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Stanley Film Festival ’15: The Plight of the Audience Picture

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“There’s nothing good at the movies anymore.” It’s a sentence that I’ve heard so much, and that film fans have grown so accustomed to, that it almost pains me to type it here. But nonetheless, it’s a statement many in the genre believe, and it’s perhaps the reason more and more people are turning to TV, VOD, Streaming Services and piracy for their entertainment fix. After all, the price of moviegoing goes up as big budget fodder, or in horror’s case, micro-budget jump scare fare fills the auditoriums, and art houses try to host the most buzzworthy independent titles just to keep a roof on their head.

However, in all of this commotion and concern, there is one prevailing factor that is serving audiences at large, or at least those around a metropolitan area: the film festival is on the rise. And by following suit, the film festival experience has certainly become more competitive and accessible to mainstream audiences as of late as well: major festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca have added midnight slots while SXSW, Fantastic Fest and the Stanley Film Festival go the extra mile to give film fanatics a more engaging experience. And in this sense, there’s an almost grassroots vibe to the independent horror scene that has allowed films like THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS to find audiences way beyond their humble beginnings.

But there’s a sad reality to that exposure that returns us to the change in film consumption as of late, which is the digital grounds in which many of these innovative and legitimately frightening films have settled into residing. The still fairly fresh VOD marketplace (which has slowly but surely grown in audience size), Instant Streaming platforms and Redbox rentals have become the dominant way many audiences find these festival-slaying flicks, and that’s if audiences choose to pursue a legal option at all. And while sometimes, the rare crossover slips through the cracks to sneak into the multiplex, such as IT FOLLOWS and THE RAID, there are few that get to relive the theatrical experience that they enjoyed in the film festival scene.

Sadly, for many of these films, removing the theatrical experience can sometimes be a crippling blow to how they’re consumed against how they’re meant to be consumed. Considering how omnipresent technology is in our lives nowadays, chances are a small percentage of those watching these films at home are giving these films their full, undivided attention, with other cases being as extreme as the film merely being background noise and playing as an essential greatest hits records during the notable music cues. Compared to the theatrical experience of the film festival, in which excited, unspoiled audiences are watching and reacting with authentic, emotional responses, the method merely makes much sense other than the bottom line of reaching more people for a specific price. But even that is becoming less of a savvy concept and more of a sad resignation, considering there are fewer and fewer actors who can legitimately call themselves movie stars and the sheer of movie theaters that have switched to the much more cost effective DCP presentation. And the reactions certainly show as well: for all those who were terrified by THE BABADOOK during their festival run, it must have been an odd shock to see the almost immediate backlash among pockets of the horror community, many of whom saw it on VOD, Netflix or via bitTorrent.

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But with the success of IT FOLLOWS this year in pushing back its VOD release for a full-fledged theatrical expansion, there seems to be hope for the audience favorites that shake up the festival scene in the future. Granted, IT FOLLOWS was more or less an experiment of sorts, and the sheer lack of marketing made it a film truly valued by word of mouth. But if IT FOLLOWS or STARRY EYES or even THE BABADOOK received the kind of push that THE CONJURING or even a Blumhouse production puts into motion, who knows what kind of reception they would have had? After all, the lack of stars and the independent stylings haven’t stopped audiences from indulging these films on Netflix, so why not give them the theatrical experience they deserve?

And believe me, it’s an experience they certainly deserve. For instance, many of the films this writer saw at the Stanley Film Festival served as living proof for the theatrical experience, and one hopes audiences who can choose to see them on the big screen will. While some of the films might be more fitting for the art house, such as Tim Kirk’s DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY or Ben Cresciman’s SUN CHOKE, a majority could knock out an audience in the same way many of their less flavorful studio contemporaries could not. But a large part of that effect comes from the theatrical experience, whether it be the excitement of the unexpected or the communal effect of some seriously scary shit on a really big screen in a dark room.

Take, for instance, a film like Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott’s COOTIES, which Lionsgate is giving a day-and-date release via their “premiere” label, which the company has recently instated to explore the VOD market with horror titles (such as last year’s JESSABELLE) while steering their theatrical fare towards the likes of franchises such as THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT. While there’s nothing wrong with a change of branding, Lionsgate was a very important studio for horror for a very long time, nearly garnering a billion dollars from the SAW series, and COOTIES certainly has market appeal as well. Elijah Wood headed an ensemble for a billion dollar franchise of their own (THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy), while stars Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell and Jorge Garcia all have had huge success in their own ventures as well.

But above all, COOTIES is an audience picture through and through, and the shared energy that flowed through the packed theaters at the Stanley Film Festival could really rock audiences should they find the film. The laughs hit hard, the gasps hit harder and the film even gets in a few moments of absolute terror, and none of it plays awkwardly whatsoever. Yet if the film gets the day and date release, and doesn’t receive the marketing push to let people know the film is, in fact, in theaters, audiences will likely go for the VOD experience (or worse, the torrent sites that often accompany the VOD release), and much of that magic will be lost via the simple lack of attention.

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The same can be said for Todd Strauss-Schulson’s THE FINAL GIRLS, an absolute audience killer at the Stanley Film Festival that plays as authentically to the horror and comedy elements as well as it does the emotional drama elements. With a similar cast of recognizable heavy hitters, THE FINAL GIRLS is the kind of comedy that would bring in the horror audiences that so often avoid the latest SCARY MOVIE while also bringing in fans of mainstream comedies in general. In fact, the film’s potential lies in just how strong and clever that comedy is, all the while being respectful of the horror and the characters on display.

And from there, the other films that really played hard to the moviegoing crowd at the Stanley Film Festival all have that same potential to play big. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s SOME KIND OF HATE needs only to look at the likes of IT FOLLOWS for its theatrical potential, as the film provides an even stronger and more affecting take on the supernatural slasher film. Meanwhile, Ted Geoghegan’s WE ARE STILL HERE contains scare moments as effective as those in THE CONJURING while also featuring gore shots that would make the EVIL DEAD remake blush. And with the skyrocketing documentary market, THE NIGHTMARE could really be the crossover success that would bring younger, fascinated audiences to the multiplex for a literal tale of real life horror.

But for all of these films, there needs to be an audience, and while the lo-to-no-marketing VOD approach makes logical sense in a business sense, the miniscule rewards don’t necessarily shine over the risk of letting the film grow. If a film finds an audience on Netflix, the film itself remains stagnant as the audience moves on to the next film on the chopping block. It’s a terrifying alternative for films that are so reliant on massive “holy shit” moments or a masterful balance of tones, as the attentive and supportive theatrical audiences (the ones who truly put the ‘cult’ in cult classic) are discarded for the peripheral glances of the increasingly busy general public.

Then again, who knows? If vinyl can come back, maybe the right, risky distributor can bring that festival experience back to the theatrical landscape. Will it be costly? Sure. Will it be effective? Who knows? But if film can’t live and breathe in the theater, then the horror audiences who so savored their experiences from IT FOLLOWS will be relegated to a doom worse than death itself: repeatedly looking at the multiplex and saying for the thousandth time, “there’s nothing good at the movies anymore.”

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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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