The word “genre” suggests cheap thrills: Horror, science fiction, thrillers. But Fantastic Fest, the Austin genre film festival now entering its 16th year, has worked against that assumption since its inception. Based at the Alamo Drafthouse’s South Lamar location and co-founded by the independent theater chain’s funky CEO, Tim League, Fantastic Fest represents a broader agenda — championing foreign language cinema often underserved by the marketplace.
“In the early years, people said we were a horror festival or a genre festival and it meant certain things,” League said in a recent phone conversation. “But the programmers who gave the festival its identity like films that don’t necessarily fit in.”
League likes to cite the example of “Bullhead,” the Belgian criminal drama about a cattle farmer that picked up steam at the festival and eventually landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film after being released by his Drafthouse Films distribution arm. “When I saw that film in the market at Cannes, its life was over,” League said. “When it played for Fantastic Fest audiences, that mix of strong drama alongside brutality and violence — we like those kind of stories.”
That has allowed Fantastic Fest to become a secret weapon in the arthouse market, which struggles to generate enthusiasm for foreign-language films among younger audiences. Fantastic Fest is a hard-partying environment with a geeky edge, which naturally skews toward that elusive demographic.
Other distributors have started to note the festival’s potential to amplify their foreign-language fare. One famous example is IFC Films’ “Antichrist,” a controversial Lars Von Trier movie when it premiered at Cannes that found its groove as tense, unpredictable psychodrama at 2009’s Fantastic Fest, which took up its signature line “Chaos reigns” as a mantra.
And last year, Sony Pictures Classics screened the Cannes-acclaimed “Son of Saul,” the tense concentration camp tale that went on to win the foreign-language Oscar. Prior to its Fantastic Fest premiere, “That was in the container of a solid, down-the-middle arthouse film,” League said. “We tried to contextualize it as one of the year’s best thrillers. We got it to a younger audience that maybe wouldn’t consider seeing a foreign-language Holocaust film.”
This year, Sony Classics will bring another Cannes-acclaimed Oscar hopeful to the festival that doesn’t suggest genre — Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” the impeccably acted German comedy-drama about a young working professional whose father attempts to insert himself into her life by wearing a goofy disguise. The movie, like “Son of Saul,” will make its play for highbrow American audiences later this month at the New York Film Festival, but the Fantastic Fest team feels confident that “Toni Erdmann” will fit right in.
“Fantastic Fest has always had a very strong comedy strand and ‘Toni Erdmann’ fits into this perfectly,” said programming director Evrim Ersoy, who called it “an exquisitely crafted comedy-drama about awkward human relationships that we think our audience will respond to.”
Fantastic Fest is something of a Trojan Horse, using its status as a genre festival to bring challenging films to genre-savvy audiences. Another entry this year, Andrea Arnold’s kaleidoscopic road-trip opus “American Honey,” might seem like a purely expressionistic coming-of-age story until one considers the bigger picture. “The trailer for ‘American Honey’ positions it more as a heist movie,” said League. “We know it’s not that. But there’s still this sinister underpinning to the whole story, a real darkness.”
League and his cohorts also have other reasons for bringing such films to the festival. “This is a filmmaker we want to be in business with,” he said about Arnold. “We are a conduit to young cinephile audiences, and this is a movie we want to champion within the whole Alamo Drafthouse brand.”
Though he won’t discuss it yet, League has reportedly launched a new distribution company with longtime pal and Fantastic Fest regular Tom Quinn. The pair collaborated last fall on the release of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next,” but are now tackling a more on-brand project as buyers of Fantastic Fest closing-night film, “Colossal,” a genre-bending experience starring Anne Hathaway as a kaiju monster (long story) directed by Fantastic Fest perennial Nacho Vigalondo.
While the details remain a mystery, it’s clear that the distribution company represents a desire to fill a niche for edgier titles, just like the festival. “We came into this market in 2005 because there was deficiency,” League said. “There wasn’t anything on our scale focused on these type of movies, the dark and strange foreign-language films.”
It didn’t take long for that to change. “At first, it was really just about providing cool films for the fans,” League said. “But then we saw films come to the festival that were great and never had a great opportunity. That was when we started reaching out to the industry.”
In 2007, Quinn — at that time, an executive at Magnolia — picked up Vigalondo’s acclaimed time-travel comedy “Timecrimes,” the first of several major acquisitions that have come out of the festival. This year, a number of potential discoveries could find U.S. distribution. These include “Zoology,” a Russian drama that flew under the radar earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, which revolves around the experiences of a woman who grows a tail, the Malayalam-langugage gangster epic “Kammatipaadam,” and the occult drama “A Dark Song,” from Ireland.
Films like those represent the essence of Fantastic Fest, alongside wacky late-night events like the Fantastic Feuds (where members of the entertainment industry debate various topics and then punch each other’s lights out) and conversations with filmmakers from around the world. The social nature of the gatherings foster a communal approach to celebrating the festival’s sensibility. In an age of on-demand viewing, the scene provides a curatorial model in which audiences cheerfully risk new material. At the end of the day, Ersoy said, Fantastic Fest films are “unique creations that constantly challenge the definition of the genre they’re in.”
League puts it in blunter terms. “We don’t play a lot of straightforward horror films,” he said. “Frankly, they’re pretty boring.”
Fantastic Fest runs September 22-29.