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Fantastic Fest

By Samantha Pitchel Photos By Issue Jul/Aug 2010 Neighborhood Downtown

Walk-in freezer parties. Endless karaoke. Boxing. Bill Murray. And nonstop screenings of innovative, often delightfully gory, groundbreaking films—sounds incredible, right? For the sixth year, Austin’s Fantastic Fest will be putting on a week-long celebration of the wonderfully weird, accompanied by highly anticipated events and unexpected adventures.

Fantastic Fest, officially the largest genre film festival in the U.S., presents a lineup of eclectic titles from around the world with a focus on horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and action flicks. The festival has hosted the world premiere of box-office hits like There Will Be Blood, Zombieland, Apocalypto, and City of Ember—and post-screening parties are always packed with celebrity guests.

Director and programmer Tim League, who is also CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, founded the festival in 2005. The concept completely took off, drawing increasingly huge crowds to town each September and generating intense buzz for blockbuster hits and unknown independents alike. Now, the festival is earning accolades from industry insiders as well as cinephiles, and is branching out to include even more events, parties, screenings, and contests than ever.

While it may be expanding,Fantastic Fest is certainly not losing sight of its genre-driven mission; in fact, it’s constantly striving to contribute to the growth of unique film movements. “We’re trying to be as international as possible,” explains League, “and looking for genre film directors to come out of areas where we’re not expecting them.”

The festival has always been the perfect place for unknown artists to get their first big boost. “We did a premiere of the first Chilean martial arts movie at Fantastic Fest several years ago,” League recalls. “It’s interesting when you see a country like Chile that doesn’t really have a long tradition in making genre films, and you get young guys that are in their early 20s that, just because of the nature of media these days, they’re growing up with the same influences and they’re also merging in their life experiences from places like Chile… It’s interesting seeing talent like that emerge.”

Fantastic Fest has a steady history of exposing new international communities. Pakistan’s first-known horror film, a zombie epic, premiered here several years ago.

“This year we are going to be seeing the first Moroccan horror film that we know of. We haven’t seen it yet but our curiosity is certainly piqued by what that means,” says League. Additionally, this year’s lineup includes a special tribute to Norwegian genre films, a series of screenings that highlights the best contemporary work in gore and fantasy.

League and his team of programmers—which includes Todd Brown, creator of twitchfilm.net—are constantly monitoring international film news to scout material for the festival. “We pare things down to about 70 feature films and 60 shorts, but we maintain this tracking database where we’re watching about six or seven hundred films from around the world,” League explains. “Some we end up not liking, some get delayed in production and they get put onto next year’s list, some are great but aren’t quite appropriate for Fantastic Fest.”

At a festival famous for breaking boundaries and pushing limits, what wouldn’t work? League explains that, while Fantastic Fest has a well-deserved reputation for being the gotta-be-there party of the festival season, it’s also a serious business opportunity, and the lineup is carefully crafted to facilitate this. His team has several key goals in mind as they plan each year’s activities. “The first and possibly the most important one is the audience: The badge holders, the ticket holders and general public that come in and are fans of movies, making sure they have a good time at the event.”

“The next goal is to connect filmmakers with industry and connect industry with filmmakers. In the earlier years, the industry was more lured by the fact that it’s Austin and there was going to be a really awesome fun time, but then films started to sell out of the festival, and since that started happening the curiosity of the buyers for video and the theatrical release was aroused. Not only sales deals but also potential alliances for future projects [are formed], all of those things are happening mainly through the interacting of those two camps.”

Some notable acquisitions emerging from Fantastic Fest include 2007’s Timecrimes, 2009’s Down Terrace and 2010’s Monsters, which was a SXFantastic screening at this year’s SXSW.

But of course, Fantastic Fest is also a huge party, taking over screening sites the Paramount, Alamo Ritz and Alamo South Lamar as well as many local hotspots (especially The Highball) throughout the week. The fest holds an astounding amount of signature events, and boasts an annual presentation of culinary treats. This year, look forward to Alamo Drafthouse executive chef John Bullington’s traditional Argentinian feast—an entire butterfly-butchered cow, slow roasted on an open fire for 18 hours.

Additionally, this year Fantastic Fest introduces a new offshoot: Fantastic Arcade, an independent gaming showcase that will run concurrently with the first four days of the film festival (September 23-26). The Arcade will provide a forum for both major and independent game developers to debut and discuss upcoming releases, alongside panels, guest speakers, big-screen demos and events like a machinima film screening and competition, art installations, a Datapop 4.0 show—even a lightsaber dance party.

All of this could only happen in the Keep-It-Weird capital. “I’m really proud to be in Texas, Austin in particular, and I would not live anywhere else,” League states. The Texan is sure to show visiting filmmakers a good time, and tries to be as authentic as possible when entertaining guests during the festival.

“We started with sort of embracing Texas stereotypes of what people wanted to see, and taking people out to Western wear shops to get cowboy hats and things like that,” he explains. “And all manner of guns—there’s several shooting trips throughout the week where people can go skeet-shooting and to traditional firing ranges. We do two or three different barbecue trips—I’m pretty picky about my barbecue. We take them to Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, and Smitty’s in Lockhart, and sometimes we go down to Luling to City Market—the old guard Texas barbecue places.”

Southern hospitality fused with a genuine passion for fantastic contemporary cinema seems to be a winning combination for League and his crew, and we can’t wait to be a part of the guaranteed craziness. Fantastic Fest goes down September 23-30, and badges are available now at www.fantasticfest.com.

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