The Terror Film Festival returns to the Ethical Society of Philadelphia later this month for their sixth annual installment. Running from Thursday, October 27 through Friday, October 29, the 2011 TFF will feature 28 films over the course of 12 programs. Cinedelphia recently sat down with TFF festival director “Claw” to discuss the festival’s achievements, the staff’s use of pseudonyms, and his personal thoughts on film festivals in general.
CINEDELPHIA: What are the origins of the Terror Film Festival?
CLAW: Just a couple people in a diner at 1 or 2 am, we all came off of movie shoots and we were having an after-work meal. The subject came up and I realized, “Sure, there’s nothing like that within miles of here.” We had the resources to make it happen and within a week we had it up and running. That was 2006.
C: And how was that first TFF received?
CLAW: I’m smiling so it must have been good. I remember everyone told us to expect a certain number, a low number, since we were starting a genre film festival and no one in Philadelphia had heard of us. They said to expect 20, 30 submissions from around the state and we passed that by 1000%, we just got flooded from around the world. We had a guy fly in from France with his two actors, his first time in America was our festival. It was pretty cool, a nice surprise.
C: Has that submission number increased over the years?
CLAW: Every year it increases by about 50%. And we don’t advertise anywhere, we don’t do anything, it’s all word of mouth. Two years ago we had someone sleep out to get tickets like it was Sundance, it’s very flattering. This is almost a selfless project, there’s no money to be made in film festivals. We just love creativity, it’s all about art to us.
C: Have you always held the festival at the Ethical Society?
CLAW: Yeah, since year one. I was in there for some event for the Philadelphia Film Festival way back, I used to be involved with that, and there’s something really cool and creepy about the place. It was just one of those gut instinct things.
C: Can you characterize the types of films that you showcase at the TFF?
CLAW: Well, distribution doesn’t matter to us. We get submissions from Japan, Madagascar, Nigeria, London, Scotland, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, you name it. I haven’t taken a count this year, but we always lean more towards horror. They’re independent films mostly, sometimes we get studio stuff with celebrities in them, but we don’t base anything on that. I’m a stage person so if there’s no truth in it then I don’t care what they’re trying to sell me. My values and my belief in the art itself are so important to me that I refuse to attach my name to crap and put it in front of people.
All submissions come in and get their press materials discarded. The film gets popped in and goes through a committee system, it’s nothing like other festivals. I’ve worked with other festivals, I’ve seen people put submissions on in the background while they’re doing other work and they don’t even know the movie is on. I can’t do that. We watch every single frame of every single film.
C: You program by committee?
CLAW: Princess Horror does the bulk of the programming legwork and I have to finalize it. There are so many levels of emotion and human psyche you have to consider when programming. Audiences have to walk away with smiles on their faces, it has to be the right time of day, it really has to be designed and developed.
C: Do you ever showcase your own films or those of your collaborators in the festival?
CLAW: We’re just not into that. I’ve had film festival directors tell me, “Well, if you can’t help your friends then what’s the point?” That’s not the point. That’s why there are so many crappy shows and movies out there.
C: You and your collaborators are all listed on your site under pseudonyms, which really isn’t typical of film festivals where the organizers usually like to get their names out there as a point of pride.
CLAW: Well, it’s not about us. It’s about the filmmakers and the projects. If we wanted to be stars then it wouldn’t be through the making of a film festival. This project is about giving people a shot at a career. We do everything, we even call agents in Hollywood, we do everything we can to get people’s careers started. It’s not about how many tickets we can sell.
Just two years ago I had an attendee say, “I was at the American Music Awards in Hollywood and this was better!” And then a friend of his walks up and says, “I work with Jerry Bruckheimer, you guys are top notch.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s a compliment.” And that’s the reason right there.
C: Admission prices are incredibly reasonable [$20 VIP passes].
CLAW: That’s because of one, the economy, and two, it’s not about the money. It’s a labor of love. And three, I’d like to fill that room. I want these filmmakers to hear a thunder of clapping when their name is announced. I want them to feel like big shots. Most of these people will do a couple festivals and then they go away for a long time or you’ll see them online on some indie bullshit distribution site that rips off the filmmaker. So if you like it, make some noise about it, build some buzz. In 2007, a girl called me from Australia, she had a film in the festival, but she couldn’t make it. The festival was a week away. I said, “Don’t worry about it, if you get a ticket now it will cost you a couple thousand dollars, don’t worry about it.” I was shocked that she had called me to tell me how disappointed she was. I got another call from her two days later. “I’m gonna be there, I’ll find a way.” She found a way. She walked in ten minutes before her screening started, from Australia, and she has kids! That is so huge, how do I return that? So I hired a bunch of photographers and when the whole line of filmmakers were walking down the steps they were treated like celebrities, they were so starstruck. I put something in their hearts so good and positive. They’re never gonna forget that.
C: You also have a free admission policy for thespians.
CLAW: Last year we had Gregory Orr, he’s Jack Warner’s grandson, come in from Hollywood via New York. He said, “I’ve never seen anyone do something like that before, free entrance with a head shot. Why?” And I said, “Because I’m an actor and I know what it’s like for people to not give a shit and, to be honest with you, people want to meet actors and it gives actors hope.” And he said, “Wow, you guys are unbelievable.” And this is Jack Warner’s grandson, he doesn’t know the industry, he is the industry.
In 2008, we showed Side Sho, the director’s name was Mike D’Anna. The next year he submitted another film, but he couldn’t make it. He told me that his mom and brother were in a car accident and he didn’t think they were going to make it. So we had the Claw Awards, 200 people in the room, and I said, “Listen, let’s all take a moment, I don’t care if you’re religious or not, let’s all take a moment to send a prayer or a positive thought to this guy and his family who probably aren’t going to make it through the night.” The filmmaker called me two days later and said, “I don’t know what happened, my mom and my brother pulled through miraculously. The doctors all said they weren’t going to make it, but they’re fine.” And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about what people are walking away with.
C: What are some of your favorite films from past TFF’s?
CLAW: I loved Side Sho. I loved Murder on Turnpike Road. Vindication was great. A Far Cry from Home was awesome.
I’ll give you a success story that I’m proud of. Joe Randazzo came here in 2006 with his girlfriend, he was just a little metal head/goth. He wrote these three-page screenplays that were powerful as hell. He’s an incredible writer and he didn’t even know it. I pulled him aside one year and said, “Listen, you live in Brooklyn, why aren’t you writing CSI or Conan O’Brien?” And he said, “Oh, I’m not good enough for that.” And two years later he’s selling his first script for $150K, he’s being offered a quarter of a million for his next one, and he has a million dollar studio deal coming, all from that little tongue lashing I gave him. It made me feel so good, this guy made it because of us.
CLAW: We have features starring Cloris Leachman, Tara Reid, a couple guys from CSI and Law and Order. We’re so artsy fartsy. Art is so important to me that it almost crushes me when I do something against it so I really have to watch my step and make sure that we put out nothing but the best. If you’re an art lover, you’re going to flip over these films, I don’t care if you like horror or not. All of them deliver. Willie Nelson is actually my leader in this. He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen who can fill up an entire stage and still make it feel like he’s in an intimate setting. Even Elvis couldn’t do that. The TFF is huge, but it’s personal.
The Terror Film Festival runs from Thursday, October 27 through Saturday, October 29 climaxing with Saturday night’s Claw Awards.
Check back later today for an interview with TFF’s mascot, Princess Horror, and tomorrow for a contest to win one of ten VIP passes to attend the TFF.