While “Avengers: Age: of Ultron” fills multiplexes across the country, another kind of movie mania has landed in Estes Park, Colorado, with rising horror extravaganza the Stanley Film Festival beginning its third edition this week. Unlike many smaller festivals, this one is actually a microcosm of growing interest in genre films nationwide.
Close to 100 filmmaker guests have crowded into the creepy hilltop space, where Stephen King famously dreamed up “The Shining,” to watch 20 new films, explore six retrospectives and 27 short films. The lineup provides an intriguing contrast to Hollywood product: a world in which genre films loom large.
This year’s program includes some of the more intriguing filmmakers toying with genre today, including “Room 237” director Rodney Ascher. In addition to screening his Sundance midnight hit “The Nightmare” at the Stanley this year, Ascher co-directed the intriguing project “Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein” with former Stanley Kubrick assistant Leon Vitali — whom Ascher met two years ago at the festival’s first edition. “At Stanley, we can showcase what’s currently out there and expose audiences to them while getting the community together in this porous, summer camp setting that helps spur more work,” Zakheim said.
And the audience for that work is on the rise. “One of the reasons this festival even exists is because of the understanding that horror is permeating into the mainstream,” said Stanley’s artistic director, Landon Zakheim. “Horror has always attracted a community of outsiders, but now it’s becoming something people feel more comfortable wearing on their sleeves.”
Case in point: The continuing success of “It Follows,” David Robert Mitchell’s expressionistic possession film that the Radius-TWC released earlier this year, which continues to find box office success. The company spent $550,000 for the film at the Cannes Film Festival almost exactly a year ago, and it has grossed $14,192,094 in theaters. That figure is destined to keep growing once the movie hits VOD.
Radius’ co-president Tom Quinn has been hoping for this moment a long time. Having developed his sensibilities as a genre enthusiast at Magnolia Pictures, where he ushered along genre titles ranging from “The Host” to “Let the Right One In,” Quinn has long felt that horror movies and other seemingly edgy genre work is on the verge of broader appreciation in American film culture — even if they don’t necessarily fall into traditional expectations for the kind of specialty titles released in indie theaters around the country.
“There is a standard art house film well-served by companies like Sony Pictures Classics,” said Quinn, who will receive the Stanley Film Festival’s inaugural Visionary Award this year. “Unfortunately, that will quickly become a shrinking audience. So what does the new audience look like?”
He answered his own question by looking back through the decades to pinpoint the way certain film enthusiasts — most of whom are in their thirties and forties now — developed their enthusiasm for the medium almost exclusively through genre fare. “There’s an audience that has grown up and has no aversion to genre films,” he said. “I’ve always gone to [the Austin-based genre festival] Fantastic Fest. I never went to the New York Film Festival. Fantastic Fest felt different, something I was more akin to appreciating. That is a generational divide.”
Zakheim elaborated on that point, noting that the generation in question is influencing the kind of movies being made now as well. “We’re seeing a lot of filmmakers who grew up being exposed at an early age to the films of the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “They’re coming of age and telling their own twisted stories.”
Others in the industry feel that there’s still a need to smuggle certain audiences into genre movies in order to make them successful. Another recent box office success, the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” has steadily grossed $3.2 million over the course of 11 weeks, but Paladin’s Mark Urman said it wasn’t the vampire hook that sold it. “In all honesty, we tried very hard not to sell it as a genre film,” he said. “A lot of people who appreciated it — older, smarter, discerning filmgoers — wouldn’t be caught dead at ‘Twilight.'”
However, both “What We Do in the Shadows” and “It Follows” benefited from strong word of mouth thanks to the theatrical distribution strategy behind both of them — a platform release that steadily brought the movie into more theaters as box office figures continued to grow. Quinn argued that the release has long benefited genre films, which may start out as marginalized until more and more audiences discover them. Notably, no less than Paramount opened “Friday the 13th” in 1980 using a platform release strategy — a harbinger of the current indie successes.
Far from anomalies in a flailing specialty marketplace, genre titles may in fact be its salvation. When “It Follows” first started gaining momentum in a handful of theaters, many of them showed trailers for the heady sci-fi film “Ex Machina” beforehand. That movie, released last month by A24, has already grossed a remarkable $8.3 million dollars domestically as it continues to expand around the country.
The debut feature from British director Alex Garland, “Ex Machina” tells the eerie story of a maniacal scientist (Oscar Isaac) who designs a robot that his disciple (Domhall Gleeson) falls for. With its icy tone and heady dialogue about the nature of human intelligence, “Ex Machina” may not scream mass appeal, but the box office receipts prove otherwise. “I think that quality always shines through,” said A24’s Heath Shapiro, who spearheaded the release. “Good movies typically find an audience. With a genre film, you have an enthusiastic core group you can address with publicity and marketing. That really helps a lot. But there’s also a good specialized audience for the movie that skews a little older.”
In other words, when a genre movie works, it works for everyone — they just need to be aware of the hype surrounding it. “Sci-fi, like horror, is a hot genre now,” Shapiro added. “It’s hard to quantify that, but when you know the buzz exists, you have to capture that appetite already out there.”
For distributors tracking the burgeoning popularity of genre titles, this kind of momentum has been a long time coming. Since the breakout success of the “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, English language horror movies that have received platform releases — and done well — have been a limited crop. Other successes include the first “Paranormal Activity” and “Bubba Ho-tep,” which only made $1 million at the box office. “It’s almost like the litmus test to seek out this particular audience willing to go see a movie theatrically,” Quinn said of the platform approach.
But for Zakheim, gearing up for another year at the Stanley Hotel filled with eager horror fans, an interactive horror game, live performances and other genre delights, there’s a greater force at work that extends beyond distribution plans.
“Horror is a genre that gives you a visceral and emotional reaction in a way that dramas rarely can. It’s not an intellectual connection,” he said. “It’s really exciting that indie horror is breaking out.”