Interview: Alan Jones talks FrightFest Presents
Ivan Radford | On 31, Oct 2015
FrightFest is one of the big names in horror – particularly in the UK. Every year, thousands of people descend upon London’s Leicester Square to scream, shriek and squeal in a darkened room packed with fellow fans for the August Bank Holiday weekend. 78 films were shown in total in 2015. But this year, the festival has also moved into another realm completely: digital distribution.
FrightFest has teamed up with Icon Film Distribution to form a new label, FrightFest Presents, showcasing the best of the fest and releasing them straight to video on-demand platforms to give them the biggest chance of finding a wider audience. The Sand. Estranged. AfterDeath. Some Kind of Hate. Night of the Living Deb. Steve Oram’s AAAAAAAAH!. All of them are now available to stream online (find out where here.)
This isn’t the first time FrightFest has tried such a venture with a distributor – and it’s not a one-off, either. If things go to plan, the FrightFest Presents label will grow over the coming years and, if some titles prove popular enough, may also see them venture into physical DVD releases for collectors.
How did it all happen? We sat down with one of the founders of the event, Alan Jones, to talk about getting small films onto the big screen – and then as many other screens as possible.
For him, it started with something similar in the 1980s: Shock Around the Clock.
“That was like 24 hours in one go, from midday one day to midday the next. They do something very similar in Texas at the moment. That went for a couple of years and I just got bored doing that! That transformed into Fantasm at the BFI, but that was too bureaucratic for me I got tired of all the red tape that an organisation like the BFI has so I just through “Fuck this” and then after a couple of years, Paul McEvoy, a fellow Show Around the Clocker, said we should do something else. I always wondered why London never had a festival of its like Sitges in Spain. Sitges is the Cannes of horror, it really is.”
FrightFest was small at first – “Two days at the Prince Charles, a couple of movies. When I look back at it, some really dodgy titles!” – but the event grew over the years.
“When I look back, I think we actually hit the dawn of the Internet too,” notes Alan. “I’m not sure we would have done it otherwise!”
Over the years, the horror genre has become more popular with technology helping not just spread the word but democratising the whole film-making process. Talent can spring out of anywhere – and discovering that is something Jones considers to be “absolutely vital” to the festival.
“I think it’s the driving force of the festival,” he explains. “We’re not like the London Film Festival, who pretend to have a horror strand and they’re too embarrassed to call it horror and call it “Cult” and they’ve been around the houses a bit. We make sure we’re promoting talent, especially British talent.”
FrightFest certainly has a track record. Championing 2008’s Martyrs is a highlight for Jones.
“I saw that in Cannes and loved it so much. I literally begged to have that screening – we fought so many festivals for that!”
They also had the world premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth, which he describes as his “absolute favourite”.
“Scariness is universal in absolutely every way.”
“We do pick them. We have a good rate of getting the good titles people want to see… I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I know what’s going on. I recognise talent along the way, from Sam Raimi to Peter Jackson. I actually think I have a really good track record when it comes to this stuff and I think we’ve been proven right. Christopher Nolan. Chris Smith. These are all names that went on to massive things. Pascal Laugier. I do think that’s where our particular talent lies, we get the people very early. other festivals can show you movies, but FrightFest is where you’re going to see the new people for the next 10 years first.”
“One film I’m really pleased with is The Rotten Link,” he adds. “We had the world premiere and that’s just won the audience award in Sitges.”
That ability to pluck out talent and give it a platform makes VOD a natural extension for FrightFest, which prides itself on giving an opportunity for exposure to films that might not otherwise get it.
“The more the business angles towards Bond and blockbusters, the more we have a part to play,” says Jones. “In the old days, they were considered to be low grade. I remember the manager of the Empire once saying to me “Are you ever going to show something that doesn’t go straight to DVD?” but people know we’re going to give a film a good profile way beyond what they would expect for a film that they know isn’t going to go theatrical, but actually stands a chance of getting some good publicity. I’m really happy to do that.
“How many people think that stuff that does go straight to VOD is rubbish? We can help to change that.”
FrightFest Presents arrives just as VOD is enjoying a rising profile. Paul Thomas Anderson has just released his new film, Junun, straight to subscription service MUBI. Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation is being talked of as a major awards contender. Beyond the Lights, The Spectacular Now, A Field in England and Jodorowsky’s Dune are just some of the top titles that have been released directly on digital platforms to strong acclaim.
Jones is seeing that transformation first hand.
“It’s really interesting because one of the films we wanted for this year, the sales agent said too late, Netflix has got the world!” he comments.
But he sees FrightFest as part of that shift in perception.
“I would like to think we’re helping the VOD platform to get a bit more class by releasing stuff I know are, well, good movies.”
It helps that the audience for genre flicks are passionate enough to seek out films online – and that fear is such a worldwide phenomenon.
“I’ve always said that about the horror community. If you scare them, they don’t care if it’s in a foreign language, if it’s small or low budget, they don’t care, as long as you give them the fright or feeling. I love the genre for that. It’s the only one that will allow that. Rom-coms don’t work when translated in subtitles. Humour is different. But scariness is universal in absolutely every way.”
DVD wouldn’t be ruled out in the future for collectors’ editions of extremely successful films, he reveals to us.
“Some of the FrightFest Presents titles, if they prove popular enough – and we won’t know for a couple of months – we will put them out physically. But that’s only if we see that particular demand. You know horror fans, they want something in their hand as a physical thing. They are collectors. I’m the same!”
So how do they go about assembling such a diverse collection of films to release under the FrightFest banner?
“They naturally rose to the top. I know that sounds weird! They do actually fall into different categories but that was through no desire on our part. We’ve known Steve Oram for a while, so when he came up with AAAAAAAAH!, we thought, well, this is so strange and odd and so completely different, this is one for us. We didn’t have to convince Steve too much to let us have it. He’s touring around out the UK to give it that midnight movie flavour. He knew he couldn’t go massively big with it but four-walling it seems to be working. He saw us as a particular prong in that marketing area for him.”
“Icon have always understood FrightFest from the word go.”
AAAAAAAAH! proved to be the first domino in a string of deals.
“Once people know that somebody like him has gone to you and a bit more interest perks, you know? I was particularly championing The Sand, which I loved. I know it’s a cheesy creature flick, but I loved the way it was done so I went after that in a flash! Estranged was the same. AfterDeath came to us because they saw what we were doing.”
The crucial partner to the whole scheme is Icon, which are so well-known as a boutique label for horror. Their hit list for the past year alone is a veritable who’s who of what hour fans are talking about. The Babadook. It Follows. The Guest.
It was a natural fit for FrightFest’s tradition of finding smaller names.
“They recognised in us what we knew we could see: other films they might not necessarily have seen have commercial potential,” says Jones. “Although they were looking for the bigger titles, they could see that we could see the advantage of the others. Icon have always understood FrightFest from the word go. I just love working with them because they’re very straight down the line. They tell you what they can do and what they can’t do.”
Indeed, this isn’t the first time FrightFest has tried to find a partner to release films with.
“We have tried to do this before with other companies, but it always boils down to the one problem we have. [They say] we know you know these titles inside out, so you come to us. And we’d say these are going to work and they’d say, oh, we don’t like it. Our managing director thinks it’s crap. And we’d say that’s not what you asked us to do. You asked us to pick titles that would work on a label with our name.”
“Icon is the only time that’s actually worked out and they’ve trusted our judgement,” he continues. “When we entered this deal, we knew they understood what we were all about.”
The actual talks between the two have been going on for over a year – “They literally had to go to all the platforms and actually explain us.” – but FrightFest are in it for the long game.
“I made it quite clear to everybody that we see this as an ongoing venture,” confirms Jones. “This isn’t a quick let’s get in and get out. I see this as progressing over several years, we want to build up a catalogue. And I’m prepared to do as much promotion on it as I can.”
He’s not afraid to put his name on the packaging – literally, in the case of this first wave of releases, with the four FrightFest honchos (Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day) involved in recording video introductions to each movie.
“We are FrightFest. We are the faces of the festival,” he says. “I thought it was really important to put a face to it.”
How successful FrightFest Presents will take a while to find out, just due to the nature of the digital industry.
“We were told full-on we wouldn’t know for a while. iTunes don’t let you know until about three months after. So we knew that. It wasn’t a case of FrightFest, within 10 minutes you know you’re selling out, so it has been a different sort of dynamic,” explains Jones. “Again, I trust them.”
“How many people think that stuff that does go straight to VOD is rubbish? We can help to change that.”
Icon, meanwhile, has its own deals with subscription services. The Babadook is now on Netflix UK, while It Follows has been added to Amazon Prime just this week. Is that on the cards for the FrightFest titles?
“That has never been mentioned to me,” says Jones, “so I have no idea beyond the next slot, which is around February/March.”
But FrightFest is not afraid of looking to the future.
“We’re already looking at other stuff for around August,” he adds.
In the meantime, Jones, like many people up and down the country, is enjoying the access and affordability that VOD provides. He’s a Netflix user. “I’m a big box set fan,” he adds.
Would he recommend any particular titles? What was the last thing the watched?
“I’m going to say American Horror Story: Freak Show, because I love it!” he enthuses. “For me, that’s one of the best TV shows of all time. If I could, I’d give Jessica Lange an Emmy award every year in perpetuity for what she’s doing on that show! I think she’s just brilliant!”
The six FrightFest Presents titles are all available now to buy or rent on pay-per-view VOD sites. For a full rundown of each movie and where you can watch them, click here.
Or, for our Halloween VOD guide, including the best films on Netflix, Amazon and more, head this way.