Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fantastic Fest 2014


As regular readers of my blog know, I love movies.  In fact, movies and TV are what I love most in this world.  And therefore film festivals are on a short list of my favorite things.  And I've been lucky enough to attend a lot of them, including Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, Tribeca, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Nantucket, Savannah, and of course my hometown of Philadelphia.  It's pretty interesting how all of them are so different, in terms of the films they program, the events, the culture, and the attendees.  And while I've enjoyed all of them to at least some degree, obviously there are some that are just more fun for me than others.  It's just a matter of finding the best fit for me.  My current favorites are Nantucket, Tribeca, and Philadelphia for reasons that I could go into, but I'll save that for another blog.  Last week it came time for me try out a ten year old festival that's been on my radar for many of those years: Fantastic Fest.

Fantastic Fest marked my first visit to Austin, as well as Texas.  And it's known among film buffs for two things:  Genre films (mainly horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and the bizarre) and all around fun at the infamous Alamo Drafthouse.  Well I love genre films (at least when they're good) and the Alamo Drafthouse has the reputation of being the best theater in America.  And while I'm not really a party guy, who doesn't love fun?  So I've been looking to attend Fantastic Fest for years, and it's only the other competing festivals this time of year like Toronto, Telluride, Savannah, and Philly and limited vacation time and budget, that has kept me until now.

One of the many things that makes this festival unique is that it entirely takes place (except possibly for a few of the events) at the Alamo Drafthouse on 1120 South Lamar, which has nine screens.  This is the only festival I've been to that takes place at only one venue.  Most of the time, part of my festival experience is making sure I have time to get from one movie to another, which often involves lots of walking, running, taxis and/or subways.  And this involves factoring in movies potentially starting late as well as potential Q&A's afterward.  Fantastic Fest eliminates this problem completely, by having movie "rounds" whereby no movie in one round overlaps another (unless it's very long and specifically spans two rounds.)  Therefore it's impossible to miss a film and you needn't even worry.  Even better, Fantastic Fest completely solves the other big problem of film festivals: finding time to eat.  Usually I find myself subsisting on slices of pizza that I grab on the go and eat while walking from venue to venue or standing in line for the next film.  The Alamo Drafthouse is unbelievable in that, not only do they serve a full menu, quietly and efficiently to your seat in the theater before or during the film, but the food is varied, quite good, and very reasonably priced.  It's amazing!  Maybe you're up for a burger, pizza, or burrito?  How about something healthier like veggies, pita, and hummus?  No problem!  How about Creme Brulee French Toast for brunch?  You got it!  Perhaps some warm freshly baked chocolate chip cookies?  Yes please!  And of course, they have beer.  Though, as a water drinker, I personally loved that they have large glasses of water ready for you as you enter the theater just for you to grab and take to your seat.  Honestly, this is unbelievable.  And the wait staff is amazing and so nice considering they deliver your food hunched over in a darkened theater so that you can enjoy your experience.  The Alamo Drafthouse is designed to maximize your experience.  The stadium seating is drastically inclined so there are no heads in your way.  Attendees are warned during the custom made bizarre bits of film snippets of yore and yesteryear that they had better not talk or text or they will be thrown out.  And they mean it.  If someone is being an annoyance, and I certainly didn't witness any because folks wouldn't dare, all you need do is fill out an order card documenting the issue, and one of the wait staff will collect it and correct the problem.  If you've ever been to a mainstream movie theater in Philly, you'd know that this is all like living a dream.  In Philly, if you want water it's $5.  Your food options are popcorn and maybe shitty hot dogs and nachos that cost you an arm and a leg.  And talking and texting is part of the culture.  Locals come there to have conversations at full volume.  And a good screening is one where you leave without having been shot, stabbed, or burned.  I hate going to the movies in Philly (outside of screenings at our beloved Ritz theaters owned by Landmark.)  But even Landmark should take note of the way the Alamo Drafthouse caters to its audience.  I can only dream that one day the Alamo Drafthouse will open one up in Philly.  There's definitely an audience for it.

Fantastic Fest also solves many of the other problems and annoyances of other festivals by embracing technology, its core and devoted audience, and reinventing the queue system.  For one thing, there is no complicated ticket purchasing system.  In fact, they don't sell tickets at all!  Only badges: full 8-day ($309 - $409), 2nd half ($125), and Day Only ($75).  No one attends Fantastic Fest to see one or two films.  In fact, most attendees strive to see as many as possible during the 37 possible screening opportunities between 11:00 AM and 1:30 AM during the 8 day run.  This is unlike any other festival I've been to.  These fans are HARD-CORE!  Now, since they only sell badges, checking in and picking up your badge is a breeze (assuming you've sent them your picture electronically ahead of time.)  Choosing your films is also simple and unique to this festival.  Fantastic Fest pioneered a new fully automated ticketing system wherein every day you must log in (from a computer or your smart phone) between 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM and select your film preferences (usually up to five) for each of the five rounds of films for the next day.  Then, between 5:00 PM and 11:00 PM, through a random selection, they slot as many people into their first preference as possible.  And even better, if demand for a certain film is high, they simply show that film at that time on more screens.  Some of the films in highest demand played on 4 screens while I was there.  So, ultimately, I got all but one of my first choice films.  Amazing job, Fantastic Fest!  And as far as lines go, they don't exist at Fantastic Fest.  Instead, their ticketing system provides you a "boarding group".  When they call your boarding group, you may enter the theater.  This allows friends to congregate in the lobby or outside in between screenings until they are called.  This is truly the film festival of the future.

So with all of that said, one would think this would have been my greatest film festival experience ever!  And yet it wasn't, for a few reasons.

Obviously, the movies themselves are top priority at any film festival.  And while I've never attended a film festival that didn't show bad movies (and yes, to some degree this is a matter of opinion), I obviously prefer the festivals that show the highest percentage of movies that I enjoy.  I saw 36 films at Fantastic Fest, and generally speaking, a quarter were excellent, a quarter were good, a quarter weren't so good, and a quarter were just bad.  My complete list with my judgmental grades are below.  I know many attendees at the festival would disagree with me on some of them, but this is my particular opinion, and I fully acknowledge that there are a few that had I seen under better circumstances (e.g. not in the middle of 35 other films over 8 days) I might enjoy more, and so I intend to see a few of them again and maybe drastically change my grades.  But in general I think the programming could have been better.  Of course there are many challenges film festival programmers face when programming any festival, and I know of many of them.  But as an attendee paying, spending my vacation and my own money to attend, I don't and shouldn't care.  I want to see 36 great movies.  This will never happen, but only seeing 25% to 35% great movies just isn't enough.  And the good ones aren't always evenly spaced out, so when I hit a cluster of seven bad films in a row, it just kills my energy level.  (I also happened to catch a cold or something mid-festival, and while that's nobody's fault, it's an extra challenge sitting through bad and often subtitled bad films while I'm doped up on Dayquil trying to make it through the 15 hour day of movie watching.)

Another reason I didn't love the festival was because of the attendees.  (Fantastic Fest fans, please hear me out, I mean no offense.)  My first taste of the attendees, walking up to the Alamo Drafthouse on my first day, was such that I wouldn't fit in.  Superficially, I quickly noticed an abundance of big beards, tattoos, and black T-shirts ... not that there's anything wrong with that!  It's just not my look, and I felt like I wouldn't blend.  Though on day one I made a lot of effort to meet people, often butting into some of the many tight knit clusters in the lobby or outside, and starting conversation with those adjacent to me while inside the theater.  And while most everyone was very nice (bearded, tatted, black t-shirted, or otherwise), I really only made a handful of new friends that I ran into sporadically throughout the week.  Mostly it seemed like people come to this festival every year with their group of friends, and love the hell out of it, but weren't really looking to meet new people.  Like no other festival, I felt more like an outsider, which is strange considering these are all big film buffs and so am I!  Now, mind you, I'm not blaming anyone.  There were many times that I became introverted, particularly in the second half of the week when I had a cold, and didn't make any effort.  But, to be fair, it's not easy to bust into a group of people and introduce myself, and over the course of the week I'd say only three people actually initiated a conversation with me.  Though I am grateful for the few new friends I made and, should I return or they decide to come to Philly for our festival, I hope to see them again.

OK, without further ado, my grades are below.  I welcome your feedback on these (and anything I said above) but please know that I fully acknowledge I may have missed the boat on a few of these due to fatigue.  It's one man's opinion after binging on 36 films over 8 days (with a cold).  I'd like to revisit a few of them before year end under better circumstances at which time I may amend my grade.

(Note: I saw The Babadook in Philly before I came.)
  1. The Treatment    A+
  2. It Follows    A
  3. Nightcrawler    A
  4. Let Us Prey    A
  5. John Wick     A
  6. I Am Here     A
  7. The Absent One     A
  8. Force Majeure    A
  9. In Order of Disappearance    A
  10. Horns    A-
  11. Tusk    B+
  12. The Babadook    B+
  13. The Incident    B+
  14. Spring    B
  15. The Guest     B
  16. Everly     B
  17. Cub     B
  18. From the Dark    B
  19. Goodnight Mommy     B
  20. The Town That Dreaded Sundown    B-
  21. Whispers Behind the Wall    B-
  22. Blind    B-
  23. Closer to God    C+
  24. Tommy    C+
  25. The Hive     C
  26. Darkness By Day     C
  27. Open Windows    C
  28. Over Your Dead Body    C
  29. Waste Land    C
  30. The Stranger     C
  31. Tombville    C-
  32. The Editor     D+
  33. Realiti     D
  34. Wastelander Panda      D
  35. The Man in the Orange Jacket     D
  36. The Creeping Garden     D-
  37. Local God     D-

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