Register Friday | March 31 | 2023

Down and Dirty with the FanTasia Festival

"This is not just hyperbole from someone who was frightened out of her wits..."

The FanTasia Film Festival is more than a genre event for the fanboy and fangirl underground. It is quite simply one of the things that make Montreal great, that put us on the international map far more effectively than our glorious failures, our twiglike chanteuse or Cirque du Soleil.

This is not just hyperbole from someone who was frightened out of her wits during the international premiere of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu at the 1999 festival; it’s the unabashed truth. And FanTasia contributes more to cinema than just viewing pleasure: that screening of Ringu led directly to DreamWorks’ acquisition of the film, both for international distribution and for remake rights. The festival has been a beacon for audiences and industry pros alike since its inception in 1996. Quentin Tarantino himself, the overlord of genre cinema is a big fan. This was to be the year he participated, but there were several snafus, so for now the festival will have to content itself with a Tarantino near-miss.

Film-biz geeks know that the festival has premiered a ton of movies never before released outside of their native niche markets. The list reads like a who’s who from the planet of cinematic marginalia: Takashi Miike (Visitor Q), Jaume Balagueró (The Nameless), Stefan Ruzowitzky (Anatomie), Takashi Ishii (Freeze Me), Brad Anderson (Session 9), Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress—both of which received North American distribution deals as a result of their premieres at FanTasia) and many more.

As someone who has spent many Julys in the cool dark, I know that the most important thing about FanTasia is that this is the way movies were meant to be seen: in the restless quiet of reverence or surrounded by a crowd of reactionary fans, all screaming for the programmers to come onstage and say a few words about the next film. Maybe it’s a new trend: cinema festival programmers as cult heroes. Remember, you read it here first.

Anyone who caught Perfect Blue at the festival a few years back is sure to remember a man with a bushy mane of whip-long hair who was doing his best to stir up hysterical excitement in the happy, waiting hordes. This is Mitch Davis, FanTasia’s director of international programming. One of the world’s top authorities on horror films as well as an occasional cineaste and producer, he wields an enthusiasm so large it threatens to swallow everyone who encounters him.

In honour of this year’s festival (playing July 8 through August 1 at Montreal’s Concordia University), Camera Obscura sat down with Davis to delve into the secrets of FanTasia’s success.

Camera Obscura: People assume that genre film is a boy thing. But it’s not at FanTasia, where the audiences are, like, 40 percent female. Is the assumption that Fandom is for [male] freaks and losers a fallacy?

Mitch Davis: Totally! Unlike in European genre festivals, where the audiences are, I would say, 20 to 30 percent female (and most of them are there to support their boyfriends), FanTasia’s audiences have always had a female contingent. And at least half the mail we get is from women . . . [This] may be a gender-specific hunger for accurate information. I don’t know.

CO: So tell me about the inspiration behind FanTasia.

MD: Well, other than our love of the movies, which is obvious, FanTasia was really born out of a frustration that all the films coming out of Asia would pass us by. We saw every new John Woo movie playing in Vancouver and Toronto [at the other major festivals in Canada], and we never saw it here. It was this huge slap in the face that [Montreal] had this huge blind spot.

CO: And this is still one of the main purposes of the festival, even with its runaway success?

MD: Absolutely. We’re showing Doppelganger, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest. His movies have never been shown in Montreal before, and there has already been a major retrospective in Toronto.

CO: It seems to me that one of the truly special things about FanTasia is that it’s not run as a business, really, as many festivals are. That must have its ups and downs.

MD: Well, the real superhero of the festival is [founder and president] Pierre Corbeil. He puts a lot of his own money and his own enthusiasm out there. Ever since the beginning, when people kept telling us to scale back, Pierre was always willing to go long and go big. And he really trusts us [his programmers], which means that we can put a lot of ourselves, and our expertise and our hearts, into it.

CO: FanTasia is hardly just a genre festival anymore. You’ve pretty much expanded all over the place, bleeding one genre into the other.

MD: That’s another of our privileges as programmers: we’ve more or less redefined what we can do and what we can play in the FanTasia context. At this point, we’ve become a fest that can showcase anything that people aren’t used to seeing in a multiplex. We’ve tested the waters enough to know that the audience will take as many chances as we will as programmers.

CO: But you programmers yourselves have a cult following of sorts.

MD: I wouldn’t say that. It’s more about the films and the sub-genres that have a public . . . We’re playing films that we ourselves love, and every obsession is represented in our programming. That’s why the enthusiasm is appropriate . . . There’s something about getting to see these films on the big screen; DVD versions of these things are like watching a rough copy of the original. There’s still this crazy rock-concert environment, but people wouldn’t be cheering for films that they don’t love and that don’t have the energy for that kind of adulation . . . It’s not like in Belgium, where I’ve seen crowds go all belligerent because they like to be belligerent.

CO: You’ve also had some truly incredible guests[, such as John Carpenter, Bill Plympton, Lau Ching-Wan, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Almereyda, Johnny To, Nacho Cerdà and Jörg Buttgereit]. The cost of shipping people must add hugely to your costs. And I’ve heard you don’t even break even most years.

MD: We don’t break even because the minute we get any more money, we spend it on expanding what we can do at the festival. We find it very gratifying to have guests. Sometimes, these directors are working on a desert island of sorts, and here we get to bring them an audience—seven hundred people or a thousand people who will pay money to see their films, sit in a theatre screaming for them, and then come up and talk to them afterwards and buy them drinks. I heard that Richard Stanley had pretty much stopped writing scripts and then after coming to Montreal went home and wrote, like, five of them in a year. He was rejuvenated.

CO: All this stuff you do, you do it without one penny of government money. Right?

MD: That’s correct. We are constantly rejected for subsidies. I guess the powers that be just can’t justify spending money on this big thing. They can’t reconcile that we show a Cannibal Therox for every Wong Kar-Wai film we show. They don’t get it.

Next time: The Ginger Snaps phenom and, hopefully, an interview with she-wolf Emily Perkins.