Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Keeping it Personal at Shriekfest: Denise Gossett on Running a Successful Independent Film Festival

By James Latham

Based here in L.A., the Shriekfest Film Festival specializes in horror, thrillers, Sci Fi, and fantasy films. In addition to showing shorts and features, Shriekfest also has award categories for screenplays and filmmakers under eighteen. I recently spoke with Denise Gossett, who founded Shriekfest eleven years ago and continues to run the festival, which takes place this year from September 29th to October 2nd. I wanted to learn more about one of our fellow local film festivals, and to indulge my inner geek.

James Latham:  Your festival’s genres used to be sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of movies, often getting no respect.  But that’s changed a lot.  What are some lingering misconceptions about the genres you screen, or their audiences?

Denise Gossett:  Horror is still considered the lowly genre, but that is changing....with better scripts, strong acting, and the amount of money these films can bring in.  Horror is not so cheesy anymore, nor is SciFi for that matter...with the help of computer graphics. 

JL:  As a woman running a festival for films that traditionally have tended to be male-centric, what key changes have you seen in the last ten years with women as producers and consumers of these films?

DG:  There are many more women filmmakers, directors, writers, producers.  It's wonderful.  Men are digging the strong, talented women who are into the same genres they are.  And, it's changing the formats of the typical horror film too; the characters are stronger, not so weak, the stories are smarter and not so exploitative. 

JL:  How easy or difficult has it been to attract distributors to attend Shriekfest?  

DG:  It’s been very easy...that is part of the perks of submitting to our festival...we give out referrals all year long.  95% of all films (shorts included) that have screened at Shriekfest have gotten distribution!

JL:  That’s terrific.  What is it about the festival that has yielded such great results?  And what sort of distribution?  Do these films tend to generally do better than other genres, because their primary appeals are often visual and physical (less verbal), so they cross barriers of culture and language better than, say, romantic comedies?

DG:  Well, Shriekfest screens quality films and the distributors have come to know that, so they come to the fest and scoop up our films.  Many of the features that were submitted this year already have distribution via a referral from Shriekfest!  These genres do tend to do better than most genres...there is a HUGE following in horror and scifi and these fans are loyal...they are willing to fork over money to buy an unknown's DVD.  It's refreshing.

JL:  What makes for a great film festival?  Which is your favorite one, besides Shriekfest and, of course, The Valley Film Festival?

DG:  I think a great film festival should be personal, hands on, treat the filmmakers and screenwriters with respect, go out of their way to help further the careers of the submitters, and be organized and timely with their schedules.

JL:  When you first started Shriekfest eleven years ago, there weren’t many horror film festivals around.  Now they’re all over the world, and even several here in L.A.  Some of them are pretty specialized.  How does Shriekfest fit into that universe?  Besides the screenplay awards, what else distinguishes your festival from the others?

DG:  Well, the under 18 category and the fact that we truly champion indie filmmakers!  We don't cater to studio films or star laden projects.  That's not to say our films don't have some stars in them, but there is a difference.  The big boys don't need the recognition, the indie filmmakers do.

JL:  A flip side to that question is whether you have or would want to collaborate with any other festivals, whatever their film genres.  Regardless of that, what are some ways that festivals in general realistically can / should collaborate in a mutually beneficial way?

DG:  Hmmm...that is a good question.  Sure, we'd be open to it if it was to everyone's benefit.    It's tough, we've had festivals approach us through the years, but if the festivals aren't on an equal grounding, then it's not beneficial to both entities.

JL:  Your interview with Altered Realities Radio (podcast link on the Shriekfest website) covers a lot of ground.  Shriekfest also has active Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace accounts.  Tell me about how social media have worked (or not) for you.  Any advice for other festivals on how to best leverage these media?

DG:  It's amazing...I cannot believe how quickly word travels with social media!  It has to be used, daily...not every now and again.  You have to be personal with your followers and help them as well.  It can't be all about you.  Share, retweet, help out others.

JL:  After eleven years, what keeps you doing it year after year?  What synergies does your career as an actress provide you in running a film festival?

DG:  Well, it's tough; as an actor first and foremost I am very busy.  I am also a Mom and it all becomes a juggling act.  The people are the main reason I keep doing it...our following...I don't want to let them down.

JL:  What were some of the bigger challenges you’ve overcome in creating and running Shriekfest? 

DG:  The balancing act of life and the full time job of a festival and all that goes into running it....I don't think people realize how much time and effort go into it, especially if you do it personally.  And, by that, I mean keeping all correspondence personal.


The Shriekfest Film Festival takes place this September 29th - October 2nd.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

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