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The Dreadful Ten: Matt’s Tips To Surviving Fantastic Fest!

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Hello. My name is Matt Donato. I’m a rabid horror fan/film critic, I believe in Krampus, and I’ll be attending Fantastic Fest until the good Lord stops me. Welcome to my life.  

While I’m not a seasoned veteran just yet, the last two years have taught me how to [best] handle this country’s largest genre festival, and I’d like to share a few of those tips and tricks with like-minded movie fiends like yourself. It’s easy to get lost in a film festival, and these ten rules should help you experience every facet that your trip to Austin offers to the fullest. Shall we?

Photo by Jack Plunkett

Photo by Jack Plunkett

1. Go To Fantastic Festhether you’re a blood-soaked slasher lover, an advocate of psychological mind-benders, or in the mood for disco-loving Norwegian vampires, every genre fan needs to attend Fantastic Fest at least once. Showrunner Tim League and his team program a festival full of ferocious indie darlings, heavyweight blockbusters, and refurbished classics, making sure that all walks of awesomeness are well represented. This year alone saw Guillermo Del Toro bring CRIMSON PEAK to Austin, joining Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN as the Fests’ big-name sellers, but in no way did these Hollywood behemoths overshadow “smaller” productions like the Jeremy Saulnier’s punishing GREEN ROOM, Ben Wheatley’s dystopian HIGH-RISE, or young Mickey Keating’s black-and-white DARLING.

Fantastic Fest builds its lineup based on balance and variety, showcasing the most artistic wonders and schlockiest splatterfests not even your deepest nightmares could dream up. You might see a Turkish hellscape one round, then a murderous Indian board game the next – all cultures are explored, and ambition is awarded in droves.

Plus, you can drink beers and eat delicious meals while you digest the cinematic treats that await. God bless the Alamo Drafthouse, keeping marathon festers “healthily” fed since 2005.

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2. Do Not Be Afraid To AirBNB

In certain situations, I’m completely fine with shelling out a little more dough for a private hotel room, but I’ve AirBNB’ed Fantastic Fest twice now, and saved hundreds of dollars doing so. Sure, shuttles will only take you to a few major hotels that charge $100+ a night (running about every hour), but let’s face it, you’re going to be spending minimal time in your room anyway. You need a bed to sleep in, and a closet for your clothes. That’s it. You know who can help you there? The crazy cat lady you’ll never see whose guest room is on the market for $43 a night.

Pro Tip: always Google Map how far away you are from the South Lamar Alamo. Ubers are pretty damn cheap, running me about $4 a ride from an AirBNB that was about a mile away (1.2 or something), but I also spent many trips walking back and forth. Barring any crazy heat waves, a mile walk is pretty comfortable (in shorts and a tee), especially at night. Any farther than a mile, and you’ll be showing up in a sweaty, sloppy mess. The exercise is nice, but don’t be overly ambitious in the Austin heat. Not a great look for Fantastic Fest.

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3. Do Your BEST Planning, But See At Least Three Films Blind

I encourage you to create a preliminary schedule so you don’t miss the one movie you’re dying to see, but you should absolutely choose at least three movies on a total whim. Maybe the title sounds cool, or you see a bonkers poster, or you hear people talking about the most amazing little surprise at Fantastic Fest – some of the best films you’ll see at Fantastic Fest are completely unexpected. If I’d missed ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM this year, I’d have missed one of my favorite films at the Fest. Did I know it was based on a manga/anime show from Japan? Hell no. Did I hear it described as a group of students who have to kill their teacher, a being that just happens to be a giant smiley face alien? Fuck yes, and I was sold.

Be adventurous. Everything about Fantastic Fest promotes the weird, the wild, and the absolutely batshit insane. Stay in the spirit and embrace what you otherwise might not.

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4. Set Your Lineup First Thing In The Morning

So here’s how Fantastic Fest works: every day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., you set your requested lineup for the following day. Sometimes you’ll get everything you want, while other times you’ll get your third and fourth choices (embrace them). But either way, as long as you have a ticket, you’re in the clear.

So what happens if you wake up late, run directly to your first and second movies, and completely forget to request a roster for the next day? Like someone might have done during his first Fantastic Fest rodeo? You can pick up the scraps, so to say, by grabbing a “relinquished” ticket up to an hour before a movie’s showtime. People have the choice to let go of tickets they decide not to use, but it’s nothing you can depend on. Play it safe. Wake up, eat your breakfast, take a shower, but before embracing your Fantastic groove, make sure you’ve already locked another day of memorable flicks.

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5. Order At Least One Pizza And One Milkshake, If Not Multiple

When you’re not sucking down Shiners in between/during/after films, there are a bevy of culinary treats that the Alamo Drafthouse’s menu offers. From film-related specialties to tried-and-true favorites, what’s better than dinner and a movie…at the same time? Sure, you could order a Royale with Cheese if you’re in the mood for a tasty burger, or a helping of Hatch Green Chili Mac & Cheese worth the calories, but there’s a clear choice here, and it involves booze, greasy meats, and melty cheese.

You’re going to be ordering a Carnivore pizza at least once, and then you’ll follow it with a milkshake. They have boozy options, my favorite being the Maker’s Mark Milk Punch Shake, but if you’re airing on the side of sobriety, the Chocolate Chip Cookie Shake should be coating your stomach with a thick, frothy mixture of cool cream and fresh-baked cookies. It’s just like something Grandma would make, if she got really stoned and had a serious case of homemade dessert munchies.

Photo by Jack Plunkett

Photo by Jack Plunkett

6. Embrace The Experience, Don’t Stick To Only Movies

You’d be a fool to solely watch movies at this festival. Seriously. Where else can you enjoy an opening-night food fight? Or a Christmas party from Hell? If you like karaoke, then you can’t miss when Karaoke Apocalypse comes to town and takes the stage. Maybe you’re in the mood for a satanic marching band, or a live version of Doug Benson’s movie interruption? Hell, there’s even an event where people debate topics and then settle their arguments by beating the shit out of one another until one combatant is named victorious! There’s so much to do during your time at Fantastic Fest, you’d be a fool to stay glued in theater seats for the entire time. Just do it most of the time. Don’t be the guy who misses out on Elijah Wood riding a mechanical bull, or DJing the Highball for a night.

Photo by Jack Plunkett

Photo by Jack Plunkett

7. Get A Karaoke Room

I’m a huge fan of midnight movie lineups no matter where I am, but pick a night where you’re not wholly interested in the Fest’s late-night offering, and go belt out some tunes in a private karaoke room instead. It’s free with a badge, and there’s nothing better than a bunch of crazy horror fans doing a group singalong to guilty pleasure pop-songs. I went work-heavy during my first Fantastic Fest, squeezing reviews into every free minute imaginable, but after I left, I realized that I was all work and no play. “Regret” isn’t the word; more like “unfulfilled.” I’m speaking from experience now: take a break, and sing your freakin’ heart out for a night. Make some friends. Network while flooring the room with your impressive memorization of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” What better way to leave a lasting impression than ’90s one-hit-wonder nostalgia?

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8. Talk To Everyone

I can’t stress this enough. There will be times when you’re awkwardly standing around, waiting for your next round to begin. Sometimes it’ll be ten minutes, other times it’ll be an hour. Current societal behaviors will tell you to whip out your phone and check Facebook, but if I see you doing that, I’ll be first to slap that device away. Everyone at Fantastic Fest is there for the same reason, and that’s to share a passion for genre cinema. You’ll have incredibly interesting conversations with people you’d never know otherwise, simply by marveling at the same Mondo STREETS OF RAGE Vinyl. Horror fans are some of the most interesting people on the planet (hells-to-the-yes) – don’t miss out on stimulating personal interactions because you’re addicted to the glow of your phone.

Furthermore, if you see a movie you love, tell the filmmaker. More times than not, a film’s director/writer/cast will be in attendance, and they’re a little nervous to see how their work will be received. Telling someone how much you loved their creature design, or were moved by their story, or had a blast watching their main character kill zombies with a gigantic pink dildo will make their day. Just don’t be Brainy-from-HEY ARNOLD stalky, or try to, like, cut a locket of their hair, while stalking them for days. Be civil, people.

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9. Spend A Night Enjoying Austin

Fantastic Fest is held entirely in the Alamo Drafthouse found on South Lamar, which conveniently has a karaoke bar attached (The Highball), but I’d avoid any chance of going stir-crazy. It’s good to switch your surroundings up, if only for a night, and Austin has plenty of things to do elsewhere. If you want to get college-drunk on 6th street, there are plenty of Uber drivers who can make that happen. You could also be a total foodie, traversing a town filled with BBQ and craft beers waiting to be sampled if that’s your thing. Get your line-dancin’ on or chill out in a cozy little cafe – just don’t let Austin’s weirdness escape you.

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10. Do Not Burn Out

Do everything you can to avoid Fantastic Fatigue. There’s too much awesomeness worth soaking in over a long period of time, and you’ll experience exhaustion if you don’t play things right. Movies start as early as 10:30-ish in the morning, and if you go hard in the paint, you can see five movies a day. Every day.

While I’d commend your efforts of doing so, some of my best decisions involved starting most days at 2 p.m. Sleep in, collect yourself, go for a run and ward off the Fantastic Fifteen – too much of the same thing spells “overload.” Do yourself a favor and if you feel yourself dragging, rest up, and attack the next day with a full tank of gas. A day off is not a failure – sometimes you need that one-movie day where water replaces beer and sleep replaces relentless partying.

That’s for every other day, and I’ll be right there with you. Beer in one hand, and a notepad in the other.

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About the author
Matt Donato
Matt Donato is a NYC-based film critic boasting a passion for all things horror. His typical cinematic musings can be found over a We Got This Covered, but Fangoria gives him a chance to express thoughts mainstream publications would rather see locked away. He considers Spring the perfect date-night movie, and isn't afraid to voice his appreciation of pumpkin flavored beers (basic 4 lyfe). Matt's here to write about movies and chew bubble gum, and guess what he's all out of.
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