Alan Jones is one of the four people behind the country’s biggest horror movie festival, FrightFest. The event is now entering its tenth year so Zone Horror decided to catch up with Alan to learn about the festival’s origins as well as what the future holds.
ZH: So, here we are ten years of FrightFest. Does it feel that long?
AJ: Not at all. Ten years? Where did that go? It all feels like a blur of cinemas, guests, hassles and high points. But in a good way. Who'd have thought it would get to be this massive? OK, we've worked hard to make sure it's become the UK's biggest horror fantasy event, but it's also a validation of the genre in general. The change in perception from when we started out to what it is now is extraordinary. So I do feel FrightFest has ridden the wave as much as helped create it.
ZH: How did you, Ian and Paul first get together and when did Greg join the crew?
AJ: Paul I'd known from The Cinema Store. I used to go in a steal books and posters. True! He'd always loved my 'Shock Around The Clock' events that I'd co-organized in the 80s, where we just showed movies continuously from midday one Saturday afternoon to midday the next day. 24 hours of terror, at the much-missed old Scala Cinema and then at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, now also transformed into an up-market club. So he thought we should try and emulate that. So with one of his friends, booker/distributor Ian Rattray, who'd I'd never met (and still wish I hadn't, only joking) we decided to mount FrightFest. I wanted to call it 'Shock Around The Clock' again actually but I'm so glad we talked ourselves out of that because FrightFest was something new and totally different. Something along the lines of the big genre festivals I'd been attending in Europe, like Sitges. Greg was an old friend of mine who used to work in the press office at Columbia Pictures. I'd go into his office to steal the T-shirts and freebies. (Hmm, people are now going to think I'm a kleptomaniac!). Then he went to Channel 4 and Five as their main press officer and did FrightFest, first as a favour in 2001. Now, of course, he's an indispensable part of the team. The four of us are completely different personalities which is why FrightFest works. Sometimes that can cause friction but the outcome from that is always for the best.
ZH: What are you main memories of the first ever FrightFest which was held at the Prince Charles Cinema?
AJ: When I look at our first line-up, well, it wasn't the best really. What were we doing showing Christina's House? But hey we also had Pitch Black, Scary Movie, Anatomie, Audition and Dario Argento's The Phantom Of The Opera. Plus Lighthouse from Simon Hunter, who went on to become a good friend while directing Mutant Chronicles. The overriding memory I have from 2000 is the movie Cut, starring Kylie Minogue in a small cameo. The number of people who called me to ask for a Kylie interview! That's when I knew we'd need someone to properly handle the press side of things. I could only do so much in this area. Which is why Greg was employed from 2001 onwards.
ZH: Did it all go smoothly?
AJ: I think so but of course back then we had no expectations or guidelines to follow. We were literally making it up as we went along. The audience was appreciative I do remember that. Already the bar in the Prince Charles was packed to overflowing and the lack of foyer space meant the overspill into the street. But that gathering outside the cinema to talk and swap views has become a tradition now. I can see a lot of what we still do now as having the groundwork laid down back then. Like making sure the fans are happy and comfortable, that we were always approachable and actively wanted their feedback
ZH: The event has grown considerably since then, how do you stop it from becoming too mainstream?
AJ: By adhering to those early concepts. When our weekend pass tickets went on sale this year at the Empire a couple in the queue came up to Ian and I and said that although FrightFest was now in a completely different league, what they liked was that we had never forgotten our roots or the fans. It's this community spirit that really makes us unique on the world festival stage and it's an atmosphere that we will always endeavour to foster.
ZH: FrightFest also enjoys special events such as the recent Drag Me To Hell screening. How do these come together, are you approached by studios or do you approach them?
AJ: In every case the distributor and/or director has come to us and said would we like to show their movie. Because we can guarantee a packed audience of enthusiastic fans who always ask brilliant questions in Q&A sessions. Simple as that. FrightFest as a brand can deliver what distributors these days need. Honest feedback so they can tailor their marketing campaigns accordingly. We have had many instances of distributors telling us their DVD sales have increased enormously when our name has been attached to their films. Obviously it helps that I can often get straight to the talent in question because I've known them for ages through my journalistic career.
ZH: This year’s FrightFest has for the first time two screens running, who came up with that idea?
AJ: It seemed a natural progression. Most other festivals have concurrent strands running so we decided to do it too. What's showing in the Discovery Screen are films we wanted to highlight but ones we also knew would not necessarily attract a massive audience in our main 1300 seater. It's important for FrightFest to promote new talent - it's the lifeblood of the genre after all - so this is a new way to do that. Some fans have complained we're making them choose between films but we never saw it that way. More a chance to extend quality selection.
ZH: Did you have many submissions for this year’s event?
AJ: Loads, and Paul goes through the pile systematically and watches everything. After he has weeded out the best ones, then we take a look and decide if it's something our audience would want to see. Last year we got The Disappeared and The Dead Outside this way. This year it was Best Worst Movie, Fragment and Evil Things.
ZH: How do you and the gang go about choosing movies for the event? Do you have a certain criteria etc?
AJ: Only that it has to be good, or have something unique going for it. Certain films suggest themselves of course. Like we're going to turn down The Descent: Part 2? I don't think so. Or not mount the World Premiere of Federico Zampaglione's absolutely brilliant Shadow. That's an interesting example of how the FrightFest machine can work. We were in Cannes, Paul met Federico at a party, he told him he had just made a horror movie and would we like to see it. Paul said yes and invited him over to where we were staying the next day. In the meantime we found out that Federico was one of the biggest rock stars in Italy. So we never expected him to turn up. But he did and the film was just amazing. Then I found out that Federico knew Dario Argento well and we all became the firmest of friends. So much so that Federico and his band Tiromancino are playing at Dingwalls in Camden Town two days before we world premiere his movie. That was a star-crossed meet that worked out very well and there have been many surprises like that in our ten-year history.
ZH: Are there any movies that you are the other guys have chosen that have not connected with the FrightFest audience?
AJ: I don't think Bubba's Chili Parlor worked last year. We were split on that one ourselves but, as I said, it's all about promoting talent and director Joey Evans could still amount to something special. But every film has it's lovers and haters, isn't that the point in many ways? We knew we'd split the crowd with Martyrs last year and we did. The same will happen this year with Coffin Rock. Just as long as everyone loves Heartless, my fave film of the year so far (well, apart from Up), I'll be happy with whatever reaction we get from everything. I'm expecting Trick 'R Treat to bring the house down too.
ZH: FrightFest boasts a unique atmosphere, one where all festival goers get to talk and interact not only you and the rest of the team but the guests who attend. Was this just a natural occurrence or something you’ve strived to achieve?
AJ: It was a natural occurrence but one we do try to maintain. I think it all boils down to the fact that the four of us are fans first, festival organizers second, and we know all about that rabid enthusiasm dynamic.
ZH: FrightFest is such a recognised brand now do you have more plans for it?
AJ: Yes, we will be launching our own new DVD label very soon but my lips must remain sealed on this for the moment.
ZH: From the last 10 years do you have a favourite memory or moment?
AJ: So many, George Romero on stage and the wave of love he got from the audience, the Hideo Nakata live satellite link-up that went so hilariously wrong, Neil Marshall's mad dash to the cinema with the exclusive Doomsday trailer, Uwe Boll being, well, Uwe Boll, the Hellboy premiere where cast and crew all turned up. For me though it will always be showing Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro's graciousness in letting us premiere it, my introduction to it that made many nearly cry, and the stunned reaction it received.
ZH: What does the future hold for FrightFest? Can it get any bigger?
AJ: I dare not think about this at the moment because this year's mega-event is scarily bigger enough!
ZH: And what is next for you?
AJ: Well I'm still hard at work writing my book on Guillermo del Toro ('Clockwork Fables: The Fantasy Worlds of Guillermo del Toro'). Because it doesn't have to be published until the first part of The Hobbit is released, I'm taking my time, really enjoying it, and promise it will contain the most incredible information he’s only revealed to me about his life.
ZH: Alan Jones, thank you very much.
FrightFest is running from August 27th - 31st at The Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, London. For more information click here.