I’m just back from Fantastic Fest, which ran from September 19-26 in Austin, Texas. Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the United States. It takes place at one of the Alamo Drafthouse theatres in Austin, which is a chain of cinemas with a terrific culture of respect for the watching of movies.
This was actually my first proper film festival experience and I had an incredible time. The idea to attend the festival came from Dale Lloyd aka VivaVHS, who has developed a number of friendships via Twitter with movie enthusiasts in Austin, and around the world. We flew over together and represented Britain well with our love for plasters (not Band-Aids) and chips (not fries). We got to know many wonderful people at the festival and I can’t thank them enough for their overwhelming kindness and good humour. Their ropey British accents did not dim our affection for them either, and together we enjoyed a number of unusual (Raspberry? Pumpkin?) beers from the local area. We also partook of a few ‘trunkbeers’, which is a bottle share ritual usually carried out on the car park (ok, parking lot!) of the cinema, with the boot (or trunk) of the car acting like a makeshift bar.
This year the festival was held at the slightly more remote Lakeline venue, rather than the Drafthouse in central Austin, because of refurbishments at the city centre location. As a result, the festival was a slightly different experience for all concerned, but as far as I can tell, the change of venue did not detract at all from the extraordinary quality of the films presented, the red carpet premieres, the late night events (such as the debates), or the running of the festival itself. As I indicated above, the Drafthouse has strict policies of no talking or texting during movies. Here’s an example of the kind of thing you’ll see before a movie at a Drafthouse theatre:
Those who adhere to the rules get to stay and are rewarded with lots of space to stretch out. Moreover, each seat has a large table in front of it. Before and during the movie, you can order food and drink from the Drafthouse menu by writing on a pad of paper. You put the order in a slot at the front of the table and a server dressed in black will run over to you whilst crouching down, read your order under the table using a small light, and then zip off into the darkness to pass your order to the kitchen. A few minutes later, they’ll return and silently place the food or drink onto your table. Before the end of the movie, they’ll slip a bill onto the table and you can leave your payment. It works amazingly well, and after 31 movies there, I can say that I never noticed a single disturbance. Dale and I were often grateful for these services as the rather brutal schedule means that you are often seeing movies from morning until the early hours of the following day. The servers, staff and volunteers who work the festival are truly amazing.
Overall, i’d say that attending the festival has broadened my outlook on cinema. It is unlikely that I would have ever seen some of the short films that were screened, or even some of the selections from around the world, such as the many exceptional films from Asia that were programmed for the festival. This is particularly true of those that might not seek (or obtain) distribution in the UK.
Fantastic Fest also featured some world premieres and red carpet guests for a number of movies. For example, Robert Rodriguez, Alexa Vega and Danny Trejo brought Machete Kills to open the festival; Elijah Wood*, Alex Winter and Don McManus were on hand for the De Palma-esque thriller Grand Piano; Keanu Reeves** attended with Tiger Chen for Man of Tai Chi; Eli Roth presented his cannibal genre homage The Green Inferno; Ti West and AJ Bowen introduced us to The Sacrament; David Koechner, Ethan Embry and Pat Healy gave us some Cheap Thrills and members of Metallica dropped in for their new 3D movie. All of the guests that introduced their films took part in Q&A sessions with the audience afterwards. We also enjoyed video messages from Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuarón for a secret screening of Gravity and Terry Gilliam spoke on screen about his new film, The Zero Theorem.
In total, I was able to see 31 films during the festival. They were:
- Machete Kills
- Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
- Escape From Tomorrow
- Monsoon Shootout
- Grand Piano
- The Sacrament
- We Are What We Are
- Journey to the West
- Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut
- Man of Tai Chi
- Cheap Thrills
- Mirage Men
- Mood Indigo
- The Green Inferno
- We Gotta Get Out of This Place
- Big Bad Wolves
- The Dirties
- Child of God
- Septic Man
- Blue Ruin
- The Congress
- Detective Downs
- Metallica: Through the Never
- Almost Human
- The Zero Theorem
Among the list, my favourites included Coherence, Blue Ruin, Borgman, The Dirties, Gravity, Mood Indigo, Cheap Thrills, Grand Piano, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Journey to the West. Some of these titles have been released by Drafthouse Films, the theatre chain’s own distribution label.
I would gladly return to the festival every year if I could, though given the recent arrival of my daughter, I imagine this won’t be likely. At least I will continue to talk movies with my new friends on Twitter, and I for one will never forget our drunken 4am pilgrimage to Whataburger, and the triple decker feast that followed. Thanks to our pal George Hickman, we were also able to make a midnight trip to the movie paradise that is Austin’s I Luv Video, an amazingly comprehensive store (the largest surviving video chain in the world) that was like heaven on earth for a VHS enthusiast like Dale. You can see some photos of the place in the image gallery above.
Thanks all for making this an unforgettable trip and a wonderful experience. Hell, i’ve even come to accept the way that you people CLAP DURING THE BEST PARTS OF A FILM.
*It is remarkable that, regardless of his international fame as an actor, Elijah Wood attends the festival like any other badge holder: waiting for movies, staying in the same hotels as fans, obliging anyone who approaches him, and queueing for the loo with the rest of us plebs. Bravo to him for his brilliant attitude.
**Seeing Keanu embrace his Bill & Ted co-star Alex Winter with a hug when they met inside the theatre was a great moment for 80s geeks like Dale and I.