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    How will movie theaters stay relevant? Look to the ultra-raunch of Fantastic Fest

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    Fantastic Fest
    Jack Plunkett, Fantastic Fest
    Jack Plunkett, Fantastic Fest

    Kids these days don’t know how good they have it. (As a millennial, am I allowed to say that?) The modern teenage film buff can watch practically everything — mainstream movies, of course, but also the foreign and the avant-garde, the vulgar and the strange — whenever and wherever they’d like. They can screen Un Chien Andalou in the school cafeteria just as easily as they can play hooky, or they can pillage The Criterion Collection from their laptops in bed. 

    Fantastic Fest is the product of a different time. The week-long party, hosted annually by theater chain and film distributor Alamo Drafthouse in its hometown of Austin, TX, is a film festival curated for Gen-Xers (and older snotty millennials, like myself) who savored their teenage years smoking pot in the rear aisle of mom-and-pop VHS shops. 

    Video store back aisles had many names — my shop had “Miscellaneous” inked onto a rectangle of cardboard cut from a shipping box, but I saw other places label the aisle with equally vague terms, like “Other,” “Cult,” or if the place was run by especially cool college students, “Staff Picks.” But those aisles always looked the same. Esoteric subtitled dramas, homemade horror, and soft-core porn sat side by side. It was always a few dozen films that shared little more than obscurity and cheap shelving. 

    The genre mishmash unintentionally produced a cinematic fetish, and for better or worse, Fantastic Fest caters to it. Inside the South Austin Drafthouse, you’re greeted with signage inspired by 1970s Bollywood action films. Promotional photo ops for a handful of the film’s screenings litter the grand hallway, including a life-size, realistic statue of a naked young woman post-autopsy (for Autopsy Of Jane Doe), and a cardboard cutout that lets guests put their faces atop the slouching body of a hirsute nude dude (for The Greasy Strangler). The adjoining bar hosts the platonic ideal of a DIY arcade, and upstairs, a karaoke room has been renovated as an escape room themed around the moral panic of 1990s Satanism.

    In an age where everything is seen as potentially offensive and problematic, Fantastic Fest is shameless, and not afraid of losing patrons with risqué content. It’s all about pleasing the loyalists. I wasn’t thrilled to find that my name badge featured a graphic the size of a postage stamp depicting pedophilia — two large feet, seen from the bottom, wedged between a pair of child-sized feet pointing upward — but extreme disgust is part and parcel of Fantastic Fest. With a slate of films featuring everything taboo, from cannibalism to rape, the festival has the unflinching emotional swagger afforded the suburban teenage male, whose sole contact with atrocity is through a movie screen.

    That demographic is represented by the majority of guests, young white men like myself, with matching facial hair and plaid button-up shirts over graphic tees. But there appeared to be, anecdotally speaking, more diversity at Fantastic Fest this year than last. Perhaps because, while the show remains true to its back-aisle roots, the curators aren’t just limiting themselves to the gory, the offensive, and the perverse. 

    While gabbing with a bundle of visiting film publicists, I overheard how, despite its modest size, Fantastic Fest is playing an increasingly strategic role for foreign language film distributors, who gradually build hype through film festival screenings, with the intention of landing a coveted nomination at the Academy Awards. Toni Erdmann, a breakout at Cannes, screened at Fantastic Fest this year, even though it’s a family dramedy, without even a tenuous connection to genre film. 

    And genre films have grown up, too — genre filmmakers are being given more resources and support to make richer and more complex films. Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, an erotic thriller with viscera-soaked twists, helped open the festival, along with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, an alien film that’s more Contact than the world-destroying blockbusters of the past decade. Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, starring Anne Hathaway, closed the fest. And in between, Raw, the cannibal coming-of-age picture, became the hottest ticket of the week, building off buzz from the Toronto Film Festival.

    Buried beneath the raunchy jokes, the grotesque props, and even the teenage attitude, Fantastic Fest is run by adults with a profound appreciation of film, particularly film from creators who have been underrepresented and under-appreciated. The festival is perpetually in conflict with itself: an adolescent horror film followed by a humane domestic drama followed by a film that uses extreme violence to get at some truth of the human condition. So what tips the balance? The guests.

    For all the weirdness and occasional off-putting humor, Fantastic Fest gives off a summer camp vibe. Many guests told me how they never miss it — they fly in from Minneapolis or Portland or abroad. With gaps of an hour or so between films, attendees congregate in the limited gathering space outside the theaters, all but forced to chit-chat. And for those who struggle to engage during the busy days, the festival includes concerts, dinners, and a number of meet-and-greet activities in the evening, lubricated by beers and cocktails, always within reach.

    In the front of the bar or the corner of the arcade or the back of the theater, Fantastic Fest re-creates that intimate experience of slurping 2-liters on the floor of the video store. And for the kids-these-days who missed the days of Blockbuster, not to mention the hundreds of competitors it steamrolled out of existence before it disappeared itself, the Fantastic Fest arcade is a way of passing the torch of this love of genre potpourri.

    Today, institutions like Sundance and New York Film Festival create programs for teens, and San Diego Comic-Con and the dozens of knockoff conventions across the country serve as necessary meeting points for fans. But Fantastic Fest bests them by punching above its weight. It’s limited to one building, so guests don’t spend hours traveling from one spot to the next. An online ticketing system nixes dull waits on never-ending lines. And the abundance of things to do encourages a community. There are no velvet ropes establishing the hierarchy of guests. Everybody — celebrities, press, fans — swims in the same pool.

    Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League has created something unique, but I wonder if it can be replicated, possibly with a little smoothing of its roughest edges. With the Drafthouse theater chain expanding across the country, Fantastic Fest could become a template. The video shops have closed, but a small, friendly, eclectic local film fest could be the new place to make friends, see movies, and — judging from the smell in the Fantastic Fest garage — smoke some pot, too.