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Fantastic Fest Reborn: One Year After Scandal and Heartbreak, a Beloved Genre Festival Is Working to Rebuild

After a difficult year that damaged its reputation, Fantastic Fest's leaders look to the future.

The Alamo South Lamar, home to Fantastic Fest

Alamo Drafthouse

For a dozen years, Fantastic Fest reigned supreme as the most exciting gathering for genre movie fans in America. The Austin-based film festival, one of the flagship events of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, combined its party-loving environment with an expansive approach to genre fandom, launching everything from “The Human Centipede” to “There Will Be Blood.” Fantastic Fest became a breeding ground for hardcore acolytes of horror, sci-fi, and other outré forms of storytelling from around the world, cultivating a devout community in the process.

Then, in 2017 — months before the #MeToo movement and the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault — Fantastic Fest became one of the first movie-world institutions to face the repercussions of harboring guilty parties and neglecting victim complaints. A year later, Fantastic Fest is underway with new plans to address its previous shortcomings, and eager sold-out crowds, but it’s still grappling with the shadow of last year’s revelations and working to regain the industry’s trust.

The news came hard and fast, just weeks before the festival. Alamo and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League contended with reports that he rehired Devin Faraci, the former editor-in-chief of Alamo publication Birth.Movies.Death., after revelations that he had assaulted women. When Faraci’s name appeared alongside Fantastic Fest programming notes, it became clear that he remained a freelancer for the site, and League’s initial apology on social media was deemed insufficient.

Then came reports about Fantastic Fest co-founder and Ain’t It Cool News head Harry Knowles’ own longstanding history of sexual assault, and the Drafthouse’s role in minimizing of sexual assault reports for decades. Veteran programming director Todd Brown made a public display of his decision to step away from the festival. Fox Searchlight pulled “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri” from the lineup at the last minute.

League, who had always been the festival’s front-and-center mascot, announced he would not attend and spent the time visiting Alamo theater chains around the country. Fantastic Fest dropped Ain’t It Cool News as a sponsor, and Knowles was banned from all Alamo locations. Meanwhile, complaints about sexual harassment at Drafthouse locations kept cropping up.

Over the next several months, the theater chain went into recovery mode. It hired a crisis management firm, adopted a new code of conduct, and launched anti-harassment training for all of its employees. It also hired a “Chief People Officer,” Tara Furiani, and created a new “Culture & Community” department. To date, according to figures provided by the Alamo, 1,325 staffers have completed comprehensive harassment training, and 2,412 have completed code of conduct training. The company also reports that 100 percent of all incidents have been investigated and closed.

League, meanwhile, pulled back on his party-boy image. After launching the Alamo in Austin with one location alongside his wife Karrie, the effort quickly ballooned into a national enterprise, even as he retained tight control of its operations. Once the rare CEO to immerse himself in the community and dominate the social scene he cultivated, he has receded to the background and remains on the Fantastic Fest sidelines. And League has gotten used to explaining how the casual approach to managing his company set the stage for many miscalculations.

“Last year was difficult for many people — the victims who spoke out, our staff past and present, and our community at large — and many made their voices heard,” he said, via email. “Because of them, we’ve become a much better company as a result, and we’re going to continue our efforts to improve.”

He said he was confident that the company made significant progress as it matured into a corporate structure lacking in its earlier days. “Our primary focus this past year has been on making our culture and community great, and it’s going to remain a focus, forever,” he said. “Our transition from a one-screen theater to a national company happened pretty rapidly. That speed was exhilarating, and it meant that decisions were made on the fly, or without the perspective and input that they deserved. I had to learn as I went along. I had failures along the way, but I’m dedicated to learning, listening, and improving.”

Suki-Rose Simakis at the Fantastic Fest “Fantastic Debates” event

But League has taken a back seat as a new set of voices oversee Fantastic Fest’s trajectory. Festival director Kirsten Bell, who held that position for 10 years, was promoted to executive director late last year. The festival also unveiled a new board of directors, overseen by Bell, that include horror writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse, producer Suki-Rose Simakis, TIFF midnight programmer Peter Kuplowsky, and Fantastic Fest regular Elijah Wood. Simakis, who reported on her conflicted feelings about Fantastic Fest for IndieWire in 2017, said she was eager to take on a more active role in its evolution. “I’m proud of the work we did this year as a board,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the fest and am excited to be here with the community so I can listen and learn more about how we can continue to make Fantastic Fest more inclusive, safe, and awesome.”

For Bell, the past year has been a process of proving to Fantastic Fest regulars that the environment has improved its standards. “I think the steps that we’re taking are hopefully putting us in a position to make people want to come back,” she said. “Something we say internally is that Fantastic Fest is a representative of the best of the Alamo. It brings all of our companies together. It’s our beating heart.”

The festival hasn’t struggled to program work from prominent studios: Universal will bring “Halloween” with Jamie Lee Curtis in tow for the North American premiere; other companies in attendance include Paramount (“Overlord”), A24 (“Mid90s,” “Climax,” “In Fabric”), Magnolia (“Dogman,” “The Guilty,” “The Quake”), and Kino Lorber (“Diamantino”), all of whom declined to comment on the decision to attend the festival. IFC, which did not respond to requests for comment, has two titles in the lineup that were acquired out of TIFF (“Donnybrook” and “The Wind”) — after Fantastic Fest announced its initial lineup.

Bell acknowledged that it would take time to win back the industry as a whole. “We respect anyone’s decision not to come to the festival and completely understand the need for space there, and we hope that we can continue to receive feedback and bring the festival to a place where people can feel comfortable being here,” she said. “A lot of people have chosen to come back and some have not. That’s OK. We’ll just continue to listen to the feedback and adjust our path accordingly.”

On the programming side, the festival has adopted a more inclusive strategy. Programming director Evrim Ersoy elevated Logan Taylor to oversee the submissions team, which is now 90 percent women and minorities. “We’re going to be working on the intake every year to train people to be programmers, and we take in underrepresented voices as much as possible,” Ersoy said. “I want to keep bringing people in who wouldn’t normally be working in curatorial spaces.”

The festival faces a unique challenge in determining the movies it accepts, which tend to favor a lot of gory, disturbing material that sensitive viewers may not easily accept. It has added new icons to film pages warning viewers of potential upsetting content — including categories for “Rape” and “Domestic Violence” — and brought a fresh approach to its program notes.

“We’ve taken them in a different direction to provide more context about what people are seeing,” Ersoy said. “So if there is any content that is going to be emotionally charged or difficult for people, they’ll be able to assess it by reading the notes. We’re trying to have the content creators there, so they can get the audience ready and aware of what they’re about to see. We won’t censor content, but we just want people to be aware of what they’re seeing.”

Victoria Carmen Sonne in Holiday movie Isabella Eklöf's Holiday

“Holiday”

Sundance Institute/Jonas Lodahl

He was wary of pulling back on edgier material as evinced by movies like “Holiday” and “Donnybrook,” both of which include a jarring rape scene designed to unsettle audiences. “I think most artists come from a place of asking difficult questions,” he said. “That applies across the board, not just genre, and we look at art because we want to think about the world we live in. It’s not just entertainment.” He placed his trust in Fantastic Fest audiences. “I would hope that people can choose which films they see and that there is enough variety that no one is forced to think about morality all the time, or forced to laugh all the time,” he said. “They can have a diverse experience that is curated.”

Of course, the Fantastic Fest experience extends far beyond screening rooms. The festival is known for heavy drinking and late-night gatherings at the Highball, the League-owned watering hole and events space adjacent to the Alamo South Lamar. But Bell said the programming team had made a concerted effort to complement the scene with less unruly events. These include a VHS swap meet and a lecture from film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas entitled “Rethinking Women’s Horror Filmmaking.” For Bell, the additional events ensure that anyone less excited by the hard-partying environment would have alternatives.

“We embrace our party side, but it was important to us to offer a balance when it came to the events at the festival,” she said. “We were really focused on diversifying that programming to offer things that weren’t all centered around boozing at the Highball all night.”

The festival’s efforts are a microcosm of the changes taking place throughout the Alamo’s properties. “We have over a million people come through our doors at Alamo Drafthouse,” said Amy Averett, the Alamo’s senior director of culture and community. “That’s a lot of people. Our focus has been on making sure our staff is really well trained to handle situations as they come up. We can’t control what the public is going to do, but we can control how we respond to it.”

Vanessa Paradis Knife + Heart

Vanessa Paradis in “Knife + Heart”

Screencapped from YouTube

For now, the festival is well positioned to move beyond its hardships. Badges for the first half of Fantastic Fest have sold out, and Ersoy spoke excitedly about the prospects of brining an under-appreciated Cannes title to the Fantastic Fest scene. Just as “Antichrist” premiered at Cannes competition to a mixed response before resonating with Fantastic Fest attendees as a stylized horror movie — the festival turned “Chaos reigns!” into a rallying cry — Ersoy said he expected Cannes competition entry “Knife + Heart,” an LGBTQIA giallo film starring Vaness Paradis, to satisfy festival attendees. He was also keen on unveiling the world premiere of “The Unthinkable,” a crowd-funded Swedish disaster movie. Roughly 50 percent of the lineup is from outside of the U.S. “To me, Fantastic Fest isn’t an Austin festival,” he said. “It’s a worldwide festival based in Austin.”

For Bell, Fantastic Fest remained a collaborative effort that includes all of the Alamo properties combined. “We all come together to create this thing,” she said. “It’s a reflection of all our work.”

The 2018 edition of Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – 27.

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