Guillermo del Toro to Godfather Sitges as Festival Hits 50

The iconic fantastic fest celebrates its half century as fantasy-genre hits huge numbers worldwide

Guillermo Del Toro 'Five Came Back'
Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

CANNES — Guillermo del Toro will godfather this October’s milestone edition of the Sitges’ Catalonia Intl. Fantastic Film Festival as the famed fantasy-genre fest celebrates its 50th edition and genre gains ever greater mainstream acceptance.

A hallowed place of pilgrimage for genre aficionados worldwide, fishing village-set Sitges launched in 1968 the first Intl. Week of Fantastic Cinema, a bastion of fantasy films and avant-garde film debate which implicitly stood up to Francisco Franco’s arcane dictatorship. Sitges’ Catalonia Intl. Fantastic Film Festival is now one of Europe’s biggest genre events, notching up about 200,000 attendees last year, according to organizers.

For del Toro, godfathering is a debt repaid. “Sitges was, in my mind as a young filmmaker, the Mecca,” he recalls. “Being there with my first film, ‘Cronos,’ and winning the Maria Prize, was a giant boost. A year later, receiving the lifetime achievement award, I felt similarly reinvigorated and went on to create ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’”

He added: “I keep going back to Sitges to restructure, create and meet key collaborators (like Antonio Trashorras or DDT FX). A festival can have an intimate relationship with a filmmaker’s creative story and energies.”

Also a platform for Catalan auteur genre production, arguably Europe’s strongest smart genre strain, Sitges has played a crucial role connecting iconic creators.

Now directing “Jurassic World,” J.A. Bayona said he first met Guillermo del Toro when he presented “Cronos” at Sitges. “Years later, in the same festival corridors, we closed the deal to produce ‘The Orphanage,’ my first movie. Coming back to Sitges is coming back home.”

Sitges was an early champion of Asian auteur genre cinema in Europe, and has become a bellwether of genre trends worldwide, such as move towards the mainstream.

“Despite relatively small budgets, Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out,’ M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ and James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ have smashed the U.S. box office $200 million mark. That didn’t happen years ago,” says Ángel Sala, fest director since 2001.

“The films screened there are often challenging and festival is run by the most delightful individuals. Not only is the backdrop of the cityscape magnificent, the audiences are filled with admiration for the filmed arts. This festival is a truly meaningful one for us filmmakers,” said Japanese director Takashi Miike (“Yakuza Apocalypse”).

Sala also underscored the impact on fantastic film of Netflix. He is confident its originals will see limited theatrical releases; more and more series will hit festivals as well, he predicted.

“The world isn’t what it was 10 years ago and festivals can’t escape that,” Sala added, announcing that Sitges will be very open to “serialized fiction.”

In international terms, Sitges’ 50th edition catches fantastic film in an expansive mode. 

”South Korea, as last year, is offering a robust crop of films, as is Japan. China is increasingly open to new contents in horror,” Sala said.

He added: “In Europe, we have been left a bit behind. But I think the continent will resurface with new autuers in France and the Nordic countries and Russia merits attention. Beyond that, Latin America continues being a real phenomenon,” Sala said.

More than anything, perhaps, Sitges has served as a late-night film school for great future genre directors.  “Since my childhood, Sitges has been an inspiration as a spectator and then filmmaker; it’s a main part of what I am as a director,” said (“[REC]”)’s Jaume Balagueró.

The 50th Sitges Catalonia Intl. Fantastic Film Festival runs Oct. 5-15.