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Fantastic Fest Under Fire: Why America’s Preeminent Genre Festival Needs Its Fans More Than Hollywood

Fantastic Fest never played by Hollywood's rules, but it's not the studios it needs to win back.

The scene at Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest is facing a jarring backlash, but studio discomfort is the least of its problems. Fox Searchlight’s decision to pull its Oscar season hopeful “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” from Austin genre festival Fantastic Fest makes total sense: The festival’s decision to quietly re-hire Devin Faraci after he was accused of sexual assault ignited a firestorm of controversy that no studio wants to touch. But while the decision by the studio reflects the national reverberations of this scandal, it’s not the most serious.

Fantastic Fest fans drove this PR nightmare; some Fantastic Fest fans also actively contributed to an environment that enabled rampant sexism, even if there has always been an undercurrent of sincerity behind its existence. In order for Fantastic Fest to recover, it will need to rewire the community that gave it clout in the first place.

Needless to say, Fantastic Fest is under fire — and it’s going to take some time to extinguish the flames. In the wake of revelations that the Austin genre festival co-founder and Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League gave more work to Faraci after he initially resigned, the entire Fantastic Fest identity has come under extreme scrutiny that will force its leadership to consider major recalibration. The key to League’s success is that very personal “he gets it!” connection — unlike any other theater, or really any other film business. That’s amazing human capital, but this situation basically turned it into a funeral pyre.

Over a dozen years, Fantastic Fest hacked the system by providing a way station to movies that might not otherwise find their audiences. It operated on the basis of personal relationships and a grassroots community. Cult favorites like “Timecrimes” and “The Human Centipede” started their lives in front of eager Fantastic Fest audiences. That raucous crowd danced to its own rhythms, and the studios never got the beat; they were on the outside of the clubhouse looking in. So the moment it became a liability, “Three Billboards” was out.

Fantastic Fest never played by Hollywood’s rules. When Paul Thomas Anderson launched “There Will Be Blood” there in 2007, he took his own print to the festival and didn’t wait for permission from Paramount. He spent the weekend partying with the close-knit group of genre aficionados that give Austin festival an identity as much as the movies, hanging at League’s house with other festival guests and setting off fireworks late into the night.

"There Will Be Blood"

“There Will Be Blood”

Vantage/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Even Telluride can’t match the communal allegiance that Fantastic Fest created by fostering a bond between diehard fans of outré cinema and the people who make it. Festival VIPs like Elijah Wood and Nicolas Winding Refn come back year after year to relish an international programming sensibility united by the desire for filmmaking off the beaten path, no matter where it comes from. Festival regular Dor Dotson told IndieWire that she met her husband at the festival.

“Fantastic Fest changed my life,” she said when the festival celebrated its 10th anniversary. Distribution veteran Tom Quinn, who recently launched distribution company Neon with League as co-founder, also had a personal connection. “Fantastic Fest is the festival that is nearest and dearest to me in so many ways both personally and professionally,” he said. “It represents the kinds of films, fans, and filmmakers that I admire and love most. It’s also the best time you’ll have all year long.”

You can’t buy that kind of commitment, so it was only a matter of time before Fantastic Fest began to wield serious influence. Other companies took note of its unique identity, and it became a launchpad for major arthouse titles looking for street cred. When IFC Films brought “Antichrist” to the festival, it went from being a divisive Cannes Film Festival entry to an energizing existential horror film, and audiences found in it a new slogan for the festival itself (“Chaos reigns”). Sony Pictures Classics regularly makes a stop in Austin with several international Oscar hopefuls, from Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” to the Hungarian concentration camp thriller “Son of Saul.” Last year, Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal dystopian comedy “The Lobster” got a boost from the festival before scoring a best screenplay nomination.

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

“The Lobster”

Unlike Telluride or other major stops along the awards season circuit, Fantastic Fest doesn’t attract hordes of Academy members, but it’s a critical means of developing buzz for difficult movies. No other American festival offers the same range of international programming fused together by sensibilities that don’t make distinctions about borders. At a time when generating audience interest in foreign-language cinema has become increasingly challenging, it provides a crucial counterexample. This year’s edition may be overshadowed by scandal, but the festival’s plans to screen some of its programming at Drafthouse chains around the country represents an important step in expanding Fantastic Fest’s ability to elevate niche cinema on a national scale.

Clearly, the festival’s hard-partying culture fostered a major systematic problem. It emboldened a male-dominated fraternity in which misogynistic behavior went unpunished. The anarchistic streak of its annual traditions — like debating movie topics in a boxing ring or slapping games — created a sense of unregulated fun that unleashed base, primal antics and allowed them to assert their dominance. League was unquestionably complicit in this process, and Fantastic Fest co-founder Harry Knowles created the precedent for empowering unruly fanboys with Ain’t Cool News.

But this subculture wasn’t the sole factor that endowed the festival with value. Fantastic Fest uncovered a kind of enthusiasm for the movies that had been underserved by the marketplace. If a studio chose to launch a movie there, it was looking to legitimize it beyond the insular arena of Oscar season buzz and tap into a wholly different platform for word of mouth.

League has issued an apology on his Facebook page and says he will spend the year talking to Drafthouse staffers around the country in attempt to improve the image of his national operation. While this may be the first critical step in earning back the trust he’s lost in a matter of days, the real allegiance test will be found on the home front.

Fantastic Fest can stand to lose the studios; its badge-holders will be perfectly content to watch outrageous J-horror, Norwegian ninjas, and Danish muscle masses duke it out onscreen without any Hollywood dollars impinging on the experience. However, they will need to feel comfortable that in doing so, they’re participating in a ritual that has rid itself of a virus that overwhelmed its essential social component. If Fantastic Fest can’t win back that crowd, someone will give it a new home.

In the meantime, “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” won’t get a chance to unleash Frances McDormand’s foul-mouthed mother seeking revenge for her murdered daughter on Fantastic Fest audiences. And that’s too bad, because they probably would have loved it.

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