After San Sebastián, you’ll always have Sitges

Blood and gore amongst the palm trees. That might sound like a B-movie pitch but it’s actually the essence of Europe’s largest fantasy film festival – the Sitges Catalonia Intl. Film Festival, which celebrates its 40th edition this year.

In its attractive Mediterranean setting, revolving around the Hotel Melia, Sitges is like a relaxed version of Cannes – with a vibrant mix of screenings, press conferences and exuberant parties, attracting celebrity guests such as Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro and David Cronenberg.

The quaint, sun-drenched fishing town of Sitges – a 25-minute ride from Barcelona – is perhaps an unlikely breeding ground for chainsaw fanatics, but in the 1960s the town was a hotbed of counter-culture against Franco’s Spain. The fantasy genre, which prides itself on violating taboos and caricaturing sources of social malaise, was the ideal vehicle for subverting the fascist regime’s moral straitjacket.

In the turbulent year of 1968, the Sitges fest was born as the International Fantasy & Horror Film Week and launched its Official Competition section in 1971. John Carpenter recently made a tribute to this nascent period, setting part of Cigarette Burns (2005) at the 1971 fest.

While the fantasy genre is often viewed with condescension by mainstream film festivals, Sitges became a glorious torchbearer of this genre, and began to spawn sister events throughout Europe, such as Portugal’s Fantasporto, launched in 1981 and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, set up in 1983.

By the Eighties, Sitges had firmly established its position as the premier event in its genre and a vital launch pad for films such as “Evil Dead,” “Re-Animator” and “Blue Velvet.”

Over the course of the nineties, the event slowly migrated from its genre origins, but in the wake of the 2001 appointment of the new Fest Director, Angel Sala, a leading film critic, it has refocused on fantasy. New blood has also been infused into the genre through an influx of Asian films, including Japanese animé pics and a special Orient Express competitive section set up in 2001.

One of Sala’s core goals is to show that the fantasy label is not restrictive but progressive. He believes that the genre is evolving, becoming less gore-orientated and reaching out to a wider audience. He traces this new trend to pics such as “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others,” which have catalysed a growing interest in the genre. “People are no longer scared of seeing scary movies”, he explains “Everyone’s now willing to watch fantasy films such as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.”

Local producers have also benefited from Sitges’ major promotional presence. In 1999, Barcelona-based mini-major Filmax launched its Fantastic Factory label which has forged a path-breaking business model based on international sales, including over 20 films sold to the U.S. Market.

Other local companies that have ridden this wave include Rodar y Rodar, the production house behind this year’s opening film at Sitges – “The Orphanage.” Producer Joaquim Pedro, explains, “We avoided screening our film in other festivals, because Sitges has huge emotional and symbolic importance for us – due to the young audience committed to the genre that travels from all over Spain and the world.”

The vibrant state of local production, complemented by the 100,000 strong spectators that flock to Sitges every year, is a big attraction for market players who view Sitges as an important testing ground for genre films – able to build vital word-of-mouth, including via Internet blogs.

“Sitges is an excellent promotional platform that enables us to reach a large universe of buyers.” states Adolfo Blanco of specialty distribution house Notro Filmes, “An increasing number of buyers also follow reports on the festival via the Internet”.

Angel Sala is a big admirer of the San Diego comic book convention Comicon, which has an expanding film showcase and which he views as Sitges’ main rival event: “There are increasing links between television, comic books, fantasy literature, role games and video games – they increasingly form part of an overall packet which is consumed by a specific audience segment,” he affirms.

This year’s 40th anniversary will be dedicated to the 25th anniversary of “Blade Runner” with visits by Syd Mead and Douglas Trumbull.

Key films include the compelling ghost movie, “1408,” by Mikael Hafstrom, the experimental documentary, “Zoo,” by Robinson Devor and local fare such as the stylish thriller, “King of the Hill” by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego. There will also be a retrospective on North American horror movies from the 70′s and 80′s, including the presence of George A. Romero, who will receive the prestigious Time Machine lifetime achievement award.

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