Covering a film festival: Fantasia 2013

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Fantasia Film Festival 2013: The Fantastic Voyage reaches the finish line…

 

The 2013 Fantasia Film Festival, after three intensive weeks (presuming you followed along either as a press member or a die hard fan), came to a close right around this time last week. Well, okay, describing the event as ‘long’ is a bit mean spirited since in actuality the time went by relatively fast. That said, it remains one of the longest film festivals around and, if you listened to episode 62 of the Sordid Cinema podcast, actually puts some critics to sleep for making them watch and write so much.

 

Each and every summer Sound on Sight strives to provide its fans the best coverage it can of this now legendary event. Articles range from pre-festival news updates, press conference reports, interviews with filmmakers and actors generous enough with their time to visit Montreal and sit down with writers and, of course, reviews of the movies themselves. While it is stimulating and often a lot of fun to fulfill those duties, they also come with the territory, they are expected from a Sound on Sight writer (and probably writers from any other media outlets covering this or any other film festival). That said, there rarely are articles about the festival experience itself. So, in order to really cap off what was yet another memorable Fantasia (and my second as a SOS writer with a press badge), we shall temporarily do away with the formal writing style and share some more personnel thoughts on the ups and down of covering Fantasia.

 

 The gameplan

 

Fantasia 2012 was the real learning curve. That first time when you receive a press badge for a three week long genre festival, it is very tempting to feel invincible, that it is possible to see and write about everything. Far be it from me to say 2012 was a disappointment (it most certainly wasn’t. It was tons of fun), but as a rookie, one makes rookie mistakes. Seeing 3 movies a day for 3, 4 or 5 consecutive days, probably with a little fab four thrown in there somewhere, is not the way to go. There is no way to sustain that kind of energy, at least not for someone who really likes 7-8 hours of sleep a night and loathes energy drinks. I was not going to repeat that mistake.

 

After all, Fantasia lasts three full weeks. Some years it even lasts three and a half weeks. Unless you’re in berserker rage movie mode, seeing tons of movies every day for a long stretch of period will only end up tiring you out (like those poor saps who apparently fell asleep). This year, there was only one day for which the scheduled movies looked so good that I could not resist attending three back-to back screenings: Garden of the Words, Magic Magic and Secretly Greatly on Monday July 21st. Believe me, it was worth it.

 

Apart from that, it was a series of double features with the occasional day when I only saw a single film. That strategy meant I would have to make even tougher decisions about what movies to see, because in addition to missing some potentially fun screenings because two movies were playing at once (one can and never will completely win against a festival schedule), I was choosing to forgo certain movies because I had already seen two that day. That’s already two  movies that I would have to write about before allowing the numbers of films watched but as of yet unreviewed to pile up uncontrollably. Yes, there are films that played which I would have loved to have seen with the crowd, films that looked really, really good in fact. However, as member of the press, it is also your duty to write about the festival and seeing too many movies than the amount you can write about is doing a disservice to yourself, the media outlet that entrusted you to produce and, lest it be overlooked, the movies themselves that could use some spotlight time in the media. Basically, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to limit the number of movies one sees but give oneself a better chance to write about them than to go bonkers with screenings and then lack both the time and energy to write afterwards.

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 Where is the movie playing?

 

For its 2013 edition, the Fantasia Film Festival returned to a grand old cinema it once called home, the Cinéma Impérial on Bleury street. Located on the edge of Montreal’s restructured, modernized arts and theatre neighbourhood (which looks great by the way. The Jazz, Francofolies, Nuits d’Afrique and Just for Laughs have never had a more welcoming venue than in the last three years) , the Impérial is one of the last remaining old school cinemas left in the city. Housing a single room, it features incredibly cushiony seats, a balcony (!) and a superb sound system, which is not something that can be said for another old school cinema that springs to mind. After spending the previous couple summers at Concordia University’s mediocre Hall screening room (currently under renovation, thank god), watching movies at the Impérial was sheer pleasure.

 

The only tricky part about having the major event screenings at the Impérial however was that the smaller but not less intriguing movies were still playing at the Concordia University J.A de Sève screening room (which I’ve always found rather cozy actually), right across from the aforementioned Hall building. Granted, the walk from Concordia to the Impérial is barely 20 minutes, but it did make for some nervous commutes when the next movie was playing at the Impérial and you knew tons of people were already waiting in line because it was a more popular, hyped up film. But hey, after spending hours sitting down watching movies, a little exercise will never hurt.

 

 Member of the press coming through!

 

As a member of the press however, you get to stand in a different line than ticket holders. From that emerges one unbelievably cool advantage and, unless one is really bad at managing one’s time, one negligible disadvantage. The bad news is that even though you wear a fancy badge around your neck with your pretty face plastered on it, you are not guaranteed automatic entry into a screening. You actually have to show up a decent amount of time before a movie starts, especially for the highly promoted ones, which includes anything playing after 6 o’clock on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is not TIFF though, so a ‘decent amount of time’ can be as little as 30 minutes prior. In my two years covering Fantasia for Sound on Sight I have failed to get into a screening only once. The biggest advantage, and I personally NEVER get tired of this, is that members of the press are allowed in first. Oh god, how many times have I arrived in line 15-20 minutes before a movie starts (probably because I stopped over at a coffee shop for a large fruit smoothie. Or pizza. Or both.) and am admitted into the room while the ticket holders who showed up anywhere from 30-45 minutes ago to be first line wait idly by? Some feelings never get old.

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We love you, Fantasia fans!

 

If you’ve read listened to any people wax poetic about the Fantasia Film Festival, surely the topic of the rabid, amped up patrons has come up once or twice. True though, Fantasia fans are a different breed of movie goers. Fantasia is an expansive genre film festival and has been around for 17 years. At this point, the people who pay for tickets know exactly what they like, what they want and they show up in droves. Every year there are dozens, literally dozens of screenings when, even before the movie starts, a positive, unmistakable buzz invades the auditorium’s air space, sinking into people’s minds and gets them excited. Laughter, shared stories, excited predictions about what might happen in the upcoming movie, it’s like those Friday or Saturday screenings for movies on opening weekend, only that it happens for three straight weeks every night of the week. I was at the world premier of Curse of Chucky and a girl showed up wearing the exact same clothing and sporting the same hairdo as the maniacal doll. Obviously she was carrying a Chucky doll under her arm. Obviously.

 

The treacherous aspect to witnessing a film with such an enthusiastic crowd, and anyone who covers festivals can second this apprehension, is the ease with which one can let one’s enthusiasm for the film get carried away. How much you genuinely thought the movie was good and how much of your instinctive reaction was carried by the wave of energy from the other attendees is a crucial matter. Don’t get too drunk on Fantasia vibes. It’s like beer goggles: you don’t want to regret it the morning after when you’ve published a glowing review for a crap film.

 

The other very peculiar characteristic of Fantasia fans is their collective meowling when the lights go down just before a movie begins. I haven’t the faintest idea when or how this practice originated. It’s cute during the first few screenings one attends each year but by the fifth or sixth time it’s a bit annoying. Every now and then somebody shakes things up by imitating a sheep though which can be fun, especially when it comes from way up in the balcony and echoes in the entire room.

 

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The heart and backbone that make Fantasia fantastic

 

One of the great things about attending screenings, apart from the movies themselves and the fans, are the festival organizers who present the movies and even curate Q&As afterwards. Of course, the festival’s thundering ball of energy is Mitch Davis. The man’s enthusiasm alone is the stuff of legend, singing a movie’s high praises before screenings to get audiences even more amped than they already are. There are instances when the hype is not fulfilled (certain movies can really only be so good) but I don’t think anyone would want an edition of Fantasia without Mitch Davis.

 

There are other notable hosts, among them King-Wei Chu who typically introduces the latest hits from Hong Kong and mainland China. King-Wei is way more laid back than Mitch, offering some casual banter, deadpan jokes and tidbits concerning the directors or actors involved in whatever movie is about to play. It’s obviously a very different experience from attending a film hosted by Mitch, but no less fun.

 

Having these speakers really adds a lot of character to the event. Most importantly, it puts a face on the event. It’s nice to see recognizable faces welcoming fans every year and promoting quality genre cinema. It personalizes the experience, something not every festival does. The ticket holders love it, the hosts love it and everybody wins.

 

Not so exclusive exclusives

 

If there is one department in which Fantasia has lost some of its luster in the past few years (also discussed on the aforementioned episode 62 of Sordid) would be its slow, seemingly inevitable decline of the exclusives, the big premieres. Sure, there still are some very significant premieres that occur at Fantasia. The most hyped premier was surely that of Curse of Chucky, the long awaited sixth installment of the famous Child’s Play/Chucky series. Not only did it deliver on its promise of improving on the previous film, it doesn’t even come out until October!

 

That said, those familiar with the festival and who have attended dutifully for many years already have probably noticed that other similar festivals have taken at least a bit of the wind out of Fantasia’s sails. The last thing I’m going to do is make disparaging remarks towards those events. First, you never know who might be reading and, second, they have earned their place among genre festival circuit and absolutely can snag impressive exclusives. Even so, it is a little disappointing to read the lineup to Toronto Midnight Madness as Fantasia is happening and think ‘Wow, that stuff would play extremely well at Fantasia. If only those movies had decided to have their premiers a couple months sooner…’ Then again, TIFF is easily among the most important, celebrated circuit stops in the entire world, with maybe only Cannes earning more prestige, fan, press and blogger buzz. Fantastic Fest and SXSW are also unmistakably important events genre filmmakers and fans mark down on their calendars each and every year.

 

Leaf through the Fantasia program guide and one comes across a series of adds for other genre fests happening across the globe (Spain, Germany, France just to name a few), some even with their dates and poster design set for the next year. Clearly, the popularity and respectability of genre film have grown exponentially in recent years to the extent that multiple fests dedicated to it have sprouted a little bit everywhere. While more events means these movies gain more exposure and thus more people know about them. Of the flip side, more events means more competition amongst them and by extension the chop licking premiers are more spread out. Is that a bad thing? Simply put, of course not. Why should the same festivals selfishly grab up all the popular premiers for themselves? By spreading them out, people in many cities and countries get to be in on the fun of having a highly anticipated movie play for the very first time in font a public audience. All of that means that Fantasia, for as cool as it is, has become just another stop for a lot of movies that have already played at multiple other festivals. Seeing You’re Next was a phenomenal experience…but we had to wait two years to get it.

 

Granted, at this stage I’m nitpicking. There are far and away more positives about the Fantasia experience than there are negatives and I hesitate to even truly consider the loss of some premiers an actual negative because it means that other fests get to earn some increased credibility too, which seems reasonable and fine to me. Even so, it is a bit sad to read and hear that not so  long ago Fantasia was the place where a lot of pretty crazy stuff played of the first time.

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A chapter ends…the wait for the next one begins.

 

There are a to of tiny details I could relate to the readers about what it feels like to cover Fantasia. Conducting interviews, deciding what films to write about, seat selections (oh yeah, I’m rather precious when it comes to that stuff), but I think I’ve gotten most of the important ideas across. If you’ve made it this far in the article, I feel congratulations are in order. Either that or you clearly have an interest in film festivals. In any event, thank you for sticking around.

 

Lastly, I desperately want to thank the visitors to the site who have taken the time to read my reviews and various articles pertaining to this most recent  edition of Fantasia. There are often personal queries that arise when covering an event of this nature. How many people actually want to read these reviews? How many people actually care about a festival they may never attend? Is this work worth my time and effort. Obviously, I love writing about film. Even if no one reads an article, I still take pleasure in the act of preparing, writing a first draft, proof read and publishing. It’s a topic I feel comfortable analyzing and I’ve always had fun simply writing and improving my skills. That said, the fact that people commented on many of my reviews and that said articles are appearing in the ‘Popular posts’ tab on the home page does feel like a form of validation. For that, thank you very, very much.

 

Let the countdown to Fantasia 2014 begin.

 

-Edgar Chaput






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