Why Fantastic Fest is the All-Singing, All-Fighting Film Festival of Your Dreams

The Austin film festival that makes all other film festivals look bad.
Chris Tilly
Copied to clipboard

There are eight days in September when a Texas movie house becomes heaven for those who love film. Fantastic Fest is a celebration of cinema that’s weird and wonderful, featuring horror, fantasy, action and sci-fi, as well as films from genres that haven’t been invented yet.

But it’s much, much more than that. Because beyond the films, you’ve got the food, the parties, the slaps, the drink, the feud, the raps, the debates, the fights, the karaoke, and above all else, the friends you’ll make for life. The first wave of titles for the 2017 festival have just been announced. But before checking them out, read on for FANDOM’s reasons why Fantastic Fest kicks the crap out of every other film festival on the planet. (Note: this year’s fest runs from September 21-28.)

A Brief History of Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest lives at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, and was conceived by that cinema chain’s founder Tim League. Together with Ain’t it Cool News’ Harry Knowles, producer Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, and writer-director Tim McCanlies, they spotted a gap in the market.

America needed a genre festival to rival Sitges in Spain and Fantasia in Canada. So they created Fantastic Fest, housed at the Alamo’s South Lamar location, and lasting for four days in October 2005. Films screened included Zathura and Wolf Creek, while Eli Roth showed a “work-in-progress” preview of Hostel.

The inaugural FF was such a success that the event doubled in size the next year, moving to its now regular slot at the end of September, and taking place over eight days and very late nights. The films screened that year included The Fountain, The Host, and Pan’s Labyrinth, quality fare that set the bar high for the FFs that were to follow.

Yet Tim and his team have kept the bar high. Sure there’s the odd dud. But over the last 12 years world premieres and special screenings have included There Will be Blood, John Wick, Apocalypto, Zombieland, Cloud AtlasBone Tomahawk, Gravity, Split and Frankenweenie. The latter playing to an audience full of humans. And one full of dogs.

But films aren’t the only reason to attend Fantastic Fest…

The Events

When the movies stop, the real fun begins. There are all kinds of parties, receptions and outings that take place over the course of those eight days, many themed around the films playing that year. But there are also annual events that have become the lifeblood of the festival, and the source of many-a-sore-head the morning after.

Fantastic Feud

Hosted by film critic Scott Weinberg and FF legend Devin Steuerwald, Fantastic Feud is basically Family Feud but for films geeks. Oftentimes pitting a team of American actors, directors, producers and the like against similarly employed folk from the rest of the world, it starts out fun. But as the drinks flow and the pressure builds, it transforms from a feud into a war. America usually wins. But that’s because they cheat.

Fantastic Karaoke

There’s an opportunity to sing pretty much every night of Fantastic Fest. Nerd Rap somewhat predictably features geeks rapping about nerdy stuff. The Chaos Reigns Karaoke Party, meanwhile, is inspired by the talking fox from Antichrist, and once featured a bunch of unlikely stars making a mess of the Black-Eyed Peas (see video above). Previous FFs have also featured Karaoke Apocalypse (with live band) and a filthy twist on air guitar contests called Air Sex.

Fantastic Debates

For me, this is the highlight of Fantastic Fest. Two contenders enter a boxing ring and debate an issue that’s close to their hearts, from BitTorrent being the saviour of film to whether or not The Goonies are better than The Monster Squad. A winner is then chosen, but that doesn’t really matter as the podiumss are quickly removed, the debaters don gloves, and the pair box for three gruelling rounds. Great bouts of the past have included Lord of the Rings stars Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan beating the crap out of each other, director Joe Swanberg destroying a critic who didn’t like his work, and festival boss Tim League hitting Michelle Rodriguez a little too hard and paying for it BIG TIME.

The Food

The Drafthouse cinemas bring food and drink to your seat via a smart ordering system that’s designed to cause least disruption during the film. The food is amazing, while the drinks menu is extensive, meaning you can watch movies while having breakfast, lunch and dinner, only needing to leave your seat if nature calls.

Fantastic Fest also features menus that revolve around whatever’s playing. So during a Bollywood movie you can order curry. The Hellfjord Norwegian party featured Scandinavian delights. And there was much sake to be drunk on Japan Night.

The above video features another sustenance-based activity in the shape of the ultimate food fight. But the dining memory that most sticks in my mind is the nourishment that was served following the world premiere of The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence. Which looked like chocolate. Though the nearby ‘barf bags’ suggested it was not.

The Friends

A film festival is as much about the folk attending as it is the films. And the guests that FF has attracted have been pretty impressive, from Bill Murray, Robert Rodriguez and the Wachowskis, to Keanu Reeves, Tim Burton and Ryan Reynolds. Not forgetting festival mascot Nacho Vigalondo, whose films and late-night exploits ensure that chaos really does reign throughout.

The beautiful thing is that there aren’t any VIP areas at Fantastic Fest. Celebrities and fans mingle at screenings then afterwards in the bar, all united by their obsessive love of messed up movies. I once watched a martial arts flick sitting with Bill AND Ted, sharing a bucket of popcorn with Keanu Reeves. And that’s not a one-off — the festival is filled with mad moments like this.

Something about Fantastic Fest attracts the best people. No one texts during the movies, with phones staying silent throughout. The audiences genuinely love film, are always respectful, and ask the best questions in Q&As after. Which believe me, doesn’t always happen at festivals. It really is the best crowd to watch movies with, so-much-so that filmmakers return time-and-time again, even when they aren’t bringing a film. It’s that kind of party.

And this year’s first wave of films has already been announced, with a couple of Stephen King adaptations – Gerald’s Game and 1922 – debuting at the fest alongside eagerly anticipated features like Brawl in Cell Block 9, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

So what are you waiting for? Head to the official site, get booking, and look forward to seeing great films, making memories that you’ll cherish for life, and maybe slapping a movie star. What more could a film fan want?

UPDATE: Fantastic Fest is now sold out for 2017. So make sure you get booking early when 2018 rolls around.

Chris Tilly
At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.