Fantastic Fest

The weather is starting to cool here in Maryland, signaling my favorite time of year. Now I can wear long sleeves and layers minus the funny looks since it's no longer a hundred degrees outside. Soon everyone will be digging out their jackets and scarves, carving pumpkins, and planning Halloween costumes. Meanwhile, I'll be celebrating the arrival of my beloved Fall weather by leaving it and heading right back into the heat. And not just any heat, next week I'm heading into the heat of Austin, Texas.

It's my favorite time of year in Austin for another reason -- it's Fantastic Fest time. While this will be my fifth time attending the genre film festival, I still find it difficult to explain what it's all about. I'd love to write something that does the experience justice without gushing too much or alienating people who haven't been there yet, but it's not an easy thing to put into words. In past conversations the closest I've ever come to summing up Fantastic Fest is by saying it's like Christmas or Movie Camp. I never even went to camp as a kid, but I have heard tales, so comparing it to these two occasions seems like the closest I'll ever get to encapsulating the energy of the fest in words.

I suppose it's so difficult to describe because, for me, Fantastic Fest is about so many different things.

It's about movies.

Most people can't fathom watching more than one movie in a day, let alone the four or five that add up to an average day at the festival. And these aren't just any movies, either. Fantastic Fest offers an eclectic range of genre -- sci-fi, horror, fantasy, action -- movies from all over the world. While many of them are flat out over the top fun, others can leave you devastated. There are a number of movies I've seen there that still give me chills just thinking about them - Nothing Bad Can Happen, The Tribe, Goodnight Mommy. But I can also list quite a few that mark the most fun I've ever had in a theater - John Wick, Cheap Thrills, Dangerous Men, Why Don't You Play In Hell, Green Room. Fantastic Fest programming is known for showing you things you've never seen, things that can't be unseen, and things you maybe didn't realize you wanted to see.

It's about unknowns.

Not knowing what you're in for is part of the fun. Can you remember the last time you walked into a movie theater with no expectations for what you were about to see? It creates a certain atmosphere when you walk in knowing nothing outside of a three sentence description you read (or chose not to read) on the schedule. There's a level of excitement that is unique in this day an age where we're used to getting trailers for a trailer and have usually seen the majority of a movie before we ever reach our seat on opening day. I rarely know what to expect from the movies I see at Fantastic Fest and that's one of the things I cherish most about the experience. I also rarely come away disappointed, often leaving the fest having seen some of the best movies I'll see all year. I go in blind, but also with complete trust that the people who run this festival are bringing me an experience unlike any other.

It's about people.

Tim League and his team at the Alamo Drafthouse are like Santa and his Elves, bringing great joy and happiness to cinephiles across the land. Alongside them are the organizers, the serving staff, and volunteers who run themselves ragged to keep us all happy. Some of them even taking extra shifts just to be among the madness. The festival runs smoothly because of these people. I can only hope they get free movie tickets for life or something, because they deserve so much more than just tips and a thank you. Then there's the critics who watch the movies with you and somehow manage to write up a review that articulates exactly what you want to say in a way you could never say it (or on the contrary, in a way that makes you wonder if they saw the same movie you did). Agree or disagree, they're willing to listen, but it's the experience that matters.

It's about filmmakers.

Not only do I get to see major motion pictures premiere at the fest, I get to see directors and cast members walk the red carpet. I get to hear them talk about their passion for filmmaking, what it took to get this particular movie made, and why they wanted to share it with the world. I've listened to Guillermo del Toro talk about his approach to writing characters. I've chatted casually (while freaking out internally) about movies with Elijah Wood and Edgar Wright. I've high-fived and shook hands with Keanu Reeves -- yes, that's two times I've touched Johnny Utah. Two! And I've done all of this in the most unpretentious setting you can imagine, because everyone at Fantastic Fest is there for the same simple reason: they love movies. Whether they stand behind the camera, in front of it, or sit in the back row of the Alamo, this is a crowd that loves movies.

It's about community.

Two things you'll never run short on at Fantastic Fest are awesome people and things to talk about. You'll never have to suffer through an awkward silence that can't be filled with conversation starters like, "Is this your first fest?", "What movie did you just see?", or "What was your favorite movie today?" I've already written about making connections by talking about movies and this festival is the perfect venue for that. It's the easiest place to strike up a conversation with like-minded people -- not during the movies, though, they'll kick your ass out. The moments I spend between showings just talking with people outside or at the Highball are some of my favorite memories. It's the company you're in that really makes the experience so special. People like you who have come there from all over the world open to whatever crazy ride Tim and team have in store. I can honestly tell you that nothing compares to watching a movie with a Fantastic Fest crowd.

It's about friendship.

There's a sadness that hangs in the air on the last night. After the party, when it's nearing four in the morning and you realize that after eight days and nights this will be the last time you'll walk away from the theater. You hesitate for as long as you can with saying your goodbyes and even after walking away you can't help but look back. Back at all the people still hanging around, all the time you lost track of, and who knows how many movies seen. It's not about saying goodbye to a movie theater, the South Lamar Alamo feels like home by the time you leave it. I'm gushing now, I know. It's difficult because, for me, Fantastic Fest is about so many things. I've made lifelong friends there. Friends I may only see when we meet up at Movie Camp next year, but I know we'll revisit these memories for years to come. It's not just the memories of the movies we take home with us, it's the excitement, the laughs, and a feeling that we're part of something special. Something we carry with us that we can't quite find the words to explain. So, I guess you'll just have to venture to Austin, into the heat, and join in the fun. I promise you, it's fantastic.