How to Survive the Blood-Soaked Wasteland of Fantastic Fest (Again)

By  · Published on September 20th, 2010

Well here we are again. Die-hard movie geeks can put their socks and shoes back on and cease the anticipatory countdown because Fantastic Fest is back! This year, as last, I am proud to be a part of the Fantastic Fest Death Squad here at FSR and if you were lucky enough to follow our festival write-ups last year, you are aware of just how serious we take this stuff and you can count on more of the same gluttonously comprehensive coverage this year.

As I was the only Reject on last year’s team who had any previous Fantastic Fest experience, I was tasked with putting our rookies through a brutal, two week boot camp to ensure they would survive their first year. I got them up at the crack of noon each day, injected them with Scotch, and made them memorize the playbook while rupturing their eardrums by blasting show tunes. But despite my best efforts, they survived and enter year two as seasoned veterans. So I decided to put together a second set of commandments aimed at not only our Death Squad in their second year, but any sophomore Fantastic Fest attendees.

Familiar Faces

So last year was a real whirlwind, right? Not only did you run the risk of legitimately making your eyeballs bleed with the sheer volume of films you viewed, but also you couldn’t help but fraternize with the plethora of awesome movie geeks in attendance from all over this blue planet of ours. You probably exchanged a metric shit ton of email addresses and phone numbers with the intent to keep in contact with the influx of new best friends. But, as tends to happen, the haze of liquor wore off and life intervened so you neglected to stay in touch with your camp buddies. Believe me, it happens.

Do yourself a favor in this situation and check ego at the door. Don’t be so embarrassed about this faux pas that you avoid the familiar faces to circumvent awkwardness. The truth is that they might be in the same boat, but share enough brews over a great Norwegian ninja film, like Norwegian Ninja for example, and it will be like no time has passed at all.

Be a VIP

Last year I mentioned the hierarchy of badges as it related to secret screenings. As much as the title of VIP may seem a dubious distinction, it harbors a great deal of clout in terms of Fantastic Fest. Being a VIP means you not only get seated for secret screenings prior to us lowly press and the unfortunate holders of regular badges, but it also allows you to pick up tickets for the individual films on your daily agenda an entire day earlier.

I would strongly urge you to set aside a little extra dough (in the neighborhood of $300) to purchase your VIP badge for next year when it goes on sale during this year’s fest. It will make your festival experience so much more leisurely. If nothing else, it will allow you to flip Rob Hunter the bird as you walk into a secret screening before him or spit on that horrible Junkfood Cinema guy for his disparaging remarks toward Point Break.

The Highball

Last year’s festival marked the opening of Alamo Drafthouse owner/operator Tim League’s newest monster: The Highball. In a space just yards from the South Lamar Drafthouse, in a building that once boasted the finest selection of second-hand Smashmouth tee-shirts and plastic cacti, Mr. League turned a failed Salvation Army into The Highball lounge. Last year this throwback bar, hearkening to the age of advertising demigods who did as much drinking at work as they did actual work, provided a much classier place for the blogger community to ply our trade between screenings. And by ply our trade, I of course mean swilling cocktails and getting into arguments over Dolph Lundgren movies.

Heed this warning: if you opt to spend time in the Highball set every alarm that your cell phone, Casio watch, or tagalong rooster can offer. With its endless beverage offerings, bowling alleys, old-school arcade cabinets, and karaoke rooms, it is far too easy to behave like Templeton the Rat; indulging your every whim and completely losing track of time.

The Paramount

In 2008, Fantastic Fest stretched its dastardly tentacles and actually showed a film at a venue that was not the Alamo Drafthouse. The opening night film was shown at the grand old Paramount Theater in lovely downtown Austin. Last year, the festival’s influence over the Paramount was augmented with nearly a half dozen screenings held within the walls of this celebrated landmark. This year promises to further this growing trend with several screenings and major events planned for the old theater.

As much as I appreciate the grandeur and seating capacity of this historic venue, it is not the most comfortable of theaters. The space between the seats is painfully narrow, there are obscured vantage points, and be prepared to pay five dollars for a can of Shiner. But more than that, parking in downtown Austin is atrociously limited and negotiating the travel time can be tricky. If you opt to attend screenings here, make sure they are for films for which you have an inordinate amount of interest. Your knees will thank you.


One of the aspects of Fantastic Fest that tends to provide us with a most unsightly breed of glee is crafting our schedules. It’s like making a grocery list of awesome and effectively signals the eminent approach of opening day. With the inception of a brand-new, fancy shmancy Fantastic Fest app for the iPhone (which I highly recommend you add to your repertoire of applications), this process has become even more laden with giddiness. But as you take pride in the colorful array of films that you have crammed into your day to ensure that sleep never finds you during the week, do not lose sight of the fact that nothing is set in stone.

Secret screenings can be added, removed, or moved as can special events and/or parties. If you are too slavish to your preliminary schedule, you may end up stubbornly shorting yourself of some truly unforgettable experiences. Be especially open to skipping films that you know already have distribution if, and only if, something incredibly exciting is wedged in at the last minute. To verify this, just check with any of us bloggers who love to chat ad nauseum about that kind of thing.

Non-Film Events

My final piece of advice would be to attend any of the multitudinous events that surround the fest that aren’t necessarily screenings. In particular, make sure to attend the Fantastic Feud and/or the Fantastic Debate. The Fantastic Feud pits members of the Fantastic Fest family (bloggers, filmmakers, visitors, and attendees) against one another in the ultimate showdown of esoteric horror film knowledge. It is a great must-see list feeder and is expertly hosted by FearNet’s debonair dynamo: Scott Weinberg.

The Fantastic Debates prove that contentious subjects can be explored and settled within the constraints of open, insightful dialogue…well that, and punching. If you’ve ever wanted to see Tim League draw blood from a visiting director after arguing the finer points of pornography, do not miss it.

Also, drink plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes or something.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.