, his independently-produced film El Ciclo won Best Horror Short at Screamfest. When he learned that his moviemaking hero, Stan Winston, was active in the festival, Garcia took a gamble and paid for a plane ticket from Barcelona to Los Angeles so that he could accept the award in person. For Garcia, the combination of winning and meeting Winston “was one of those moments you’ll always remember… To me, it’s been the beginning of everything.”
Fast-forward three years: Garcia recently completed Return to House on Haunted Hill, his directorial debut for Dark Castle Entertainment, which had a straight-to-DVD release in mid-October. He has two new projects in the works, too, and has been shooting short Webisodes for Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. “I really feel lucky,” he says.
Like Belofsky, New York City-based independent producer Michael Hein wants to help horror moviemakers improve their prospects, if not their fortunes. Hein’s film, Biohazardous, was shown at Screamfest’s inaugural event. At that time, there were still only a couple of horror-themed film festivals in the United States that were attracting industry attention, and both of them happened to be based on the west coast. So Hein decided to bring the industry buzz—and a good dose of ghoulish gore—back to the Big Apple.
From its inception in 2001, Hein conceived of the New York City Horror Film Festival (NYCHFF) as an industry-driven event. “If you don’t have industry there, what’s the point?” ponders Hein. “Otherwise it’s nothing more than a screening… You’re supposed to meet people so that you can sell your film.” Recruiting the Independent Film Channel as a sponsor in the festival’s first year gave the event “a lot of weight.”
Six years later, the NYCHFF has grown steadily and now attracts 5,000 to 6,000 people to downtown New York City each October. In the past, representatives from Lionsgate, Universal and Miramax have been on hand to view the 60-plus movies shown each year. While the festival welcomes “Joe Horror” fans of all stripes to kick off the Halloween season, Hein’s ultimate goal is to connect moviemakers with producers and distributors so that they can make dollars and cents deals.
Since its first year, an estimated 60 feature films programmed by NYCHFF have been picked up for distribution. “That in itself is a success story,” remarks Hein. “I don’t think any other genre film festival can say that.”
Knowing that horror moviemakers have the odds stacked against them, Hein tries to keep things flexible. A-list festivals typically only program a handful of genre films and “they usually go with something bigger budgeted,” says Hein, which narrows the window of opportunity for indies. The breakout success of a low-budget film like The Blair Witch Project, which premiered at Sundance in 1999 and went on to gross just under $250 million internationally, is an example of “lightning striking once.”
One of the competitive advantages of horror films is that they don’t necessarily need a big-name celebrity to attract an audience and The Blair Witch Project is a good example of this. Robert J. Massetti, who runs the Freak Show Horror Film Festival in Orlando, Florida, says that in any good horror film, “the star is the gore.” Because the genre has such a loyal fan base, it’s not hard for a film to find an audience, as well as crew and talent who will contribute their time for cheap, if not for free.
“It’s a lot easier to get exposure as an independent filmmaker with the horror genre,” insists Massetti. “Now you can have access to really good equipment at a relatively low price. It’s the best genre for getting your name out there.”
David Pruett of the Dark Carnival Film Festival in Bloomington, Indiana has witnessed the rise of DIY horror film productions right in his own backyard. “I live in a college town,” explains Pruett. “At any given time, a dozen people are making a horror film.”
Even though Pruett may be situated far from the glare of Tinseltown and the wheeling and dealing of Manhattan, he nevertheless has ambitious goals for Dark Carnival, which launched for the first time in August 2007, just before 30,000 University of Illinois students started their fall semester. He estimates that there were 2,500 attendees over the festival’s three days, exposing horror fans to indie films they wouldn’t ordinarily get to see. To that end, Ambush Entertainment (producers of The Squid and the Whale) and the indie horror production company ScreamKings both attended. “For us it’s all about the films and the filmmakers,” says Pruett. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize.”
Pruett attributes the growth of horror film festivals to a synergy of supply and demand. “Filmmakers need a place to exhibit their work and audiences are wanting more product,” he says.
But a growing appetite for fright shouldn’t make moviemakers lazy in their execution—especially when it comes to editing. Horror film audiences will accept low production values, but they won’t stand for a poorly crafted story. It’s okay “if the blood doesn’t look like real blood,” says Hein. “But if the story drags and they’re shifting in their seat, that’s the one thing they’re not going to put up with.”
The Dark Carnival Film Festival included a screening of the feature film 100 Tears, about a psychotic clown. Both the clown and moviemaker were in attendance and the screening was followed by a live carnival side show. When I tell Pruett that clowns have always creeped me out, he concurs. “Clowns are pretty creepy,” he says. MM