Revenge of the Nerds
From their basements they emerge to invade Texas every year! They wear hoodies! Scraggly beards! Converse sneakers! Gore junkies! Horror aficionados! Fantasy freaks! Your fate is in their hands! How a small group of fanboys and one supremely geeky Austin film festival determine what America sees at the multiplex.
Night of the Living Nerd
It is Friday night, movie night in America, the night when Hollywood fortunes will be made or lost, and at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, in Austin, the fifth annual Fantastic Fest has taken over three of the theater’s six screens. A film festival devoted to fantasy, horror, and genre pictures, Fantastic Fest has quickly established itself as a wildly popular event in a city with no shortage of wildly popular film-related events: VIP all-access badges to the festival, which went on sale a year earlier, sold out in only eight minutes. At the far end of the lobby is a red carpet, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet in length. Just beyond the red carpet is a large green and white backdrop displaying the event’s official logo. A handsome, muscular young man is conducting on-camera interviews with filmmakers and actors. It is a familiar sight, one you might encounter at any of the hundreds of film festivals that have sprung up around the world in recent decades.
Except that the stars being interviewed are two Japanese men wearing sumo wrestling diapers, one bald and bespectacled, the other short and round, a surrealist’s re-imagining of Laurel and Hardy. They are accompanied by two waifish Japanese women wearing tall black boots and shiny leather bikinis, holding a whip and a sword, respectively. There are strange phallic objects protruding from where the nipples should be on their bikini tops.
These are members of the cast and crew of the night’s featured attraction, a blood-soaked fantasy called Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. They smile and pose for the cameras. With the help of an interpreter, they answer the interviewer’s questions. But whereas, say, Ryan Seacrest or Giuliana Rancic might conclude an interview by politely thanking the artists for their time, this journalist takes a more participatory approach. He gets down on all fours. He invites the actresses to strike a provocative pose on either side of him. He asks his cameraman to snap a photo as a keepsake.
Welcome to the most important film festival in America.
A few minutes later, inside the crowded theater where Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is set to unspool, another man in a sumo diaper appears at the front of the auditorium. His name is Mark Walkow, a co-director of the New York Asian Film Festival and one of this festival’s part-time programmers. He asks Tim League, the director of Fantastic Fest, to join him in introducing the filmmakers. League, who founded the Alamo Drafthouse with his wife, Karrie, is in his late thirties, with a graying buzz cut and an endearingly crooked smile. He’s also wearing pants. Presumably, he will lend a bit of institutional gravitas to these proceedings.
But then Walkow demands that League drop his trousers—and League readily obliges. He too is sporting a sumo diaper. He spins around and gleefully moons the audience. At the sight of his milky-white and not-entirely-gym-toned buttocks, the crowd roars its approval.
Did I mention this is the most important film festival in America?
A curious thing happened at the multiplex over the past decade and a half: A new wave of filmmakers—and a legion of unabashedly geeky film fans—turned our notions of entertainment upside down. The seeds of this movement were planted in the early nineties, when a handful of directors, among them Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Guillermo del Toro (Cronos), and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), wedded their most juvenile obsessions (sex, violence, goo-slathered bugs) to an elastic and bracing filmmaking technique. Soon an entire generation of VHS babies—young men raised on a steady diet of iconic slasher pictures (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween), trashy T&A comedies (Porky’s, Zapped), and dorky kids’ adventures (Explorers, The Goonies)—was following suit (see Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, to name but a few).
The weapon of choice for this cinematic revolution? The computer. With evolving digital technology making it possible to conjure up pretty much anything, filmmakers began tackling ever more fantastical material. Meanwhile, the Internet—with its blogs, chat rooms, and comment boards—was giving voice to a previously marginalized subspecies of moviegoer. Suddenly even the dorkiest twentysomething living in his parents’ basement could make his opinions known to studio executives. And what this overlooked demographic wanted most was to see its childhood diversions, from Star Wars to Spider-Man to Indiana Jones, resurrected and reconfigured.
Before long, the lines between high art and genre trash began to blur—and then collapse altogether. At the multiplex, curious hybrids appeared, like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a chop-socky adventure with the austerity of art-house drama, or Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001—2003), an obsessively detailed cult object with the burnish of an old-fashioned epic. As more and more nerd-oriented movies—Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007)—proved outrageously successful, the Hollywood studios altered long-practiced marketing strategies. Jackson’s King Kong remake and the teen vampire sensation Twilight, for example, were first promoted at Comic-Con, a decades-old annual convention in San Diego devoted to comic books, graphic novels, and all things superhero. By 2009, it was impossible to determine where the mainstream ended and the fanboy took over. District 9, a low-budget sci-fi thriller, was being talked up as a potential Best Picture Oscar nominee. Classic literary material like Sherlock Holmes was being reimagined as fists-first action-comedy.
And while Fantastic Fest certainly didn’t give birth to all this nerdiness, the biggest nerds of Austin—Tim League and his main collaborator on the festival, Harry Knowles—have long been at the center of the cultural tidal shift. With the Alamo, League built a cinematic temple where nerd filmmakers could be worshipped. With the Web site Ain’t It Cool News, a compendium of Hollywood gossip, news, and extremely personal movie reviews, Knowles aggressively fanned the flames of hype for many of these movies. The festival they created together is a microcosm of geek, an event that has at once mirrored the larger changes within the entertainment industry and helped propagate them.
Sneer all you like at those grown men in sumo diapers, but the non-nerd ignores the likes of Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl at his peril.
Fantastic Fest is the new movie night in America.
Plan Nerd From Outer Space
The first Fantastic Fest took place in 2005—a lark, really, patched together in five months by League and Knowles, along with the festival’s two other founders, director Tim McCanlies (Secondhand Lions) and producer Paul Alvarado-Dykstra. “We thought the audience wasn’t being served,” League told me in late September, a few hours before the festival’s 2009 iteration was set to formally kick off with the world premiere of Gentlemen Broncos, the newest comedy by Napoleon Dynamite creators Jared and Jerusha Hess. “Most festivals put these films into the midnight category. They’re like, ‘Oh, here are these other, lower movies.’ Here at Fantastic Fest, they are front and center.”
The concept of a genre festival wasn’t particularly new (the most famous of these events, in Sitges, Spain, has been operating since the sixties), but this one was powered by a unique mixture of hipsterism, celebrity, and location, location, location: In the preceding decade, Austin had emerged as an unlikely moviegoing mecca for filmmakers and audiences alike. As the Leagues were scouting in the mid-nineties for somewhere to open the Alamo Drafthouse, directors like Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, and Richard Linklater were drawing attention to the city as a viable alternative for filmmakers who didn’t want to live in New York or Los Angeles. The film portion of the South by Southwest conference was growing in stature as a scrappier, more down-home alternative to Sundance. Most notably, Knowles had begun to wield extraordinary influence with his Web site, which published reports from studio test screenings around the country, much to the ire of Hollywood executives.
The Leagues, who had been operating a theater in Bakersfield, California, opened the Alamo in the spring of 1997 in downtown Austin—and quickly attracted a doggedly loyal audience for their doggedly alternative programming. (“My husband and I joke that we should have one of our paychecks directly deposited there,” a theater regular named Carolee Mitchell told me.) Borrowing the concept of a theater in Portland, Oregon, which served food and alcohol at its screenings, the Alamo offered a party atmosphere and a steady stream of forgotten kung fu thrillers, blaxploitation classics, and midnight movies. The theater also began hosting special events, such as QT-Fest, a semi-regular festival during which Quentin Tarantino screened titles from his famously obscure personal library. (The original downtown venue closed in 2007, but the Leagues run three additional Austin locations. They sold the Alamo brand in 2004, and nine theaters, in Texas and Virginia, now operate as Alamo Drafthouses.)
In launching Fantastic Fest, Tim League says there was no master plan. Having spent his adolescence systematically renting every horror flick at the local video store—“and anything that had boobs in it”—he simply wanted to showcase the movies he loved most. “Harry and I both, we’re nerdy guys,” he said. “We’ve obsessed about horror movies our entire lives.”
It helped, of course, that he and Knowles could call upon favors from a few famous friends. In 2006 Fantastic Fest had its first major breakthrough when Knowles persuaded Mel Gibson to show a work-in-progress version of Apocalypto. The screening was the star’s first public appearance following his much-publicized drunken driving arrest. In 2007 director Paul Thomas Anderson—with whom League had developed a friendship after showing Anderson’s Boogie Nights as part of an Alamo-sponsored outdoor screening series around the country—agreed to bring There Will Be Blood to Fantastic Fest. According to League, Anderson wanted to see how the film would play with an audience but didn’t want to deal with the media circus that is par for the course at most festivals. “He had his own print of the film,” recalled League, “and I think he told the studio what he was doing about three days before the festival. It came out of left field for them.”
Left field might be an understatement. In some respects, the screening was a complete inversion of the film festival tradition. At the oldest and most venerated festivals (Venice, Berlin, and Cannes), movies are bought and sold, and directors and stars showcase their wares to the international press. Over the years, festivals have come to serve other functions too: At Sundance and South by Southwest, independent filmmakers try to win the attention of agents and distributors, while at Toronto and Telluride, distributors often launch their most ambitious fall titles; the stamp of approval from these festivals, theoretically, helps establish a film as something “important.” Yet here was a case of an A-list filmmaker’s new movie bypassing Cannes, Toronto, and New York and landing at an upstart, regional event attended by few industry types and even fewer members of the press. Anderson was positioning his somber, astringent tale of a megalomaniacal oilman as a film, first and foremost, for the fans.
The screening cemented Fantastic Fest’s reputation. In 2008 a steady stream of Hollywood names, among them Kevin Smith (promoting Zack and Miri Make a Porno), Paul Rudd (Role Models), and Bill Murray (City of Ember) came to pay their respects to the geek crowd, and in 2009 Fox Searchlight called League directly. “They said, ‘We love your theater, we love the festival, we really want to get Gentlemen Broncos in,’” he recalled. “The tables turned this time. The studios are all aware of what we’re doing.” Alongside indie zombie flicks and Korean detective dramas, Fantastic Fest 2009 showcased movies from virtually all the major studios, including Warner Bros. (Ninja Assassin), Sony (Zombieland), and Universal (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant). Continuing in the tradition of There Will Be Blood, a number of prestigious but seemingly non-nerd titles, including Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, also played there as surprise screenings. More than one hundred members of the press were in attendance, including a reporter from the industry bible, Variety. Demand for passes and tickets increased so much that the festival expanded to a second venue downtown, the historic Paramount Theatre.
“It’s still a fringe community—the people who are really excited about these things—but it has certainly crossed over to a broader audience,” League told me. “And that audience has been legitimized.”
Journey to the Center of the Nerd
They wear hoodies and Converse sneakers, untucked plaid shirts and ill-fitting skinny jeans. Only a few of them could accurately be described as “skinny.” They have scraggly goatees and bushy beards, handlebar mustaches and sideburns that run the length of their jaws. A remarkable number of them are wearing black-rimmed, Clark Kent—style glasses. They are more commonly pale than tanned; more commonly male than female. They mostly range in age from early twenties to late thirties, though a few forty- and fifty-something men have infiltrated their ranks. Only a handful seem to have girlfriends.
These are the fanboys of Fantastic Fest, and they have arrived at the Paramount Theatre on the second night of the festival for the world premiere of Zombieland. A week later, this horror-comedy will gross nearly $25 million in its opening weekend. For now, though, Zombieland belongs solely to this preternaturally eager group of fans. Outside the theater, dozens are dressed in full zombie regalia, parading up and down Congress Avenue. Dozens more are queued up for something called “zombie face painting.” Inside, the audience screams and cheers as first-time director Ruben Fleischer and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Emma Stone take the stage to introduce the film.
Everything at Fantastic Fest is designed to provide a maximum jolt of ironic cool—to make you feel more cutting-edge than your priggish friends. The program guide features an elaborate legend that divides films into individual categories, some traditional (comedy, drama), some less so (“penis trauma,” “puppet sex”). The festival “bumpers”—twenty-second-long promotional films that run before each screening—feature children being murdered in increasingly bizarre and comical circumstances. (The best of them involves three Hardy Boys—style tykes who are shot at point-blank range by the criminal they’ve just caught red-handed.) Perhaps it goes without saying, then, that by the time Zombieland begins, the atmosphere feels a bit like a rock concert: The audience is pumped and primed for a transformative experience. The film itself—fleet, cheerfully gruesome, rife with in-joke references to other movies—delivers the goods and then some.
“Growing up a nerd, there’s only a small group you bond with,” a festival attendee named Ernest Mueller told me a few nights later. “Now it’s like the average person is a nerd. I’m not a weirdo—or at least not as much.”
Mueller is a 37-year-old, self-described “second-tier geek” (he didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons in grade school) who works at National Instruments in Austin. He was spending his vacation attending Fantastic Fest. When I met him, he was standing in line next to Timothy Gear, a 28-year-old filmmaker from Los Angeles who was also spending his vacation at the festival. Gear sees Fantastic Fest—and the attention the studios are now paying to the fanboys—as a literal revenge of the nerds. “That jock who beat you up in high school is now going to see Transformers 2,” he said. “The nerds are definitely the cool kids.”
This turnabout is a key to understanding the rise of genre-centric entertainment. Yes, it has much to do with the extraordinary avidity of this audience: These folks really love movies, and anyone who spends even five minutes sitting next to them at a screening, where they laugh and clap at every karate chop and zombie chomp, can tell you they’re not faking it.
But the power of nerd culture also runs to deeper, more psychologically murky places. No matter how many alien and superhero movies crowd the multiplex, the nerd still yearns for mainstream acceptance. He wants to feel as if he is part of a tastemaking cultural elite. Both Mueller and Gear were waiting in the standby line for the third of the festival’s five surprise movies, hoping to be among two hundred or so people who would get to see a major release (Richard Kelly’s The Box? Tim Burton’s still-unfinished Alice in Wonderland? Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus?) before virtually anyone else on the planet. The nerd speaks of his favorite films with an almost defiant conviction, as if to prove that he is far more serious about movies than anyone, even his fellow nerd (Gear, for instance, boasted to me that he watches Kelly’s Donnie Darko at least once a month). Even the geographic location of Fantastic Fest, in the proudly offbeat environs of South Austin, feels all of a piece with the nerd sensibility, at once antiestablishment and exclusive: There isn’t another town in America that draws so many people so desperate to be part of a best-kept secret.
Attack of the 50 Foot Nerd
On the second day of Fantastic Fest, I stumble upon their leader. The red-bearded, Rabelaisian figure at the center of the fanboy revolution. A geek icon whom fellow nerds refer to only by his first name, like Yanni or Fabio. A 38-year-old man who, when I approach him, is sitting in a wheelchair with his eyes closed and face raised to the sky, wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt patterned with beer bottles and a leopard-print fez.
Harry Knowles started Ain’t It Cool News in 1996, hardly expecting that international celebrity would soon follow. He was living at the time in his father’s house and selling movie memorabilia in Austin, and the site mostly gave him the opportunity to obsess about his favorite movies. At first he was regarded as a pesky gadfly by the Hollywood suits. (In a 1997 Variety article, a Warner Bros. executive groused, “One guy on the Internet could start enough of a stir that causes a reactionary shift in the whole marketing program.”) But as the notoriety of the site grew, he was eventually embraced. He counts a number of directors, among them Peter Jackson and Robert Rodriguez, as close friends. He is regularly invited to film sets and private screenings. His multiplatform success—in 2002 he published a memoir called Ain’t It Cool? and he is currently developing a number of projects with producer James Jacks (The Mummy)—would seem to be the ultimate illustration of the fact that the nerds no longer need to worry about getting beat up on the playground.
In which case, what I wanted to know from him was this: How much is too much of a nerd thing? Are the fanboys, as one film critic friend suggested to me, the entertainment industry equivalent of the Fox News channel, the loud minority voice that eventually enters the mainstream and yet somehow continues to fool everyone into thinking that it is still the underserved minority?
“When I exploded, it was these films that sucked,” Knowles told me. “Hollywood was doing them badly. They didn’t understand that you had to trust your artist, that they couldn’t be done through a corporate structure, that people who went to Vassar are not qualified to give story notes.”
Knowles is not someone who could ever be described as modest. At various points during our ninety-minute interview, he took partial credit for the box office success of District 9 and for convincing DreamWorks that Gladiator was a potential Best Picture winner. He seems especially proud of the early access he gets to the most anticipated new movies. (When we spoke, in late September, he repeatedly praised Where the Wild Things Are, which he had seen at the invitation of the film’s producer.) Yet as much bluster as he displays, there’s no denying the earnestness of his intentions. He is obsessive about his work and pays careful attention to emerging patterns in the movie industry (he is presently vexed, for instance, by the question of how geek filmmakers can embrace a heretofore elusive conservative, family-values audience). He is also clearly flattered by his many fans and acolytes (at 38, he refers to himself as the “grandpa” of nerd culture).
Perhaps most notably, he expresses great pleasure in the fact that he has forced Hollywood to pay attention to little Austin, Texas. Knowles, it turns out, is yet another once ostracized nerd still searching for mainstream embrace, a guy from a flyover zone who wants the trendsetters on the coasts to take him seriously. “When something happens here, I can get Malaysia talking about it,” he said. “I can get Japan and New Zealand talking about it. It’s not so much the vast readership of the site. It’s that theater owners and radio disc jockeys read it, and they regurgitate what’s on there. I knew I could use that to make my town cooler.”
Which isn’t to say that Knowles’s motivations are entirely pure—or that he doesn’t also seem to be wearing fanboy blinders. For one thing, there appears to be no such thing as a bad geek movie in his universe, only failures of marketing. (The Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse, for instance, would have worked had the Weinstein Company listened to him and advertised the film primarily online instead of on television.) For another, Knowles speaks of geek culture almost as a political or social movement. He will use any means necessary to win the unconverted to his side—and he won’t stop until everyone goes geek.
“We’re hovering near a renaissance of geek filmmaking that we haven’t seen since the late seventies and early eighties, when Spielberg and Lucas and Carpenter were at their prime,” he told me. “We’re bringing people who were indie darlings, like Steven Soderbergh, into a medium of geek that we’ve never seen before. Look at Woody Allen, who has been into suspense films recently, like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. That’s not Woody Allen territory, but he’s started to make it his territory. Look at David Cronenberg. He was doing the genre stuff, but then he went arty. Now he’s decided to remake The Fly. It’s like we’re managing to pull Cronenberg back to what I really want Cronenberg to be doing.”
But how does Knowles respond to those moviegoers who don’t want any part of this culture—who yearn for comedies that aren’t filtered through the arch hipsterspeak of Diablo Cody (Juno) and Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox); who first got hooked on Soderbergh courtesy of a soft-spoken, character-driven film called sex, lies, and videotape; who prefer Woody Allen in his Manhattan mode to anything he’s made featuring Scarlett Johansson; who thought Cronenberg’s über-arty Spider was the most mature, complex, and daring work of his career? Which is to say, how does he respond to an old-school movie buff like me?
“Eat it,” he told me, breaking into giggles. “I win.”
I Was a Teenage Nerd
What is the square root of all the Psychos plus all the Sleepaway Camps?
On the third night of Fantastic Fest, I make my way into “Fantastic Feud.” A special event that pits a group of American bloggers and filmmakers against a group of their foreign counterparts in an epic trivia contest, the Feud is taking place at the Highball, a newly opened, Leagues-owned bowling-alley-cum-cocktail-lounge that’s located in the same strip mall as the Alamo. The questions start out picayune (What is the first and last name of the kidnapping victim played by Brooke Smith in The Silence of the Lambs?) before turning abstruse and mathematical (five Psychos, including remakes and sequels, plus four Sleepaway Camps equals nine, the square root of which is three). The standing-room-only audience occasionally shouts out answers, though more often they watch in baffled silence. I leave a little after one a.m., sleepy and a tad bored. I feel as if I’ve just watched an episode of Jeopardy! on foreign television.
Yet I wanted to spend more time with these movie bloggers—an entire professional class, begot by the success of Knowles, that is now affecting both the way movies are marketed by the studios and the way they are covered by the press. Tim League had already explained to me that he believed one of the keys to Fantastic Fest’s success was that he welcomed Web journalists, who are often rejected for credentials by more-established festivals. The bloggers, representing sites like Cinematical, Spout, and Twitch, wrote about the first few Fantastic Fests far more thoroughly than any print journalist ever would have, and they helped spread the word about it among young, Internet-savvy moviegoers.
The only problem is that I couldn’t seem to find a blogger to talk to me: They were too busy watching movies. I spoke to one on the second night of the festival, asking if he might be able to meet over the weekend. He never returned the e-mail I sent him the next morning. Another blogger couldn’t meet on Saturday or Sunday, because his schedule was filled with back-to-back movies, six each day. (The Alamo feeds into the obsessiveness, literally: The food service at the theater eliminates the need to break for lunch or dinner.) I did eventually get two bloggers to agree to an interview, Neil Miller, the publisher and executive editor of Film School Rejects, and Peter Sciretta, the editor in chief of /Film (pronounced “Slash Film”)—though they had only a two-hour window to talk. When I found them, they were hunched over laptops, furiously tapping out reviews.
“We’re on the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to studio publicity,” Sciretta told me. “But what’s begun to happen is filmmakers are starting to reach out to us directly.” Miller agreed. “Think of Jason Reitman, who’s on Twitter,” he said. “He communicates regularly with a lot of bloggers. His new film, Up in the Air, is getting a lot of buzz right now. There’s an added level of publicity to be gained outside of the studios.”
Peter is 29. Neil is 25. Both are bearded and husky. Peter is wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon image of a Ghostbusters Dustbuster vacuuming up slime. Neil is wearing an untucked plaid shirt. Peter is based in San Francisco. Neil says he moved from Ohio to Austin because the town’s film scene is so febrile. Both tell similar success stories: Inspired partly by the ultimate fanboy Knowles, they started their own blogs as hobbies (/Film was started in 2005, Film School Rejects in 2006). Traffic steadily rose. Soon they were able to sell ads on their sites. Eventually blogging turned into a full-time job. They regard themselves as 2.0 versions of Knowles who came of age and now thrive in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s not that there’s more news out there,” Sciretta said. “It’s that we’re covering more of it.”
And while this would seem like an unlikely professional course for an adult male, writing about movies and DVDs from your apartment, occasionally flying off to film festivals around the globe, a number of things become clear while talking to these young men. They regard themselves not merely as critics or journalists but as activists, ferocious champions of their favorite films and filmmakers. They also have a firm grasp on the technology that continues to alter the entire media landscape.
“That’s what makes a lot of media people nervous: We’re always connected,” Miller said. “We’re sitting in a theater waiting on a movie at Fantastic Fest, but we’re on our phones reading RSS feeds to find out news to forward to someone who can write about it.” And like Knowles, these guys are acutely conscious of the potential financial impact of their Web sites on the films they write about and of their ability to directly interact with moviegoers.
“Our readers will take the recommendation of a little film and drive a hundred miles to see it,” Sciretta said. “To have a Hollywood hit nowadays, thirty million dollars will do it, and that’s three million people. We get that a month. I’m not saying every person who hits our site is going to pay ten dollars to see that movie, but if we love something, maybe that will have some sway.”
Close encounters of the Nerd kind
On my fourth day at Fantastic Fest, I watch the best film of the festival. Cropsey, a documentary directed by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, is an investigation into a child abduction and murder case that paralyzed Staten Island in the mid-eighties. Digging into the background of the alleged murderer, a drifter named Andre Rand, the filmmakers show how communities invent boogeymen in order to deal with tragedy. It’s a probing, poignant effort that previously earned strong reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival. But other than a Blair Witch—inspired sequence in which Zeman and Brancaccio journey into the woods where Rand was said to be living in the eighties, it would hardly seem to qualify as “fantastic” at all.
A freak accident of programming best glossed over in a survey of the festival? Quite the opposite. Cropsey is a case study of how bloggers and fanboys have succeeded in altering the way movies—even the non-nerd ones—are conceived and fashioned for the marketplace.
“Here I had made a true-crime documentary that I thought was artistic,” Zeman told me at an afternoon party on the lawn of the Leagues’ house, near the University of Texas campus. “I was trying to get my film in Toronto, not realizing that Fantastic Fest was probably a bigger deal.”
Zeman, who is 36, cut his teeth in the New York independent film world, helping to produce movies like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent. He told me that he’d dismissed nerd culture at first; all these comic book junkies and martial arts fans seemed to him stuck in some kind of time warp. But as he and his colleagues have watched more and more critically acclaimed indie dramas go bust at the box office, he’s been forced to change his approach.
“The rise of a geek culture has created a business model that we have to embrace,” he said. “If we are going to make a movie about a pedophile baseball coach [like Mysterious Skin], then that’s not going to work in today’s marketplace. But what is going to work is intelligent genre films. If I want to get a movie made—and I’m developing a couple things right now—I need to get Marvel’s name attached or get Sam Raimi’s name attached. At some point, someone is going to put Harry Knowles’s name on a movie as an executive producer, and it will be seen as a sound business decision.”
Zeman’s sentiments were echoed to me by a number of directors and producers at the festival: If you want to succeed, think genre. “Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, James Cameron—they’re all up in heaven, and everyone else in the industry is wondering how to get up there,” said Jake West, the director of the bloody British zombie flick Doghouse. Australian filmmaker Peter Spierig, who co-directed the vampire thriller Daybreakers with his brother, Michael, cited the same three directors: “Cameron, Raimi, Jackson—that’s not a bad place to be.”
The Spierigs experienced firsthand the power of geek culture. Their previous film, an independently financed zombie thriller called Undead (2003), was championed by one of Knowles’s writers on Ain’t It Cool News. “The review really did capture the attention of American studios, and it helped us secure an agent,” said Michael. In 2009 the Spierigs were at Fantastic Fest with the Lionsgate-produced Daybreakers, which stars Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe (it opens nationwide this month).
“I tell filmmakers all the time, ‘If you’ve made a film that’s anywhere near something that people can get for free on cable, good luck,’â€Š” said Matt Dentler, a former South by Southwest programmer who now works for the New York—based film sales and distribution company Cinetic Media. “Why are they going to go see your movie when they can stay on their sofa and catch up with Mad Men?”
Dentler’s company often screens projects at various stages in development from filmmakers looking for finishing funds or a sales agent. (He was at Fantastic Fest trying to raise awareness for Cinetic’s new video-on-demand service.) He says he now commonly advises filmmakers to consider creating Web serials as an alternative to feature films and to constantly be thinking about ways to reach the nerd audience. “I tell every one of them to have a blog, have a Facebook page, have a Twitter account, have a YouTube page, because that’s what you have to do to stand out.”
The Day the Nerd Stood Still
On the fifth day of Fantastic Fest, I cradle an M16 in my arms and fire off two rounds of ammunition.
The invitation to sign up for “Rambo 101” had arrived by e-mail a few weeks earlier. “You will get to experience firing an overwhelming amount of firepower while receiving instruction and advice from seasoned military, police and SWAT professionals,” it read. I’ve been to dozens of film festivals over the years but none that ever offered the chance to shoot stuff. I quickly pulled out my credit card and forked over the $75 fee.
At the appointed hour on Monday morning, our group of two dozen gathers behind the Alamo Drafthouse, where two shuttle vans soon arrive to collect us. We cram inside and begin the journey out of Austin (Tim League is the driver of our van). The atmosphere is convivial and friendly but also a little tense: Between the Canadian blogger, the Estonian film director, the eccentric Austin photographer, and the bald guy with tattoos running up and down his arms, these are not necessarily people you want to be anywhere near when they are handling weaponry.
Forty-five minutes and one Chick-fil-A detour later, we arrive at the Astro Shooting Range, in Florence. Blackstone Group Partners, made up of retired military and law enforcement officers, has hosted events like this many times before, usually for corporations on team-building retreats. But it’s safe to say that it’s never seen a group quite like this one, which also includes a heavily tattooed woman, her hair dyed yellow, orange, and red, like a tequila sunrise cocktail; the Japanese cast and crew members from Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl; and an Australian filmmaker and his girlfriend, who are presently trying to figure out if they can buy a car in Austin even though they don’t have American driver’s licenses.
Our “range captain” is a burly guy named Kent, in his mid-forties, wearing a flak jacket and a persistent glower. He leads us onto the range, a broad, flat expanse of rubble and dirt, with ten-foot hills on every side and a row of targets at the far end. Ten more Blackstone team members are there waiting for us. Kent proceeds to give us our safety instructions, which boil down to a series of humorless threats. (“If you swing around with a weapon facing up, you will get tackled.” “If you point a loaded weapon at one of my men, you will get shot.”) Complicating matters is that the Japanese contingent needs Kent’s directions translated—and the scene soon starts to resemble a variation on the bit in Lost in Translation in which paragraphs of Japanese are repeatedly boiled down to one sentence in English for a bewildered Bill Murray. Eventually, we are individually paired off with a “coach,” who invites us to choose a weapon from a rack. We each get five turns on the firing range.
All things considered, the mishaps are fairly minimal. This being a group of hipster film types, someone decides to light up a cigarette, which elicits a stern warning from Kent. (“Sir, I’m going to need you to take that cigarette away from the ammo.”) More concerning is when one of the Japanese actresses starts walking up one of the hills, in an attempt to take a picture. There’s an active firing range right next to the one we’re on, and when Kent notices she’s drifting into airspace where she might feasibly get shot in the head, he begins shouting and waving his arms. (She survives the incident intact.) I’m yelled at only once, when I raise a .40-caliber Glock 18 up toward my face after firing off a round of ammunition. (I wanted to see if I could smell the smoke.)
What does any of this have to do with filmmaking? As League told the reporter from Variety, who attended another shooting event earlier in the festival, it’s about making the festival’s out-of-town visitors feel welcome. “We show them the town, we take them over to [Robert Rodriguez’s] Troublemaker Studios, and we spend a leisurely afternoon doing Texas things—drinking beer, eating barbecue, and shooting shotguns.” But Rambo 101, with its big guns and noisy bursts of firepower and its willingness to allow us, if only for an afternoon, to pretend that we are Sylvester Stallone in First Blood, also falls in line with the larger mission of the festival. League has created a universe that is all about the exaltation of your inner twelve-year-old boy.
Perhaps just as notably, Rambo 101 is a useful illustration of the unexpected charms of geek culture—and the way it seems to wear down even the non-nerd’s most solemn defenses. By the time we’re headed back to Austin, after a long, rainy, and very muddy afternoon, I am happy and exhausted. The powerful upward pull of a semiautomatic Glock 18 releasing a magazine of bullets is not something a professional film critic usually gets to experience. As our van barrels along the highway, I understand the geek experience in a way I haven’t before. It’s about the feeling that you are part of something enviably offbeat and transgressive, something that exists outside the mundane realm of everyday life. Imagine a perpetual summer camp for adults—except instead of singing campfire songs, the fanboys in our van start doing Al Pacino impressions and asking League if we might take a brief detour to Krispy Kreme.
Planet of the Nerds
It is my final night at Fantastic Fest. After watching movies about plucky New Zealand adolescents fighting undead creatures (Under the Mountain), a Liverpool community under siege by a deadly SWAT team (Salvage), and a mad scientist who creates “Siamese triplets with a single digestive system” (The Human Centipede), I’m having a hard time concentrating on the screen. I wander out of a short film called My Love Lives in the Sewer, about a man who begins sexually molesting his toilet bowl because he’s convinced someone in the sewer system is sending him love notes, and into something called “100 Best Kills.” It is an annual event at Fantastic Fest, hosted by a pair of festival programmers who present a selection of clips from mostly obscure movies of people getting killed.
In the weeks following the festival, there will be more evidence of geek culture continuing to seep into the mainstream. Paramount will employ an experimental marketing strategy with Paranormal Activity, screening it only at midnight in a handful of cities and telling moviegoers to go online to request screenings in towns where the film isn’t showing. This $15,000 movie will eventually go on to gross more than $100 million. Peter Guber, as pure an example of old-school Hollywood as you’re likely to encounter—he produced Rain Man and Batman before going on to run Sony Pictures Entertainment in the nineties—will join forces with the founder of Wizard magazine to launch GeekChicDaily, an e-mail newsletter about the latest in comic book and techie trends. (The ever prickly nerd audience will react with skepticism. On the Web site Deadline Hollywood Daily, one user asks, “What martini drinking 70 year old named this entity?”) Perhaps most notably, the marketing research firm Stradella Road, run by former New Line executive Gordon Paddison, will release a much-publicized study that asserts that “changes in media consumption and technology usage have reached an inflection point.”
For now, though, the fans of Fantastic Fest aren’t thinking about marketing or box office grosses or even when the next Batman movie will go into production. They are here, quite simply, to watch people get killed. In the first fifteen minutes, we witness castration and exploding heads and innocent children getting gunned down. The crowd laughs and applauds at every grisly image. After each clip, the organizers ask the crowd if they can name the title of the movie in question—an exercise in obsequious flattery, since this audience is impossible to stump on the subject of cheesy exploitation thrill kills.
And while I suppose you could argue that this event is a sign of some kind of apocalypse—a triumph of spectacle divorced from context; an unapologetic celebration of our most base, bloodthirsty impulses—I’m reminded of my Rambo adventures the day before and that spirit of adult mischief that spreads through Fantastic Fest like so many infectious zombie viruses. A tipsy young woman, noticing that I’m looking tired, offers me a glass of beer from the pitcher in front of her. Everywhere around me people are eating greasy food and knocking back booze and smiling ear to ear. At the front of the theater, the giddy hosts cue up the next “100 Best Kills” clip.
It might not be much, especially if you’re a fan of restrained British period pieces or bouncy romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, but it’s at least something to hang on to the next time you head to the multiplex on a Friday night and discover that every one of your options features a talking fox and/or a slobbering alien: If you can’t beat the geeks, you can at least join ’em in watching Charles Bronson pulverize a bad guy’s head to smithereens.