Ah, film festivals, the gateway to distribution for an independent film.
When I was starting out in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was not the same festival protocol we know so well today. In fact, the film business was very mysterious. It wasn’t at all clear how to even break into filmmaking.
I opted to bring my movies to the local video stores and put them on the rental shelf along with the other VHS tapes from the studios. Most video stores were independently run and didn’t mind humoring me.
Things started to change in the early ’90s. The U.S. Film Festival had been re-named Sundance, and thanks to its famous figurehead in Robert Redford, developed a cache and became an essential way to break into the business. As with all silver linings, there was a dark cloud surrounding this new opportunity: exclusion. I tried to get into Sundance with my film No Telling, thinking a film with a passionate environmental theme was just what Redford wanted, but of course Redford doesn’t program the festival so I was being very naïve.
A couple years later I tried again to get into Sundance with my highly personal vampire yarn Habit, but it seems Sundance had tired of East Village vampire tales, having played Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction and Michael Almereyda’s Nadja the year before. I was out in the cold again, but attended The Chicago Film Festival instead and that is how Habit got launched. A warm event in a chilly city, The Chicago Film Festival was welcoming and generous to the filmmakers. Because it played in Chicago, it was screened by hometown critic Roger Ebert, who gave it a positive blurb which I wielded like a club during the year-long journey to distribution.
The few festivals that took Habit after that were cherished events, a time to feel the film was being appreciated by filmmakers and audiences. They were opportunities to watch your film in a crowd and assess if it was really done. In fact I did edit a couple minutes out of Habit before investing to blow up the film and embark on the uncharted waters of self-distribution. At festival screenings, I felt audiences were responding to my movie, but distributors were not: It was time to take matters into my own hands.
Right about the time I’d opted for self-distribution, I got a call from one Charles Coleman from Chicago. He had seen Habit a year earlier at the Chicago Film Festival and wondered what had happened to it, wondered if he could open the film at Facets, an independent theater in the windy city. It would be the perfect launch to my self-distribution scheme. We opened to strong reviews (Ebert returned with a full review). And so it was the Chicago Film Festival that gave Habit its lifeline.
Over the years I found myself at Sundance for other reasons, supporting films I’d produced, even being invited to do a panel on new media because Glass Eye Pix had had an early web presence, my way of staying in touch with fans when I wasn’t in production. What I found discouraging was that at Sundance they were not programming thoughtful horror films, but just schlocky B-movies that played at midnight. The genre was not being treated seriously, it seemed to me, and as a result my aspirations to elevate the horror film was being frustrated. Once at the airport in Berlin, a programmer from Sundance ran into me in line and said, “Sorry we didn’t program Habit; it was a good movie.” I appreciated it, of course, but wished their enthusiasm had predated the accolades that did eventually befall Habit, when the film could have used the support.
My third film, Wendigo, premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2001, just a few short weeks after the attacks of 9/11. The mood in that town, awash with fall colors and grey skies that year, was somber and resolved. Wendigo won best feature, but one of the jurors insisted the prize be split with a more overtly political film in honor of the seriousness of the times. I might argue my film had a rigorous philosophical agenda that confronted deeply relevant issues of usurpation and retribution, but no one was looking to the horror genre for any kind of catharsis back then.
I didn’t get into Sundance that year either. I had hedged my bets by premiering at Woodstock. I had shifted my thinking from optimistic exuberance with the film business to a certain detached pragmatism. It had become my experience that you should make the most of the regional festivals rather than chase the big fish. I do think Sundance was shifting its perspective by now, having had an unexpected success screening The Blair Witch Project the year before, which made some people a lot of money and legitimized the genre. Though Wendigo didn’t get into Sundance I finally did have a movie in Park City in 2002: The upstart festival Slamdance was founded by filmmakers and has thus-far defied co-option, while clearly benefitting from the mainstream festival with whom it shares a location, date, and half its name. Slamdance played Wendigo as a special screening, which resulted in a fantastic review from Variety’s Scott Foundas that can only be called a career high.
Not being able to take “yes” for an answer, I decided to replace much of the titular monster with an elaborate series of reshoots. (My relationship to the Wendigo and the myriad ways I have tried to capture it on film has been covered extensively elsewhere.) Suffice to say, the film festival provides a fantastic forum to test out your film in front of an audience and gauge if it is ready for distribution.
My next film was no exception. The Last Winter premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, certainly the biggest and most prestigious of the festivals I’d been accepted to. The screening went well but I got anxious and when the film didn’t sell out of the fest despite having the best minds on the case I started meddling with the edit, causing confusion with the few interested buyers. Eventually The Last Winter found a home with IFC, which lead to them acquiring my back catalogue and releasing a box set of my flicks.
Something funny happened while all this was going on: Horror festivals started cropping up and horror started taking care of itself. Fantasia, Sitges, FrightFest, Fantastic Fest, Toronto After Dark and many others became genre celebrations where business could get done and horror was respected. Some of the new hip festivals also started embracing horror. At this time I started producing small horror pictures more regularly and Glass Eye Pix felt very welcomed at the Los Angeles Film Festival (with Trigger Man and Bitter Feast) and at SXSW (The Roost). Most recently, Mickey Keating’s Glass Eye venture, Darling, sold at Fantastic Fest.
In 2010, Slamdance had us back at Park City with I Sell the Dead, Glenn McQuaid’s period tale of grave robbers and corpses that won’t stay dead. At the festival we scored a distribution deal with IFC. The price we fetched reflected the economic shocks of the 2009 market crash; it was a barren year for sales. But we were feted with two awards for the film. Even in lean times, Slamdance knows how to celebrate the underdog. I Sell the Dead also won Toronto After Dark that year.
Soon after we returned to Toronto to take the top prize at Toronto Midnight Madness for Jim Mickle’s vampire epic Stake Land.
Every film takes a different path to reach its audience. The festival route is part of that journey, fraught with disappointments and the occasional triumph. I remember showing No Telling, my first film, at Avoriaz, a big genre festival that took place in the French Alps back in the ’90s. Over dinner, a filmmaker, whose movie I had seen at the fest and praised, asked what film I had made. When I told him, he scoffed: That movie? It stung. I cut that movie too after the festival, before I found a distributor. Festivals are an essential way to get your movie in front of eyeballs and to see what you yourself think of it. MM
ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club screened I Sell the Dead on October 18, 2015 and Wendigo on October 19, 2015. On October 20, 2015, Shout! Factory released The Larry Fessenden Collection on Blu-ray.