How To: Survive Fantastic Fest in 5 Easy Steps

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2009

As you know, we here at Film School Rejects will be sending in our Festival Death Squad this year to assassinate the selections of Fantastic Fest V, which will be held starting tomorrow in Austin, Texas. The brainchild of Ain’t It Cool News honcho Harry Knowles and the world’s greatest showman, Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League, Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the United States, focused on bringing the best horror, foreign, action and otherwise badass films to the mecca of Geekdom, Austin.

But before our Death Squad could be certified as battle-ready, they had to go through a rigorous training course led by our own Fantastic Fest veteran Brian Salisbury. And while we’d like to send each and every one of our readers through that backbreaking 2-week program, we just don’t have time. Instead, we’ve asked Brian to deliver 5 easy tips that can be used by all. And they go a little somethin’ like this…

1. Keep Alcohol Consumption to a Minimum

I know it sounds absurd that a Reject writer would ever advocate moderation in any facet of life, most especially drinking, but heed my words. This will be my third Fantastic Fest and while this will be the first in which anyone is depending on me to provide competent analysis of the films I see, the quantities of beer I consumed my first year could have dispatched a bull elephant. Did I have fun? Yes. But in addition to forgetting some of the films that I saw, I revisited some of the titles I thought I enjoyed during year one and they did not hold up at all. There were literally moments wherein I racked my brain trying to conceive of why I enjoyed the film after the first viewing at Fest; the cadre of empty buckets at my feet was determined to be the inspiration.

On top of that, we are talking about a week-long film fest with screenings running from late-morning one day to the wee hours of the next. It is a movie-geek endurance test and by day two, it is not unusual to feel like you are running a gauntlet as you move from theater to theater all day long. If you are anything like me, beer becomes the enemy of wakefulness and you will find yourself nodding off in the midnight screening; typically where the most memorable films are scheduled. So carefully monitor your consumption and gage your tolerance against the runtimes of your remaining schedule. Binging like a frat boy at the irrepressibly awesome parties or enjoying a cocktail or twelve at the newly opened, Alamo-run Highball next door is greatly encouraged. These events usually take place at the end of the day and are the perfect reward for your arduous cinematic undertaking.

2. Keep an Eye Out for the Talent

“This is no manner of advice!” you exclaim haughtily. True, but it is imperative to understand that Fantastic Fest stands apart from other film festivals because of its honest-to-goodness inclusive approach to attendees. Where other festivals have become giant distribution meat-markets, Fantastic Fest remains a geek-friendly celebration of genre. One of the greatest parts of Fantastic Fest is striking up conversations with fellow film geeks from all over the world. Not only that, but most of the filmmakers and celebrity guests hang around the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse and shoot the proverbial shit with regular Joe’s like you and me.

Sure, meeting Bill Murray or Bill Pullman is awesome. But what really excites me about this festival is the chance to meet the “lesser-known” filmmakers who are just happy to be there. One of the best conversations I’ve ever had at Fantastic Fest was with directors JT Petty (The Burrowers from FF4) and Brian Trenchard-Smith (Ozploitation icon featured in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood). And you will discover the Fantastic Fest staples who are heroes to the fest regulars (Nacho Vigolando, Uwe Boll, and Marco Zaror are among that

elite group). Take some time to introduce yourself to the people behind the films you really enjoy at the fest. I will almost guarantee you that they will be warmly receptive to your comments…..well maybe not Uwe as he will be drunk and belligerent, but everyone else.

3. Show Up Very Early for Secret Screenings

The biggest mixed blessing of Fantastic Fest is the inclusion of secret screenings. On the one hand it is awesome that we get to see big studio films before the rest of the world. But these screenings often cause more discontent then excitement. The problem is that there is limited seating in these theaters and every single badge-holder wants to attend. The hierarchy of badges provides that VIP’s will get first dibs, then press, and finally regular badge-holders. My first year, I had a regular badge, so I was the low man on that totem pole. I spent hours in line hoping for an available empty seat and I missed several films while waiting in line. If all the secret screenings were unbelievably cool, then it would have been worth it. But the fact is that they are not all going to be movies you care to see. I was let down that I missed several incredible, smaller films to see Persepolis (the Iranian animated film about a girl growing up Muslim in America…. it was boring as hell and not at all in the spirit of the festival).

The good news for regular badge-holders this year is that many of the films that would have been secret screenings in years past are regular screenings this year. Things like Zombieland, Daybreakers, Ninja Assassin, Cirque Du Freak, and Trick ‘r Treat are available to everyone. If you have a regular badge my advice to you is this: pick one or two secret screenings that are not playing against anything in which you are immensely interested and take the gamble on waiting in line for those. Because in the end you are gambling not only that you will get in, but that it will even be a film you want to see so minimize your risks.

4. Budget Accordingly

The Alamo Drafthouse, for those out-of-town folks attending Fantastic Fest for the first time, is the pinnacle of movie theater experiences. The reverence for films of all ilks is such that the term movie temple seems more appropriate than movie theater. No small part of its greatness is the Alamo’s superb lineup of beers and delicious food. If you’ve ever been to a facility in the past that has tried to combine food and movies then you know the outcome is usually bland food and even blander first-run films. The ADH actually employs a professional chef to provide not only the quintessential nash-time favorites, but also create stellar menus themed for various events with items worthy of a five-star restaurant. When you catch a glimpse of your neighbor’s chicken strips or white truffle pizza, any farcical notions of not eating during the film will be vanquished.

My first year at Fantastic Fest, I ran up a credit card bill that I have yet to completely pay off. Yes, I am a jackass but this year especially Fantastic Fest is providing a series of enticements that will burn chasms into your pocket. In addition to the irresistible food, the Alamo Drafthouse houses Mondo Tees where the greatest movie tee-shirts in creation are born. And again, The Highball will be open with a 60’s-themed bar, bowling allies, and karaoke lounges so just try not to spend money there…..I dare you! My advice is to factor all of this in and bring a little extra coin. If that is not a possibility, make sure you confine your Highball decadence to the closing night party and remember that Mondo Tees are available online throughout the year. This sounds like common sense advice, but believe me the urge to disregard it will be formidable.

5. Beware of Monsters

Fantastic Fest, as amazing as it is, is not without setbacks. I don’t want to alarm any first-timers but there are monsters at the Alamo Drafthouse. Nobody knows where they come from; they slither out of their caves and roam the lobby for that blessed week. You may not even notice them unless you look in the lonely corners of the rooms…..where the outlets are. They have square objects attached to their legs that only appear when they are sitting and their smell is potent and unmistakable. They are called bloggers…..and they are terrifying.

It is best to avoid them as they are fickle creatures operating on a class system. If you do not know as much as they then your life is worthless to them and they may in fact eat you. If you dare approach one, be sure to be armed with a bag of Wendy’s nuggets or enough illegal plant life to inebriate visiting star of Zombieland Woody Harrelson. Use magical words to distract them if you’re even cornered: “set visit” “studio rep” “scoop”. If you tread carefully and mind that you never utter the word twilight within ten beats of the word horror, you will escape unharmed.

That last bit is clearly a joke. Some of my best friends are online film critics and they are fine folks. Don’t paint me as a criticist.

For more of our Death Squad’s Coverage, keep it locked to our Fantastic Fest 2009 Homepage.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.