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Stanley Film Festival ’15: An Exclusive Q&A with SFF Programmer Landon Zakheim, Part Two

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As horror fans from around the globe know, there’s no horror-centric festival that has risen to prominence as quickly and loudly as the Stanley Film Festival. Taking place at the notoriously haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the festival became one of the most buzzed about experiences for horror fans in recent times, adding a level of interactivity and immersion on top of a diverse and terrifying film slate. And since FANGORIA will be taking Stanley by storm this upcoming April, we recently chatted with Director of Programming Landon Zakheim in a massive, three-part dialogue about the one-of-a-kind haunted hotel and the only film festival that takes the horror beyond the big screen…

FANGORIA: Last year’s secret screening at Stanley Film Festival was Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO. When putting together a secret screening of something that already has distribution, is there an added sense of value to your selection?

LANDON ZAKHEIM: Yeah. Obviously, we didn’t know what would eventually happen with THE GREEN INFERNO. I think what we tried to do is take the things that we’re excited about and that we think our audience might be excited about, and then based on how many slots we have, we try to put an overview of great world cinema together. That’s where we start, but that’s also judged by the content of the films themselves, as well as the people on the programming team.

After we look at the stuff we like, we then look at the surrounding circumstances. In retrospect, it was sort of a rare screening for THE GREEN INFERNO, but I would rather had people gotten the chance to see the film. That said, the concept of a “secret screening” is very, very important to us as a festival. It’s something I would like to emigrate into the entire festival experience, whether it’s an immersion game, a ghost hunt, a private event or the in-room channel programming. If you stay at the Stanley hotel during the festival, you’ll see that we take over some of the in-room channels and their programming as well, some of which winds up being rarities or secrets.

Secrets are a huge part of the festival, but it’s not something we necessarily want to impose on anyone unless it’s kind of organic. For example, we don’t necessarily have to do a secret screening every year. They’re always fun, but they’re not necessarily a part of the fabric of the festival, if that makes any sense.

FANGORIA: Earlier in our chat, you mentioned an enhanced focus on retro programming this year. As the director of programming, is it difficult to strike a balance between beloved classics and exciting new stuff?

ZAKHEIM: One of the programmers here at Stanley, Michael Lerman, also programs at other film festivals, and he’s a very “pure horror” guy, in terms of keeping the festival balanced. He’ll be the first person to point out that a great movie we’re considering is probably not going to fit into our genre standards as well, and that we should stay focused on finding the variations and gradations within horror. I think that’s a part of the challenge, since we are a horror festival. We don’t play action or fantasy, and any of the thrillers we would play have to feel horrific or have a horror element to them. It becomes having to find the storytelling diversity and regional diversity, and then finding a type of horror within a given feature.

It also has to do with finding films audiences are excited about, since we’re often excited about those films too. We want people to see these films because they are entertaining. The cool thing about holding open submissions is not only will fans get to see what they’re excited about, you can also see some stuff that the average fan hasn’t heard of yet. That way, we can slide into some obscure foreign films or a new U.S. film you have not heard of yet, and then you can discover a new filmmaker and hear what they have to say. Our team is small though; we have the Denver Film Society programming team and otherwise it’s myself and Michael Lerner on the festival side.

FANGORIA: In terms of the open submission process, without naming names, have you guys come across anything that’s blown you guys away?

ZAKHEIM: It’s hard with features. With shorts, we get a lot of interesting stuff, and it’s very exciting. There are a couple features in the mix, since we haven’t locked our programming 100% yet, but they would have never come to us if we didn’t have open submissions. That’s exciting even though whether or not they make it is yet to be determined, but I’m at the very least excited to even have features to be considered that came through that process especially since we’re so specific. And I do feel that the horror community within the festival circuit is somewhat small, even considering all the festivals with midnight sections, so it’s good even to have the options at this point, if that makes any sense.

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FANGORIA: With so many horror features, how do you decide what films to play at certain times in the festival?

ZAKHEIM: Slotting is tough because, as you’ll see, we pack a lot in. We take advantage of every venue we have and every space we have, so it’s a very dense weekend. If you’re a completist, it could be very hard to fit in everything at this festival, even though it may seem very manageable. So we try to be conscious of that and to give everybody a chance to see different types of film.

In terms of scheduling, we usually base it on the tone of the film. As you know, there are certain horror films you don’t want to program at midnight. Midnight is an interesting slot, since essentially every film at the festival is a midnight movie. So the midnight movie has to have a certain amount of anarchy to them. We don’t want to do a disservice to any film by putting it in a certain time slot, so we try to put each film in a slot where we think they’ll get the best kind of response. So we’re not going to put a quiet or slow burn film at midnight. That would be doing a disservice to the audience and the filmmaker.

Now that we have signature events, we also try to make sure that the counter programming makes sense. If you’re not the kind of person whose going to go to certain events, we want to make sure that you have options different than those events in those slots. If you’re the type of person who is going to go for a big event, we want to make sure the film that’s playing opposite of that won’t be a big film you’re excited for. We want everyone to have the opportunity to see something really creepy, so we try to build a path so that people can say, “Okay, I’m this kind of person, these are the things I want to see, so how do I go through my day to fit it all in?” or “All I want to see is weird foreign films or shorts, how can I see everything I want to see?”

Because we have 4 screening venues over a weekend, so it’s easier to do that, whereas a bigger festival such as AFI Fest or Sundance is a whole different story because you’re dealing with a ton of venues over a longer period of time. So at Stanley, we have the luxury of catering it to the community, since we’re a community event, first and foremost. We want to make the people who come for the weekend feel that it’s worth the trip.

FANGORIA: Many different venues and festivals have different criteria for their midnight line-ups. What for you is the most important aspect for a midnight movie at Stanley?

ZAKHEIM: That’s a tough question because it’s not like there’s a rule to it and it’s very malleable. It’s also based on the options that we have, which is a reason why we lock our line-up so late. We like to look at everything before we start to invite guests, since there’s a lot of content out there and very few slots. We fit in 19 new films last year, but that meant some films only had one screening, but we don’t want to do that unless we have to because we want people to have the chance to see multiple films.

So we’ll always be doing less than 20 films, and sometimes less than 18 or even 16 based on what we’re doing with the slot. By doing that, we slot whatever we’re considering by whatever makes the most sense. The films that take the most chances in terms of vulgarity and extremity are probably going to be the frontrunners for the midnight slot. That’s a slot that, by nature, is saying, “These are movies that play when the people who are too safe go to bed. Now the craziness can begin.” That vibe is already attached to the midnight programming slot, and since this is technically an all-ages event with a family screening on Sunday mornings that attracts a lot of locals, the film’s that are likely to be the most offensive to safer sensibilites is a frontrunner for those slots.

But we’re also not going to play something crazy just to play something crazy. We’re a credible festival, and even though we want to play with one genre of film, if a film is offensive just to be offensive, it’s not going to get a slot at all. It’s gotta be a film that’s doing something interesting with that element. Midnight is where the horehounds are going to be and are most attracted to, so we try to play whatever is most likely to play well over there and is not going to play well in the morning, where people don’t go to see gross creature features necessarily.

FANGORIA: Will there be any panels this year as compared to last year or is that less of Stanley’s M.O.?

ZAKHEIM: We will do panels, but they’re the last thing we program, so it all depends on what the line-up is looking like and then we figure out the panels afterwards. SpectreVision’s panel last year came up as a way to showcase their work as a whole since we were showing some of their films at the festival. They had around five films in development, and some of them were not ready, so it was like, “How can we show the spectrum of their work outside of a screening?”

We definitely put a lot of consideration into a panel, as long as it’s something that is different and relevant to what we’re doing. Last year, we did a panel on composers, and we brought in some of the composers from the films that were playing, and that was really cool. But it all comes back to the program, so once we know our program, we try to book panels that are an extension of it or relate to what we’re showing but bring something different. But I won’t know what panels we’ll have in 2015 until we lock down our film programming.

 

Passes are now on sale for the 2015 Stanley Film Festival here. You can check out part one of our chat with Stanley Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Landon Zakheim, here. Check back here at FANGORIA.com for the last part of our chat in the coming weeks.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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