Every year, Fantastic Fest aims to bring the best in genre cinema from around the globe to an enthusiastic audience of fans, filmmakers, and critics. But this year marked a defining moment in the festival's 13-year history. Following a major scandal that hung heavy over the 2017 festivities, this was the year Fantastic Fest had to prove it could be an inclusive place for all fans, regardless of gender.
Last year, controversy erupted ahead of opening night when it came out that disgraced film critic Devin Faraci, who'd resigned from a Fantastic Fest-affiliated blog over sexual misconduct allegations against him, had been quietly hired back by the fest's co-founder Tim League. This news led to public outcry, heated debates, apologies from League, and eventually changes to Fantastic Fest that would be implemented for the 2018 event, including a newly minted board of directors, anti-harassment training for the entire staff, and a code of conduct, which was printed on the back of every badge. Under the new rules, if you broke this code, your badge would be revoked, which means you're booted from the fest.
But as Fantastic Fest drew near, the question still lingered whether this alleged "boys' club" had made changes that will truly welcome fangirls. It's a question that I—as a fangrrl, feminist, and entertainment reporter—faced in covering the fest both last and this year. So, while at Fantastic Fest for SYFY FANGRRLS, I asked filmmakers in attendance about their motivations for participating in this pivotal year.
First, I asked each of the filmmakers below if they were aware of last year's scandal. If they were not, I offered an abridged version of the above summary. Some answered in the midst of the fest, while some answered ahead of their arrival at the event. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
"I was invited with such love. I didn't even really consider saying no. I mean, I think that the idea behind the fest is something that is so cool. I do think that people that make genre films and genre film audiences, they have been ghettoized for so long into the cult and into the underground. And while I love the cult and the underground, I just really feel like this is an exciting place where everyone is sort of wanting to go on a wild journey and see the unexpected. It's just, I'm drawn to that in general.
"And so when I was called by Evrim [Ersoy, the fest's creative director] and was told that he chose my film, and he had such kind, and loving, and thoughtful things to say about the film, it was not something I really questioned. I think people are attempting to make amends across the board. And sometimes that's real, and sometimes that's not real. But in this circumstance, any film festival that's willing, right now, to take a step towards diversifying their programming, including more women, that's obviously where I want to be. It's wonderful to be asked and it's an honor, as a filmmaker, to be recognized. Programming is really elite and selective. I know their history, and I know what happened last year. But it was not something that was going to stop me from saying yes."
Rita Walsh, producer of I Used To Be Normal
"We were excited about having a US premiere in a festival about the proud history of fandom. But we did have questions about whether we would be supporting something that we don't believe in or a systemic problem. [Being based in Australia,] I'm not really familiar with the ins and outs of the US industry or the minutiae of what happened. But we read a few articles. I wrote to a few people I know in the States and said, 'What do you think?' I looked at their new board and selection committee and then, yeah, got as reassured as I could about it before we said yes. And ours is a film by, for, and starring women, and it's about the experience of being a fan. We hope that Fantastic Fest has sort of cleaned houses as much as they seem to have and that the festival can be a safe and happy place."
Karyn Kusama, director of Destroyer
"[Fantastic Fest is] a great example to me of a body of decision-makers trying to address a problem and make some valuable changes. And so for me, the thing that I love about Fantastic Fest is that while genre often kind of gets a bad rap in terms of its audience, the fact is these are genre audiences that are really smart and really sensitive to where we are culturally in the world. And the fact that this festival attempted to address what had come out last year with more female voices, more female leadership, that to me felt like a positive change. So, I really want to be able to keep supporting organizations that are dynamic and willing to look at themselves, willing to ask the hard questions of themselves and willing to make actionable changes to how they're run as an organization. So that we might feel like we improved upon the conversation by having it, as opposed to just buried it and living in denial and kind of 'moved on.' You know what I mean? I feel happy to be coming."
Nicole Perlman, writer/director of "The Slows"
"I think that Fantastic Fest is such an important festival for genre. That's one of the reasons I wanted to premiere it here. I definitely thought about it. It's something I took into account. I feel like it's so important to see women's voices in this field, and in this genre, that it didn't seem to me that limiting more voices for women in genre at an event that's this important would be helping the cause. I did make sure to look and see what they were doing to address the problem. And it feels like they're making massive strides. So, that was something I put a lot of thought into, frankly. And I think that if Fantastic Fest didn't have such an important role that it plays in the field of genre and science fiction, then it wouldn't have been as much of a priority. But I feel like it's really necessary, and I'm glad that I did. So, my experience this year has been wonderful. I didn't attend last year. And I think if you had asked me last year, I would've maybe had a different answer, but it seems like they've made a lot of steps.
"I was cautious. I was really cautious. It wasn't something I did casually. It was a lot of thought that went into it, and I've been impressed with how they've handled it this year. We just need to get more women in science fiction out into the world and out into the mainstream, and whatever I can do to help in that regard. And of course, I want my film to be seen by people who don't see movies as much that have complex women's issues at the heart of them."
Emma Tammi, director of The Wind
"To be honest, I've never been to Fantastic Fest and didn't know much about it until this year, because I had never worked within the genre space before. But everyone that I know in the genre space just speaks so highly of it. And I think that there's a real moment happening right now where people are wanting to embrace more female stories into the fold, and specifically female-directed pieces because there has been such a shortage of them, specifically within the genre space... Not really being able to speak to Fantastic Fest specifically, I think there's a general will for [genre] not to be such a boys' club anymore or to at least let everyone else join in on the action. And maybe there are some people that still don't feel that way, but I think the majority of people are feeling that way, and hopefully that will change things a bit."
Avra Fox-Lerner, co-writer of Bloodline
"As a woman, I did not know about this scandal before we got into the festival. But I will say that I have always been a genre fan. And I have always worked very staunchly in the space of genre, and horror has always sort of been my bread and butter. And I cannot tell you the number of times that I've been at a party, or in Los Angeles having a general meeting, and the person I'm meeting with is like, 'Oh, well, what do you really write?' And I'm like, 'I write horror.' And they're like, 'Really!?' And I'm like, 'Why is this surprising?' But then, you know why it's surprising. I mean, I was a comic book nerd in high school, and you go to the comics, it's all boys, and it's really weird, and there's all this sexual politics and stuff...
"And so, having found out that there was this scandal, and having mixed feeling about that, I will also say that this was such the right festival for us to debut this film. This audience loved our movie... [When making our movie], Henry [Jacobson, Bloodline co-writer and director] and I talked so much about what it is to be a parent, not even just a mother or a father. And it was so important for us to bring that to this movie, and typically that's not who is coming to Fantastic Fest. But, to be able to hopefully reach a younger, heterosexual male who like sees us and is like, 'Holy shit. Being a good mom is really fucking tough!' Like, that's actually kind of an amazing moment. And then, you're like, 'Thank you so much for recognizing this. Here's an arterial blood spray scene.' It's also very satisfying."
Danishka Esterhazy, writer/director of Level 16
"I always wanted to come to Fantastic Fest before the scandal. When the scandal happened, I followed it. I read about it. I'm very concerned about women in film and sexual harassment. These are things that I really follow. And then I watched, the first recovery, and then the deeper recovery with the adopting of the code of conduct. And I thought those were really positive steps. And when I applied to this festival, and I told a couple of people in the industry, I did get some people questioning the decision. They said, 'Well, why would you want to be associated with Fantastic Fest, they just had this really bad situation.' And I said, 'I want to be part of the change that fixes these situations.' I'm a woman director making female-driven films in genre, I want the genre world to be really embracing women and make it a safe place for women, and I think I can be part of that change."
"So I'm happy to be here, and actually I've been super impressed. I went to the Jezebels meeting [a meet-up of women and non-binary badge holders who have organized a community to urge inclusion], which was amazing, and obviously, all the women involved are incredibly amazing, and on-board with making this change happen. But I've also been so impressed just in the Fantastic Fiends Facebook group and seeing how the fans are working so hard to try to be inclusive. The male fans and the female fans. I didn't encounter any of the troll-fanboy experience that we all dread. Everyone who's posting on there seems to be trying so hard to make it a better festival. So that's encouraged me a lot, it's actually made me feel better about women in genre than I have in a long time. So I think that's great."
"You don't just wanna burn the house down. You don't want to throw everything away that's been built. You have to look for a genuine desire for change from the festival. There's certainly been other institutions and other people in the film industry who have made apologies that are not sincere, and I'm not convinced. But it seems to be that Fantastic Fest has worked really hard to make the festival a better, safer place."