In its 15th year, growth and change keep one couple coming back to Fantastic Fest
In 2013, Kevin Williams and Laura Brady got married. They had been dating for over a year or so, united by a love of nerd-culture touchstones such as comics and genre films.
Lots of genre films. Indeed, the week after their wedding was Fantastic Fest. Williams had been attending since the festival launched in 2005, Brady since 2012.
Fantastic Fest "was sort of our immediate honeymoon,” Brady says.
Williams and Brady are the sort of folks the Alamo Drafthouse covets. They go to the Austin-based theater chain all the time; it is part and parcel of how they organize their social lives. For better or for worse, in times of cool events and company scandal, they are in.
Not a whole lot of people can say they have attended every Fantastic Fest. Williams is one of them. This year marks the 15th Fantastic Fest, and he plans to be there, as does Brady, for films such as Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike's “First Love,” the Stephen King adaptation “In the Tall Grass” and many, many, many more.
Back in 2005, Williams was a computer programmer for the Air Force in San Antonio. He saw a flyer at the South Lamar location (which looked far, far different than it does now, after a remodel that was completed in 2014) looking for volunteers for its new film festival, called Fantastic Fest.
“It was normal volunteer stuff,” he says. “Getting badges and VIP packs together, managing line and crowds.”
There was a shagginess to those first few festivals that seems almost quaint. Before the South Lamar location's remodel, the theaters were on the other side of the venue from where crowds would be hanging out outside, often smoking.
“We had one person posted up where the hallway to the theaters met the lobby,” Williams says. “I would post up at the door out to the smoking area. Someone would yell down to the person at the end of the hallway when the theater was open. They would yell at me across the lobby and the crowd. Then I would yell outside at all the smokers that the theater was open.” (While an actual PA system is in place, Fantastic Fest-branded bullhorns for the staff really need to happen at some point, in this writer's view.)
After the fest's fifth year, Williams decided to just go and enjoy the thing without volunteering. Over the years, he's valued how accessible creators and talent are at Fantastic Fest.
“It’s really neat to see creators you meet early on come back with bigger and better work,” he says, noting that one of his all-time favorite Fantastic Fest movies is Nacho Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes,” which made its debut at Fantastic Fest in 2007.
“That movie was at year three,” Williams says, “and I remember that screening as feeling like something had shifted. Suddenly, it seemed like this festival was going to be around for a good, long time.”
As for favorite non-screening moments, Williams goes to 2015, the year that character-actor lifer Richard Jenkins (aka the dead father in “Six Feet Under”) showed up for the premiere of S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk,” in which Jenkins had a small role.
“They had all the stars do the red carpet, and Jenkins was just hanging back, letting the younger actors do it,” Williams says. “Laura and I just ended up chatting with him, and suddenly you’re telling him about the unhealthy number of times you’ve seen ‘Step Brothers.’”
Brady is a similarly devout Drafthouse fan — she’s lived in Austin since 2004 — but didn’t attend the fest until 2012 due to the cost.
“When Kevin and I were first dating, the Drafthouse came up a lot,” Brady says. “We were both into nerd stuff, and at some point he was like, ‘Well, if you’re not doing anything in nine months, I have two passes to this thing.’”
Reader, she took the pass.
Initially, in spite of her love of martial arts and comics and choreographed fight scenes, the idea of 30 movies over the course of a week was not entirely Brady’s cup of tea.
“I would go to a couple (of films), and he would ride out the whole thing,” she says. Over time, Brady became more attached to the staff and culture of the Alamo Drafthouse. “I started to care very deeply about them going the right direction.”
The theater chain has faced several sexual misconduct scandals in recent years. In October 2016, Devin Faraci, then-editor of Drafthouse's Birth.Movies.Death magazine, stepped down after allegations of sexual assault made by a fellow film critic. Faraci did not deny the allegations. The next September, reports surfaced that Fantastic Fest was working again with Faraci, who was writing copy for the organization. Faraci resigned a second time. Later that year, the company cut ties with Ain’t It Cool News founder and Fantastic Fest co-founder Harry Knowles after sexual harassment allegations against him came to light. Another former Drafthouse employee said she had been sexually harassed and physically assaulted by a regular Drafthouse customer.
Fans were faced with a choice.
“There were two camps,” Brady says. “The people that expressed their frustration by boycotting and the people that expressed their frustration by staying and wanting to make things better. I don't fault either choice at all. I was just in the camp that wanted to stay and make it better. And part of that is what keeps me going back. I want to see the culture’s progress.”
“My husband is a man of a certain race and a certain age, and it is really easy for me to lose him in the crowd at Fantastic Fest because so many people look just like him,” Brady says of Williams, who is white. “The first step in fostering inclusion is to make people feel safe and respected. Caring about what happens there feels almost like an intervention with a person. ‘You need to turn this around because you are important to me.’ If you are going to brand yourself in the community as this special culture, then people are going to have higher standard for you."
In 2018, the Drafthouse rolled out an official code of conduct for anyone who attends a Drafthouse event, applicable to employees, vendors and patrons.
Williams and Brady are examples of folks who are in the Drafthouse orbit for the long haul, folks who have built a great deal of their family’s social life around the the brand and its signature event, Fantastic Fest.
“When you go to something like ACL Fest, you might be standing around with a bunch of people with whom you might have very little in common — maybe you are a big fan, maybe they don’t know the band at all and are waiting for the next thing," Willaims said. "Something like Fantastic Fest, you know you are at an event where every single person is as into this stuff as you are. They are at this thing absolutely intentionally.”
IF YOU GO
Fantastic Fest 2019 takes place at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.) from Sept. 19-26. Most badges are sold out, but individual tickets will be available for some shows. Go to fantasticfest.com for more information.