Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, North America’s largest genre dedicated film festival, will host a special pre-festival screening of James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” on Wednesday evening, before kicking off in earnest on Thursday and running Aug. 5-25.
Much of this year’s event will be held online, as travel to and from Montreal is still difficult for many would-be attendees, although organizers are also closely monitoring the health and safety guidelines laid out by public officials in Montreal and will host a limited lineup of in-person screenings at the Cinéma du Musée and Cinéma Impérial.
2021 marks the 25th edition of the Fantasia Festival. To celebrate the occasion, Fantasia’s artistic director Mitch Davis spoke with Variety about the event’s first quarter-century, how Fantasia has changed in that time, and what sets it apart from other similar events.
Davis has been with Fantasia since 1997, but has been coordinating genre-themed screenings for much of his life.
“I was around seven when I first discovered genre cinema, and it was because my parents took me to Disneyland and I was overwhelmed by the Haunted House ride,” he recalled.
Upon returning home, he would do anything to get his hands on a ticket to the movies while collecting any horror books and comics he came across. Eventually, he started using his grandfather’s projector to host screenings of horror movies for kids in the neighborhood, even taking the machine to school for show and tell where he inadvertently traumatized several of his younger classmates before the teacher cut his presentation short.
That anecdote goes a long way to explaining Davis’ and the Fantasia team’s core objective, which is to bring cinema to the people in a way that isn’t practical most of the year and, importantly, to present the films in their original versions as they were intended to be seen by the filmmakers.
“Even in the ‘90s, as distribution started getting much better for foreign films in North America, the versions in theaters were often retitled, recut and sometimes even rescored,” Davis recalled of the era, and why it was so important to him to screen films the “right way.”
“When they were in another language, they would be dubbed more often than not, but from the earliest years of Fantasia the drive was to bring these films here and show them properly and give them the focus and attention they merited,” he added.
On the ground, Fantasia is unlike any other festival of its size and stature. Unspooling over three weeks, screenings are limited to very few venues – this year the aforementioned Cinéma du Musée and Cinéma Impérial but typically at Concordia University’s theaters the J.A. de Sève Cinema, the Concordia Hall Cinema and occasionally at the University’s DB Clarke Theatre. while industry meetings are held one-on-one in bars and hotels around town rather than in a large conference hall. Apart from the screenings, locals and festival attendees pass their free time at the same cafes, restaurants and karaoke bars as Fantasia’s highest-profile guests of honor.
Importantly though, Davis points out, there is no convention-style expectation of any talent attending. Autograph sessions, fan photos and time spent in public are entirely at-will for invitees, who are encouraged to do as much or as little as they want outside of screening their work.
With the vast majority of this year’s event going entirely digital, serendipitous meetings shared over a pint are unlikely and film screenings will largely be geoblocked, so Fantasia has added a host of live-streamed master classes, Q&As and keynotes to supplement its online offering outside of Canada. Its communications team is also ready and waiting to facilitate online meetings for producers, sales agents, distributors and the like who would like to do business at this year’s event but won’t be in Montreal in person.
AUDIENCE VS INDUSTRY
While business does happen and industry representatives from around the globe do typically descend on Montreal each summer looking for their next project to work with or finished film to distribute, Fantasia is planned and programmed for the fans of genre cinema first.
The two-venue system means that the most hard-core cinephile need not worry about missing out on one screening, with another assured in the other theater at another time. Screenings are open to the public, meaning hopeful viewers need not worry about accreditations or special badges as they wait in line. At Fantasia, producers, directors, actors, festival staff and fans intermingle indiscriminately. There are no VIP rooms at the local bars and there are parties every night. Few events offer such an immersive experience to its local communities or visiting guests.
“We are still predominantly focused on what would be considered self-evident genre films, or works that operate at the borders of genre, but there is always plenty of room for distinctive or unclassifiable films that stand alone,” Davis explained.
Fantasia and its staff love to play, evident in the breadth and diversity of the festival’s selection. Experimental comedies screen alongside unconventional children’s films, animated features and shorts and auteur cinema.
From this year’s Cheval Noir section alone, the festival’s flagship juried competition, Fantasia’s impressive breadth can be seen in films such as musical comedy “Love, Life and Goldfish,” a light romantic comedy brimming with J-pop songs; Takashi Miike’s fantasy eye-candy extravaganza “The Great Yokai War – Guardians”; Masashi Yamamoto’s blood-soaked “Wonderful Paradise”; an ex-priest occult flick in Mark O’Brien’s “The Righteous”; and a classic ghost story in Ruth Platt’s “Martyrs Lane.”
No longer unique to Fantasia, documentary films have become standard at most genre festivals, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
“We were the first genre festival to have straightforward documentaries, the first being ‘The Gods of Times Square,’  a documentary about New York street preachers shot over a period of many, many years.”
The film’s opening night was a hit at Fantasia and sold out its first screening thanks to a buzz generated largely by word of mouth. A second screening was then added to host the audience overflow. That one sold out too.
“It wasn’t like this was a different audience either,” Davis elaborated. “It was our core audience, and from that point on we just went further and further with it.”
In the two decades since, Fantasia’s Documentaries From the Edge section was established and has grown into one of the fests most exciting and innovative sections. This year’s slate includes seven documentaries about topics including punk rock, gender violence, real life horror, the VHS era, internet meme culture and even a Christopher Guest-style mocumentary.
Fantasia this year is prefaced by the Frontières International Co-Production Market, a meticulously created forum for genre projects pitched to an industry audience. Genre sells. Sci-fi is one of global platforms most popular acquisitions, horror an international export staple.
This year’s Fantasia has sparked a flurry of acquisition announcements, led by U.S. acquisition by Oscilloscope Laboratories and XYZ Films’ U.S. rights representation deal on “Indemnity.” But the kind of genre that’s selling is broadening as ever more arthouse companies incorporate genre elements to pump up the entertainment value of their films.
Oscilloscope’s pick-up, “Stanleyville,” is two parts social allegory, one part bloodbath. “Indemnity” is inspired by genre films of the ‘90s and ‘00s such as “The Fugitive” and “Enemy of the State,” “driven by character and not spectacle, grounded in realism and embedded with topical social commentary that made them really resonate,” says its South African director Travis Taute.
Genre is ever less generic.
John Hopewell contributed to this article.