A Love Letter to Fantastic Fest - The Land of Horror, Beer & Friends
by Alex Billington
October 2, 2014
There's a film festival that takes place down in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse (the one on South Lamar) every fall that is one of the best in the world. No it's not the overrated and overcrowded SXSW, it's a "genre" festival conceived by and run by Tim League, CEO and mastermind of the Drafthouse. The festival is called Fantastic Fest, now in its 10th year, and I have been attending since 2007, its 3rd year. For the last few years I've let The Golden Briefcase guys Tim and Jeremy (an Austin local) go wild and cover the fest on their own while I return from Telluride and Toronto back-to-back, but this year I had to go back. And I'm so glad I did. It was like coming back to my home again after years of being away. I missed you, Fantastic Fest.
What makes it so great? Fantastic Fest is more than just a film festival, it's an experience. It's as much about the films as it is the people, the atmosphere, the food, the events, the parties. Every September thousands of die-hard genre-loving cinephiles converge upon the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, the one theater where (almost) everything takes place. For the entire fest everyone spends pretty much all day at the Drafthouse (which was re-opened this year with nine screens after a complete renovation), discussing/chatting about films when not in one, and enjoying indie video games, libations aplenty, and tasty food the rest of the time. Attending the fest is like going to movie geek summer camp, no seriously, it's an incomparable experience.
I've been attending film festivals all over the world for the last 8 years of my life. I love festivals, for many reasons, but it always comes down to the experience of attending that makes the biggest difference. Most festivals try to program films that bring celebrities to town, others try to program every last film they can think of, but Fantastic Fest is all about the people - the movie lovers with real grit, who love to find great films even if they're horror flicks from Spain or hip hop musicals from Japan. In focusing on the audience, the fest capitalizes on the fact that we're all here and there's not much else to do than just sit in theaters all day long, arguing about the merits of cinema and drinking beer while waiting for the next screening to start.
While, of course, that is exactly what everyone does during Fantastic Fest – sit in movie theaters all day long watching any and everything we can get into that doesn't sound terrible – it's the surrounding experience that elevates the festival. With BBQ trips and machine gun shooting events, to dance parties and food fights, to controversial debates that are settled in a boxing ring, Fantastic Fest is the complete package. On top of it all they do play great films: discoveries from all over (like Spring, Tokyo Tribe, The Incident), other festival gems looking for their audience (like The Tribe, In Order of Disappearance, Force Majeure), and funky indies that wouldn't really have an audience anywhere else (like The Hive, The Editor, Felt).
I really love this festival. Even before leaving I was a bit nervous to return: would it be too crowded, would I be too tired to get excited, would there be anything good to see, would I be overwhelmed by the opinionated crowds? But after four days back at Fantastic Fest I've forgotten about those concerns and realized this is where it all happens – it's the center of the cinematic universe for just a brief moment after TIFF has ended, before the New York Film Festival starts up. Right there in Tim's home - the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. Where film lovers flock, and cell phone use/talking during the movie is condemned (you will be kicked out).
I love the venue, I love the people, I enjoy the films, I enjoy the food, the bathrooms need some work, but I can manage (the lines were literally out the door this year). Fantastic Fest is the perfect counterbalance to the high altitude classiness of Telluride and Cannes, it's the exact opposite yet just as much fun, packed with an abundance of cinematic love, that breaks the molds of what we expect. I love that I know whatever film I'm seeing, as wacky and strange as it may be, at least the experience will be enjoyable. At least I can order a pint of beer if it's really bad. I respect the audience this fest has built, they genuinely appreciate the most disgusting, insane, fucked up, weirdest shit anyone comes up with, especially because it's often so creative.
This year I brought one of my friends, Raffi Asdourian (@zaffi), for his first trip to Fantastic Fest. He'd heard great things about the fest for years and finally decided this was the year. How did his experience go? "I can heartily say it's an amazingly fun experience," Raffi wrote on Twitter after, adding that he's definitely coming back. Sounds like it lived up to his expectations, and being there with him, I know he had a blast. It was four full days of genre mayhem, non-stop discussions about films, plus BBQ galore, but worth it in every way. It doesn't matter if you have to sleep on the floor of your friend's dirty apartment, if that's what it takes to make it to Fantastic Fest, do it. The experience will make up for it, even if the bathroom is just as smelly.
Thank you to everyone who made my long-awaited Fantastic Fest return so awesome: Raffi, Eric, Jeff, Drew, Tim, Ryan, Jeremy & Tim, Germain, Aaron, Eric, Jason, Kim, Scott, Jarrette, Kevin, James and my old pal Neil Miller of Film School Rejects (plus everyone else I had the pleasure of meeting, chatting with, or sitting next to at a screening). It's all of these people that make me realize how much I really love this festival and how much I enjoy being around people that love movies as much as I do. We may not always agree (more often than not), but that doesn't mean we can't be friends, or we can't grab drinks and chat about the crazy shit we just saw, or laugh about how wacky Tokyo Tribe is, or just admire the Drafthouse and all its glory.
Photos above are from my own Instagram account @abillington taken during this year's Fantastic Fest trip.
Fantastic Fest 2014 was held at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX from September 18th to 25th this year. The festival has wrapped up, reviews have been written, awards have been handed out, everyone has made the trek home, and the festival has wrapped up. But they'll be back next year, always better than ever. If genre films are your thing, if you love good people and good beer, if everything you've heard about this festival makes it sound like the place you belong, then make sure you plan a trip to Fantastic Fest 2015. Go see some films, have a good time, enjoy a genre film festival at its best. Book tickets now, we'll see you there.