Assessing This Year's Tumultuous Fantastic Fest

Notes from the subdued chaos at the Drafthouse

Itchy-O performing at the Fantastic Fest closing night party (Courtesy of Jack Plunkett)

For 13 years, Fantastic Fest, the Alamo Drafthouse's signature film festival, has been a flag-bearer for global genre cinema. In the wake of a week of stellar films and shocking accusations, its reputation is more complex.

The allegations were ugly. First, it was revealed that Devin Faraci (former editor of the Drafthouse's Birth.Movies.Death online arm and magazine) was quietly rehired after quitting in the wake of sexual harassment and assault claims. Then the festival severed all links with co-founder Harry Knowles when similar complaints emerged about him. Questions were quickly raised about when festival and Drafthouse founder Tim League learned of these accusations, and why he had not responded sooner.

The charges came soon after Cinefamily, a major venue in Los Angeles' indie film scene, suspended operations after similar allegations against their senior personnel. Were these isolated incidents, people wondered, or is something critically wrong with modern film culture?

For some attendees, the allegations were shocking, but not surprising. Faraci's return was blamed on the Drafthouse's culture of insiders, while Knowles' personality and lack of professionalism were common knowledge in Austin film circles. Even the festival seemed to be coasting on a well-deserved reputation: The bookings were strong, but events often seemed slapped together. The lack of a singular festival director, especially with some staff either pulling double duties or officed overseas, led to late announcements and a confused vision. Sometimes it seemed Fantastic Fest embraced its mantra of "Chaos Reigns" a little too tightly.

As the festival began, the women of the management team – most notably programmer Annick Mahnert and executive director Kristin Bell – were given more public roles. At the same time, familiar faces were absent. League spent the week in Kansas City, having dialogues with his staff. Faraci and Knowles were both gone, and not missed. Other regulars boycotted the event, like film critic Scott Weinberg and producer Todd Brown (who quit his role as international film programmer). Meanwhile, film historian Grady Hendrix canceled two scheduled events, and that was just the start. Fox Searchlight withdrew opening night title Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, while review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes canceled their "Your Opinion Sucks" show.

Attendees did not ignore the scandal, as seemingly every conversation turned back to it. Yet they were still there, and focused on the films. After all, most productions do not have the clout of a Three Billboards (which almost immediately was added to the Austin Film Festival slate). For a movie with zero push, on which the filmmakers had labored for literally years, this was their first and maybe only chance at exposure.

From that position, this was a memorable year. Scottish zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse warmed hearts, while fans embraced Mary and the Witch's Flower, a family-friendly anime from the team behind Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away. There were also surprise hits, like stop-motion masterpiece Junk Head. Meanwhile Bodied, Joseph Kahn's Eminem-endorsed ruthless cultural appropriation comedy, was both timely and incisive. Speaking of timely, the audience seemed primed for the appropriately named feminist rape-revenge drama Revenge. At other screenings, responses were rawer, such as when actor Terry Notary re-enacted a confrontational scene from Oscar hopeful The Square, or the decision to screen Take It Out in Trade (a lost softcore flick by schlock legend Ed Wood) as an AGFA secret screening.

With the festival over, now begins the soul-searching. Bell has already been announced as heading up a new advisory board. In the latest in a round of statements, League promised reform, telling attendees, "Recent perspective has made it clear that we didn't always do the right thing, despite what we thought were good intentions."

The inevitable question now is what that right thing is, and what that means for the Drafthouse, and Fantastic Fest.

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Fantastic Fest 2017, Fantastic Fest, Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, Todd Brown, Kristen Bell

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