Delve Deeper

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Aaron Vanek's epic H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival wrap-up...

On September 17 of this year, the 2nd H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival® wrapped up in San Pedro, California. I was the organizer, and here are my thoughts on the event.

Innsmouth Free Press kindly interviewed me about the festival here. That link explains how the Lovecraft Festival started and my involvement. It also explains, I think, the motivation behind me starting the Los Angeles version.

Sometimes I say it's the San Pedro festival, sometimes Los Angeles. Officially, it's Los Angeles. San Pedro is an area within the Greater LA megapolis, and although SP sometimes acts as if it is a city, it's not. Secession efforts haven't gotten very far, though talk is cheap. San Pedro is part of the residential/commercial support to the giant Port of Los Angeles, which is the busiest container port in the U.S. Few Angelenos know where San Pedro is, much less visit. The exception being passengers on cruise liners and ferries to Catalina.

However, there is a lot of history to the area, which I have only just begun to plumb. The Warner Grand Theatre, home to HPLFF-LA, is a magnificent jewel that I don't think anyone with a shred of love for history will be able to resist admiring. It's a single screen theater with a large stage, a main floor and balcony that seats 1500. It is being lovingly restored, and I hear that it's haunted. Perfect for a Lovecraft festival!

I picked the theater for the surrounding community as well as the building itself. There are friendly pubs, art galleries, costume shops, and mom and pop restaurants nearby. It's Bohemian and reminds me of Portland. This year, the San Pedro community helped with the HPLFF. I was able to partner with the Grand Vision Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to restoration and promotion of the theatre, which allowed me to claim tax-exempt status for sponsor fundraising. They also gave me a great deal on their own annex space, which used to be a hardware store but now functions as a performance and exhibit area. This rental created one of the highlights of the HPLFF-LA—two receptions that book ended the festival.

The first was a VIP reception Friday night before the theater opened. We had food by Small Pleasures Catering and our sponsor, Bowen's Spirits, opened a bar to give everyone a sneak peek of their new whiskey, which should launch later this year or early 2012. Beer and wine was also available. Filmmakers, artists, vendors, authors, press, and anyone who paid for the VIP ticket could mingle together while viewing the amazing miniature set pieces, props, costumes, and other goodies from the movie The Whisperer in Darkness that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society brought down from their shop in Burbank. The movie is playing around the world, and the DVD will be out soon (if it isn't by the time you read this), but only at the HPLFF-LA were you able to see so much exhibited with such loving detail and care while enjoying complimentary drinks and food. I also decided to show the Lovecraft art slideshow in an anteroom here instead of on screen in the theater, as Portland does. I did this because I wanted to encourage people to shop during our breaks instead of staying put and looking at slides. Artist Russ Lukich also added his life-size sculpture of H.P. Lovecraft near a tentacle-bent light post to the exhibit. It placed very well, with many photographs taken. VIPs were also treated to a swag bag with a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, a taster bottle of Bowen's whiskey, an 11x17 2011 HPLFF-LA poster by David Milano, an Arkham Asylum badge from the HPLHS, and a Mythos lollipop from Cryptocurium.
The closing night reception was also here on Saturday, right after TWID played. We didn't have food—because catering is VERY expensive—but there was a cash bar; the Bowen's folks had to head home to Bakersfield on Saturday.

I plan on having more receptions at the annex at future festivals.
I also obtained some help in advertising at the very last minute from the San Pedro Business Improvement district, which allowed me to advertise on the Los Angeles Times online, plus Facebook and two indie papers, the LA Weekly and OC Weekly. With their help, I expect to spread the word of the fest wider next year.

The Whale & Ale Victorian-styled pub stayed open late for us on Friday night, and Williams Bookstore, which has been in business 100 years, hosted the Saturday afternoon Lovecraft author reading and discussion, with Cody Goodfellow, Ted E. Grau, Denise Dumars, Michael Tice, Jenna Pitman, and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner. The space wasn't quite conducive to it, so we'll likely move it to the annex next year—I expect the authors will be pleased that there will be alcohol available at their event.

I was thrilled to see the San Pedro community turn out to enjoy the Festival and invite and encourage us back for next year.

Total attendance was 511, which exceeds my expectations. The festival was split over two days, Friday and Saturday, so we didn't have that full crowd both days. But we still have a ways to go before we sell out the place. There are pros and cons to using a one-screen theater: although I can't show as much material as the Portland HPLFF, I enjoy giving everyone a chance to see everything. Portland has grown so much that for the last four or five years, there was always some movie or panel that I could not make. I didn't book the Warner Grand because it was a single screen, but a side effect of having it is that everyone can enjoy the movies together. But...

I didn't have any wiggle room in the programming this year. The festival officially ran from 7pm to midnight on Friday, and 4pm to midnight on Saturday. That's 13 hours. I didn't want to start any sooner for two reasons: didn't want to pay theater staff overtime costs and didn't want to run into issues with parking. The meters around the theatre are two hours max, but free after 6pm. At worst, an attendee this year would pay for parking for two hours on Saturday (or longer if they go to the author reading), but wouldn't have to run out to feed the meter in the middle of the movie, something that happened in 2010.

To filling those thirteen hours, The Whisperer in Darkness was a definite yes, as was the shorts block, especially when Guillermo del Toro agreed to judge it, a nice consolation to his inability to attend (but I'll keep inviting him). HPLFF founder Andrew Migliore recommended HBO's Cast a Deadly Spell, 2011 being the movie's 20th anniversary. Additionally, screenwriter Joseph Dougherty and one of the actors, Peter Allas, were able to attend. Andrew also wanted to give the Howie award to Roger Corman for many years. Since I interned for Roger years ago, I contacted the office and invited him down. He agreed, but had to cancel at the last minute due to a troubled production. With Corman attached, I chose to screen The Haunted Palace, and we now had three features. I have long wanted to see Berkeley Square, the 1933 movie that Lovecraft watched multiple times and inspired him to write "The Shadow Out of Time". I'll explain how I got the print later, but once I booked it, more than half of the 13 hours were spoken for. I'm also a huge fan of the BBC short Whistle and I'll Come to You, based on the M.R. James tale. It was 45 minutes, so I wanted that one to play as well. Given breaks and Q&A times, raffles, awards, that only left about two hours, so I squeezed in La Sombra Prohibida, a new Lovecraft-ish movie from Spain. Sadly, that was the same slot that Die Farbe was slated to play, and I had the tragic duty of turning Die Farbe director Huan Vu to Portland. I had two reasons for doing this: first, I wanted a newer, more Hollywood movie in the docket, just to show the breadth of Lovecraft's influence (ironically, Universal Pictures distributed La Sombra Prohibida, the same studio that turned Guillermo del Toro down for At the Mountains of Madness), and second, I thought a Spanish language film would play better in Los Angeles than a German-language one. I am positive that there are people reading this that would have preferred to see Die Farbe, but I can't regret it. It's extremely difficult to select what plays and what doesn't, especially with 13 hours. One of the fiercest complaints I heard was that there wasn't enough time for socializing and shopping, so perhaps I shouldn't have shown either foreign film—but again, I want to show the global take on Lovecraft. I spent many hours looking at the programming options, but no clear solution presented itself to me.

The vendors were great, and my greatest worry—that someone would be upset that had to sell upstairs—never occurred (or I didn't hear about it). However, there is an upstairs problem: there are no doors to the balcony seats, so conversations would echo into the screening area. I spent a lot of time shushing people, which I didn't like doing, but I also heard a half-dozen complaints from attendees trying to watch the movies. That was probably the biggest problem we had next to a tight schedule.

The picture and sound for all the movies was, I felt, outstanding. We were leagues better than last year, and I can't imagine a better way to see and hear the Lovecraft movies than what we did at the festival, which was flawless (thanks Blake, Dave, Joe).

For the shorts block, there was also some shoving of pictures to get in. I relegated 90 minutes for shorts, but the fewer minutes I had, the more minutes I could put into breaks. There was one longer short I really liked and wanted to show, but lobbying from Migliore bumped my #1 pick to include my #2 and #3 picks. It balanced out, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Going to my second and third choices for shorts instead of my first also meant I got another six minutes for a break. Whee!

Guillermo ended up picking two short films as winners: Static Aeons and The Raven. This screwed up my award-statuettes, because I only had three Brown Jenkins (crafted by Bryan Moore): one was going to be for best short, one for best feature, and one for best screenplay. It was too late to get another one, as Moore has relocated to Iowa and was still unpacking. I was wringing my hands until the last minute, when Migliore saved the day by volunteering one of his Deep One statuettes (made by Kevin Jones), which are the proper awards for the screenplay contest. That was FedEx'd to me, so the Jenkins went to the two shorts and The Whisperer in Darkness. Bill Barnett won the Deep One for his script, "The Old Man and the Box", a touching, haunting featurette using R.W. Chambers' King in Yellow tales for inspiration. It was a close competition between Bill's and "Death Wind", a feature by Travis Heermann and Jim Pinto.

Money wise we did a tad better than break even, which isn't bad for the second year.

Although overall I think the 2011 HPLFF-LA would get a B+ or A- from most attendees, there were for me two big successes at the 2011 HPLFF-LA.

First was screening Berkeley Square. Here's how that happened. I've always wanted to play it, so first I had to find a copy. A friend managed to find the oft-copied bootleg DVD version, which is floating around bit-torrent and other sites. I saw it but the quality was shabby. Plus, I wanted the rights to screen it legally. As you might know, you have to pay the copyright holder of a movie whenever you screen it publicly, especially if you are charging for tickets. My hope was that there was a 35mm print somewhere, and if I went for the exhibition rights, I'd also find a print. There apparently was one in the 70's, according to the Wikipedia entry on lost films.

First stop: a friend of mine who used to work at MGM's DVD division. She sent me over to a contact of hers at Fox, the original rights holder, who sent me along to Criterion Pictures, the current exhibitor rights holder. Criterion and I went back and forth; I was talking to an accountant. They would grant the screening rights for 30% of box office sales against an advance of $375. That was higher than any of the other screening rights I paid for, so I negotiated that down to a reasonable fee. Then the accountant asked what I was screening, because Criterion didn't have a print. I said the DVD. There was a long pause before he sternly informed me that I couldn't screen something that was bootlegged. This pissed me off, as I was so close. Fortunately I run on rage, so immediately after that phone call I went hunted for a print of Berkeley Square. I didn't find one that day, but I did find the Frank Lloyd Films website, run by the famous director's grandkids. I contacted them and they were very generous in giving me details about their grandfather's favorite film. They also offered a few tips on where to find a print, but those didn't pan out.
I know of two film archives, my alma mater's (UCLA), and the Academy Film Archive. I tried both of them, leaving desperate emails or skipping through automated voice mail systems until I reached a living being. UCLA didn't have one and the Academy pointed me to the DVD versions. However, UCLA mentioned a Usenet board for film archivists and preservationists and said I could post publicly to see if anyone knew of a print. I had to register to do that, which took far longer than it should have to get approved. I finally sent my request to Web 1.0. About 24 hours later, I received an email from the same Academy contact I was talking to, who wrote: "I see that you were actually looking for a print of the film for a screening. You had emailed me about a week ago asking about a copy and I had assumed that you were seeking a copy for research purposes. We do actually have a new print of this title from a recent preservation. Sadly, we require at least four weeks notice for print loans and for theatres to be approved ahead of time for screenings."

I frantically looked at the calendar, and realized that the festival was four weeks and three days away. I hit my afterburners and started jumping through hoops to get that new, restored print. There are many requirements for the Academy Film Archive to loan a print, one of the main ones being a complete report on the theater showing it and the projectionist handling it. Luckily Lee Sweet, the manager at the Warner Grand, is an expert at bureaucracy and quickly turned the paperwork around as fast as I did. I added the Academy to the insurance contract, contacted Frank Lloyd's grandkids, and also dangled my non-profit partnership and exhibition rights via Criterion before the AFA. It was a close, tight week, but they finally agreed to loan it out. The next day, this same contact wrote something to the effect of "I have to check with my boss to make sure no one else booked it for that weekend. He won't be back for another week." But by that point, I knew I won. When I told Blake, the film fanatic who helped run projection, that I had a brand new never-before-screened restored print of Berkeley Square on loan from the Academy Film Archive, he summed up my victory: "Holy fuck!"
It was special to have Berkeley Square's director's grandson, Christopher Gray, in a tuxedo to introduce the movie. I then read H.P. Lovecraft's review of the movie from his letter to J. Vernon Shea in 1934 (in Selected Letters, vol. III). There's a story in that, too, because I left the copy of the text from the book, given to me by Mike Tice, at home. Thus a crazy series of phone calls to Mike's wife and a detour from picking up Die Farbe director Huan Vu from the airport by one of my generous minions, Brady, and the book was in my hands about an hour before I needed it. It was a hassle that I caused, but I felt that the screening, the first in decades, required Lovecraft's words. After I finished reading and thanking the Archive, the lights dimmed and the audience got a very rare treat: a 1933 speculative fiction movie seen in a restored 1931 art deco theater—much as I like to imagine Lovecraft himself saw it. Unfortunately, I had to run around and manage other things while it played, so I only caught about 15 minutes of it.

The second success of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival®-Los Angeles 2011 was the joy apparent on fest founder Andrew Migliore's face. Frequent visitors to the Portland festival probably recognize the furrowed look of consternation and stress on Andrew's face, which in recent years became the tired look of resignation. Knowing first-hand how difficult it is to run a film festival; I'm awed by Andrew's ability to do it for fifteen consecutive years. Having known him since before the fest started, I've had a front row seat on the 50-yard line for each trial and triumph the HPLFF and Andrew has faced, from devastating thefts (two) and family tragedies to the delightful birth of his son, Vincent, and the rise and fall of Silver Key Media and Lurker Films.

It's my belief that Andrew started the festival to indulge in one of his favorite past times: watching weird, bizarre, bad, and unbelievably awesome movies with friends and soon-to-be-friends. But with success comes sacrifice and in these later years Andrew was running a business, consequently the delight that fueled the business dwindled. Rarely, if ever, was he able to sit in a seat and watch the picture with all of us. There's always something else to do during the fest.

So one of my proudest moments this year was when Andrew called me late Friday morning from his hotel (the Crowne Plaza, a few blocks away from the Warner Grand) and asked if I needed help setting up. Of course I did, but I said I'd get in touch with him once I got there, that he should instead relax and I'll touch base in a few hours. I arrived at the annex and immediately set to work setting other people to work, as well as myself. I forgot about everything except getting the vendor tables set up, the art show working, the swag bags stuffed with goodies, the projection prepped, the green room stocked with sundries, or any of the other details needed to pull off a festival. I didn't see Andrew until about 4pm, an hour before the VIP reception began. He again offered to help, but I turned him to the bar. After fifteen years I didn't want him to have to worry about anything. The only request I had was to help present the screenplay and filmmaker awards on Saturday night. Other than that, Andrew could mingle, chat, drink a beer, eat popcorn, or watch movies secure in the fact that I had everything under control (barely). Every time I caught a glimpse of him through my own stress-pinched face, he was smiling and laughing, nary a worry visible. Andrew told me a few times how proud he was with the Los Angeles H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival®, but he didn't need to. Seeing him enjoy himself again was reward enough.

I missed the 2011 Portland festival in October, as I am taking the rest of this year off. But I know the HPLFF's HQ is in good hands with Brian and Gwen Callahan, who were also invaluable to me. I look forward to seeing them again in May when the full Portland festival will be up and running, and I invite everyone to come to San Pedro in September to see what we can do for 2012.

For more reports of the 2011 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival® in Los Angeles:

To see Guillermo del Toro's video announcing the short film winners: (subscribe to the channel as well)

Be sure to "like" the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter at HPLC_Fest

(Thanks to Aaron Vanek)

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