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The Fantasia Film Festival: A Montreal Summer Staple

For a couple of weeks already, Tilt Magazine’s homepage has been flooded with film reviews and reports from the 26th Fantasia International Film Festival. Long-time readers probably know that starting right around mid-July until early August the writing staff gives its 110% in covering this oft-lauded, fondly recognized, unique cinematic event. Why in carnations is it so special? After all, there’s Venice, TIFF, Sundance, Berlinale, Rotterdam, and Cannes. Cannes, people! 

In this article, Tilt Magazine offers a primer about what happens every summer starting mid-July in Montreal, Canada. Consider this as a snippet of the action. The sights, the sounds, the feel. If you have never been, this is an opportunity to learn a bit about a festival the magazine prides itself on covering. If you haven’t attended in a long time, consider it a refresher. And if you line up every year to see the latest and greatest genre fair, nod your head in agreement for the awesome stuff or shake in disagreement for the elements you care for less as we go along. Even though it’s only been around for a quarter of a century, the event has certainly earned its place as a Montreal summer staple.

Fantasia banner
Photo credit: Edgar Chaput

What is Fantasia?

The Montreal-based event stands apart from most other movie festivals for a plethora of reasons. The truth is that the sort of event it is today in 2022 is different from 1996 when it started. We’ll let the official website provide the full story of its inception, but in a nutshell, it was spearheaded by local cinephiles who adored Asian cinema. Ergo, Fant-Asia. Among them were Pierre Corbeil, the festival’s president, Martin Sauvageau, and André Dubois. For all intents and purposes, it was a retrospective of action and science-fiction movies from Hong Kong and Japan. A gigantic look back which lasted from July 11th to August 12th. An entire month!

Fantasia has come a long way since then. It still features a section dedicated to retrospectives. These are typically remastered cult classics with new home video releases looming. Its calling card, among many others, is presenting to audiences the newest and hopefully best of what genre cinema from all over the world has to offer. The number of world premieres has increased in the intervening years, as well as the number of high-profile guests. Guillermo Del Toro, Mark Hamill, Tony Todd, Takashi Miike, Robert Pattinson, and John Woo are but some of the names anyone can recognize who have paid a visit. 

Pre-show marketing
Auditorium des diplômés in Hall building (photo credit: Edgar Chaput)

For fans of shoot-em-up romps, martial arts flicks, suspense thrillers, monster movies, alien movies, speculative science-fiction, ghost stories, and raunchy comedies, it’s virtually impossible for an edition to go by without a single film tickling one’s fancy. The festival even tosses in the odd drama, children’s film, and historical epic. Just because it’s a genre festival does not mean it’s exclusive to only one sort of film fan. 

Back to School

Summer class? No thank you! 

Whoah, hold on there, tiger. Nobody is taking any classes unless it’s a Masterclass given by an iconic filmmaker, as John Woo did this past edition. That said, anyone with plans to check out some films does need to go to a school. Concordia University to be precise. That’s right, Fantasia does not occur at any of the regular cinemas around town (unlike, for example, TIFF, which plays a selection of films at one of the Cineplex theatres downtown). 

A few events take place at the Cinéma du Musée on Sherbrooke Street, and one or two special screenings are sometimes reserved for the Cinemathèque Québécoise on De Maisonneuve in the Quartier Latin. Otherwise, it’s back to “uni.”

Right off the bat, the festival’s primary location lends a different atmosphere. Just as a university campus stimulates the mind, this genre festival stimulates the passions of film lovers. De Maisonneuve boulevard was mentioned a moment ago for the Cinémathèque and it still applies in the case of Concordia. As happenstance would have it, the two main student auditoriums Fantasia overruns for three weeks are across the street from each other in the heart of downtown Montreal. The larger Auditorium des Diplômés in the Henry F. Hall Building is on the north side of the street. The smaller room, J.A. De Sève, is on the south side of De Maisonneuve. It’s difficult to miss these face-to-face buildings given the large Fantasia Film Festival banner hanging over the street. 

As for the quality of the rooms, ironically the smaller De Sève theatre sports slightly better picture and much better sound quality. Whether due to superior equipment or better acoustics, the De Sève room offers a superb aural experience. It isn’t that the Hall room sounds poor, but it can occasionally get a bit rough. A character in Vesper at this year’s edition was particularly difficult to understand sometimes. They spoke in such a somber, hushed tone that it mostly sounded like gibberish. Fair warning: the Hall auditorium sometimes raises the volume too high. Hansan: Rising Dragon was ear-splitting. 

It’s a Marathon, Not a Race

With only two rooms to project films and generally well over 100 motion pictures that attract the public, do the math. The overwhelming majority of film festivals begin on a Thursday and conclude on Sunday 10 days later. Not so with Fantasia. Consider the 2022 edition, which runs from Thursday, July 14th to Wednesday, August 3rd. That’s three weeks. Come to think of it, having covered a few editions for Tilt Magazine and its previous iterations, 2022 is a bit on the light sight. There have been 3 ½ week-long versions. 

lining up / Fantasia Film Festival
Lining up alongside the Hall Building (photo credit: Edgar Chaput)

For any newcomers who truly want to appreciate the Fantasia experience, some words of wisdom: it’s a marathon, not a race. Be they movie fanatics, locals on vacation that want to escape the summer heat, or distinguished members of the press covering the event for the first time, it’s very important to pace oneself. Waiting in line for a screening at the J-A de Sève theatre isn’t too bad because it’s inside. Conversely, there are only so many sunny afternoons one can spend baking outside while standing in front of and beside the Hall building. For rainy days, unless one is especially picky about where they hope to sit, one might as well wait in the Hall Building lobby and let all the drenched people make their way in first. 

Animal House

No, the people who attend Fantasia aren’t animals. Having said that, when the lights go out before the film starts, it sounds as if they think they are. This is where our Fantasia primer gets into some of the nitty-gritty…unique details about the festival. 

What follows doesn’t apply as much to the De Sève room (it’s smaller, more intimate), but in the Auditorium des Diplômés, which is much larger and tends to show the rowdier pictures, members of the audience start meowing when the lights go out. 

Meowing. That’s not a typo.

Why? Having browsed around the internet, the most common story is that people started the ritual after a screening of a short film titled Simon’s Cat. Yes, but why actually meow before any movie starts playing? Because. 

A dog bark will answer. A sheep will join in on the fun. A pig snorted once. 

The irony is that this eccentricity in no way translates to a disrespectful audience. In fact, if forced to choose between seeing movies with a Fantasia audience or the regular Friday or Saturday multiplex crowd, the choice is quite easy. No cell phone screens light up, barely anyone talks amongst themselves (it’s so rare that when it happens it’s honestly a bit shocking), and people react with great enthusiasm at just the right moments. If anyone attends their very first Fantasia screening and finds the animal house attitude strange, go easy on them. It’s a good crowd. 

noodle cup
Nongshim (photo credit: Edgar Chaput)

They do get excited about the Nongshim ramen noodles that are handed out before certain screenings. The room erupts in a chorus of cheers when the Nongshim ads play. Who needs fine Italian pasta when noodle cups get the job done?

The Little Details

Cheering

As previously stated, the Fantasia Film Festival crowd loves to cheer. The enthusiasm is shown for a terrific action beat, a stunt, a comedic outburst, a phenomenal special effect, or when a film’s antagonist receives their just desserts. The “woohs!” and “yeahs!” feel right at home during tonally rambunctious pictures, those made to invigorate the audience. 

Incidentally, the habit transcends the type of movies projected. It gets rather funny when a lone person “woo-oohs!” for a movie during which the audience has been deadly silent since the start and received the dreaded “polite clap” as the end credits roll. The death knell is when something cool happens and the crowd barely reacts. If a filmmaker has failed to elicit enthusiasm when something bad *ss occurs, something’s wrong with the film, not the Fantasia crowd. 

Volunteers

Most film festivals live or die with the hard work put in by the volunteers. They spend hours, days, and in the case of Fantasia, weeks making the experience as pleasant as possible for patrons. No mention of volunteer work and Fantasia is complete without including the name Daniel Walther, who has been with the event since its inception in 1996. Check this revealing interview on the festival’s official YouTube channel to know him more. 

All the volunteers are welcoming, enthusiastic, and polite. Their presence and assistance go a long way to making Fantasia what it is. And for those who think genre cinema is a bit weird (it is), the individuals who give their time to ensure the event runs smoothly demonstrate that everyone can feel at home. 

Films With and Without Introductions

After so many years spent covering the festival, one comes to sense things from the tiniest of details. This includes the moments before a film starts (and before the meowing). If Mitch Davis, one of the lead programmers, introduces a film, it’s a special event. Boisterous, and never short of energy, Davis is Fantasia’s adrenaline shot. Walking, talking Red Bull. Even Daniel Walther walking up to the mic to welcome people and ask them to turn off their phones is some kind of an intro, however limited. 

Fantasia Film Festival
Where the press photography magic happens (photo credit: Edgar Chaput)

Sometimes a film receives no such intro. Luck of the draw? Last minute scheduling conflict? Perhaps. Curiously, the only film in 2022 the author attended with no host was The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future. Or perhaps not so curious. At the time it felt odd that no one greeted the audience, but the film is so strange, such a head-scratching puzzle, maybe no introduction would have done it justice. Maybe no one at Fantasia knew how to introduce it.

Bus Stop Marketing

The Fantasia Film Festival’s marketing is modest when compared to other festivals. When TIFF, Venice, or Cannes begin announcing their lineups and guests, most trades, blogs, and cinephiles take notice. Fantasia doesn’t have that sort of pull. Nor does genre cinema in general. Nevertheless, running the show still costs a pretty penny, so reminding people of its existence every summer is critical. 

Strolling around Montreal, one notices that bus stops are an important platform to advertise. Plenty of people in the city and its outskirts require public transportation. Every year the marketing department conjures up an arresting look for the official poster, something that grabs one’s attention, at least for a fleeting moment. Below are just some of the waiting areas where the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival was spotted. 

A Friendly, Familiar Face

Summer in Montreal (when the world hasn’t gone to heck) is wonderful. The Old Port is a beautiful destination, as is Old Montreal itself, the Grand Prix, Just for Laughs, The Festival International de Jazz, Nuits d’Afrique, Zoofest, the National Bank Open, Osheaga, Piknic Electronik. There is something for everyone. 

The Fantasia Film Festival is one of the summertime staples. As the 26th edition nears its conclusion at the time of this writing, one begins to wonder what its 27th has in store. Its organizers may already be considering such matters. Compared to the aforementioned local events, Fantasia certainly marches to the beat of its own drum. It’s less mainstream but no less friendly. The countdown to July 2023 has already begun. 

Fantasia Light show
Photo credit: Edgar Chaput

-Edgar Chaput

The 26th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival will run from July 14 – August 3, 2022.

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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