At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, genre fare will mark its continued rise in main stage prominence as Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” (pictured above) launches in competition with distribution secured in over 11 international territories, while the Marché du Film and Fantasia reteam for the third Frontières Platform event.

Running July 10 – 11, the joint program will spotlight 13 selected projects for proof of concept presentations, buyers showcases and select screenings. The path that led to such auspicious berths is one paved by growing self-determination within the genre demimonde, as festival organizers have moved into sales and production as they’ve looked to remake the playing field.

Two among them are Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions at the production and sales outfit XYZ Films, and Annick Mahnert, executive director ot Frontières. Having both worked as programmers (which Mahnert still does for Fantastic Fest and Sitges), the two witnessed genre fare’s push onto the main stage while doing their parts to swing some of the spotlights.

Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions, XYZ Films

If we could set the scene a bit, what did things look when you first started out?

If you look back 15-18 years ago, genre wasn’t quite a dirty word but it was it pretty close. The mainstream festivals were super snobby about it; the only one of the A-festivals that made any space for it at all was Toronto, where the Midnight program was still super young. So the genre circuit built up as an alternative, as a spot where this huge audience base – who all felt very much like outsiders – could stop being ignored and looked down upon by the mainstream industry. They created their own world.

And in those early days?

In those early days they were just gathering places. Fantasia, in Montreal — the oldest genre festival in North America, one of the oldest in the world – didn’t even try for government funding until they’d been around for more than a decade. By then they were drawing audiences bigger than the Festival du Nouveau Cinema and Montreal World Film Festival, but they weren’t taken seriously at all.

What shifted in the wider industry?

Gradually, as the art-house circuit and the home video market, which was the real economic engine, collapsed, the major festivals all acknowledged that whether it was to their taste or not, they all had to have movies in their festivals that people wanted to see. To be able to create conversations around movies that distributors wanted to buy. We’ve seen slow, incremental change, but we’re at a point now where all the major festivals have some genre element in them. Everybody’s adopted it; everyone’s moved in.

What pushed the genre circuit into more assertive positions?

When the wave of New French Extremity happened, and you had “Martyrs” and “Inside” and “Frontier(s)” and “High Tension” all hitting around the same time, everyone of those directors got snapped up by studios… [And] it ruined people; there was a feeding frenzy around them and everyone got hoovered up and put onto by-and-large broken projects that had been battered around and developed to death. They didn’t actually have any control or anyone in their corner who understood as much and would try to protect them.

[Seeing them at the various festivals,] we all got to be friends; they were in the community, in the tribe, and everyone just watched them kind of get screwed. Soon we started to have those conversations asking, can we do something that makes it better? Is there a different way of doing it than making your small movie at home and then getting sucked up by a studio? And that is right during the period where all of these genre festivals started to generate their own industry programs, so I do think that’s a pretty significant part of it.

How would you describe the current situation?

With Frontières, with Bucheon’s NAFF project market, and with other initiatives, the genre world is understanding that there are gaps out there, and that they can be a bridge, taking filmmakers into the broader industry and ideally turning hobbyists into professionals. Increasingly it’s why this marketplace has changed. Most of those European festivals now have industry components [because] you must give a reason for people to play your festival, which means you have to offer something. There’s got to be some sort of value proposition… The more active they can get in terms of championing things on the business side and to certain level simply forcing their way to the table and the conversations around taste and funding, the better off everyone will be.

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Todd Brown Courtesy of Todd Brown

Annick Mahnert, executive director, Frontières

How would you describe the situation of two decades ago?

The budgets were lower at the time, because no one really wanted to invest in genre, so people had to find ways to self-finance or finance within a single country. [With the launch of Frontières 14 years ago,] filmmakers were suddenly able to go out and present their projects to people from the global industry at an event that specialized in genre. By opening up the borders, they not only caught the attention of new financiers or distributor-producers, but distribution sales agents as well. It’s very important to have these markets because they help people in the genre community connect.

How does the Méliès International Festival Federation, which encompasses 26 different genre events, keep the circuit active?

It helps individual filmmakers develop their careers, but it also helps the visibility of genre overall. I think it’s very important to support each other. There’s no real competition between the festivals; I program for Fantastic Fest in Austin, which is a supporting member of the Méliès federation, as is Bucheon (BiFAN) in Korea. These festivals need a place to exchange information and contacts, and to exchange films of course.

There are only so many good films that come out a year, so of course every festival wants them. Some films go from one festival to the next, and kind of stay within the circuit, but that also has to with the fact that sales agents don’t know how to sell them. Up until a few years ago, a lot of sales agents just were not specialized in genre films, nor had the clients to buy those titles.

How has the market evolved of late?

There’s been an evolution within the community where filmmakers have discovered that it’s OK to take fantastic element and cross them over with drama, for example. Or to do a horror film that is also a comedy. It doesn’t have to be straight horror anymore, and that’s nice to see. What’s also changed is the violence. I feel like some of the movies were more violent in the past, whereas now the violence goes more into the everyday horror of life, more situational than just blood and guts.

I think there’s more freedom in creation than there was ten years ago; back then, people had to deliver certain standards – movies with white male leads and love interests. Now you have more [protagonists of color]. Today everything’s possible, which wasn’t the case ten years ago.

What can you say about this year’s Frontières Platform slate?

I was really afraid that last year, because of COVID-19, people were going to send in projects about confinement and viruses, but we recieved 140 projects from all over the world that range from serial-killer cats to LGBT coming-out horror stories. So I think genre is in a very good place now because not only did filmmakers realize that they could take inspiration from their own personal stories– taking the horror they experienced in life and putting them on screen – but also because the studios and platforms have evolved as well. They do not see genre as a niche product anymore.

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Annick Manhert © Julien Chavaillaz