Interview with Festival Director JE (Jeff) Smith (TEXAS TERRORS FILM FESTIVAL)

Texas Terrors is an indie/grass roots short film festival celebrating the fun in bone-chilling horror. We’re less concerned with Hollywood-style slickness than with creativity, originality, and passion. The festival will feature a diverse array of scary stuff, and provide a fun evening of chills and thrills.

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1) What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

I hope that I’m providing a good and empowering forum for filmmakers. As a filmmaker myself, I’m a four-year veteran of the festival circuit, mostly smaller, regional festivals, often with specialty themes. I have submitted my various films to dozens of different fests, and picked up a ton of rejections. Anyone who has tried their hand at the festival circuit will tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart — be prepared for a LOT of rejection, and for hearing “no” far more than you ever hear “yes.” Also, all festivals are not created equal, and even when you get a festival to accept your film, sometimes they don’t make things easy for you, as a filmmaker. Of course, running a festival is a tough job, and I understand that the people behind them are very busy. But there are definitely times when you, the filmmaker — the one providing them with content — are treated almost as an annoyance. So, when I decided to try my hand at putting on my own festival (in a genre I’ve loved since I was a kid), I decided that I would try to give the filmmakers who took a chance on my small, first-year, one-night festival, the best experience I possibly could. It remains to be seen whether I fully accomplish this, but I’m doing my best! Of course, the sad fact is, you still have to say “no” to a significant amount of submissions — I was overwhelmed by the response I got, and in fact, I even expanded my run-time to accommodate more films, because I was so excited by a lot of the material I was getting. But, I still had to say no to almost 2/3 of the people who submitted. That sucks! But, it was the only economically feasible way to approach this first-year festival. I could easily have selected another 6-8 excellent films if I had more time at the venue, or could afford to expand to a second night.

2) What would you expect to experience if you attend your next festival?

Diversity of style. There is a wide range of content and approach that could be considered “horror,” and I’ve tried very hard to select films that represent a range of different types and sub-genres. If you go to YouTube and search for “short horror film,” you’re going to find a lot of stuff that seems like an endless variation on the same story: a young woman, home alone, hears a noise, gets a butcher knife from the kitchen, prowls around a bit, and them BOOM — jump-scare — some kind of boogeyman appears to get her. Hard cut to black. This kind of thing can be effective, but it’s over-done. WAY over-done. So, one of my guiding forces was to try and seek out films that were a little different, a little off-kilter. That said, we purposely have stayed away from the more extreme forms of horror. I personally am not a fan of the so-called “torture porn” sub-genre. I’m fine with grisly gore — you can’t be a horror fan if you’re too squeamish, and a well-done gag is part of the visceral thrill of horror flicks. But the sort of pointless, dehumanizing brutality that is associated with torture porn (and other purely sadistic horror sub-genres) doesn’t really appeal to me. I prefer “fun” horror — and this festival is a reflection of that. I’m very happy with the variety of styles that make up our program this year. Also, I’m very happy that over half of the films we’re showing have never screened anywhere in Texas before, AND we actually have three *world* premieres. Very exciting!

3) What are the qualifications for the selected films?

Well, they had to be short. Twenty-two minutes was the upper limit, although in the end, the longest film we’re featuring is only eighteen. Most of them run between six and twelve minutes. No matter what their budget/slickness level, they had to have a base-line of acceptable filmmaking techniques — for instance, one film was rejected almost entirely because the sound was bad, and it was difficult to hear/understand what any of the actors were saying. So, they didn’t have to look like Hollywood movies, or be shot with expensive cameras — a few of the ones I accepted clearly were low- to no-budget affairs — but they had to be in focus, with clearly understandable dialogue (a good solid Rode Videomic only costs a couple hundred bucks, and if you’re not willing to spend that to have clear sound, maybe you shouldn’t be submitting to festivals!), and have a certain cohesion of storytelling. Just basic filmmaking competence, really. Most importantly, they had to have a sense of enthusiasm and vigor that transcended however much money they had to spend — it’s not the tools, it’s the talent, as the old saying goes.

4) Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?

Absolutely. There are definitely festivals that are concerned mostly with appearance — if it doesn’t look slick, it doesn’t have a chance. Which is a real shame, because the festival circuit really should function as a sort of training ground for burgeoning filmmakers; almost like the minor leagues in baseball. Of course, the ultimate goal of any festival is to entertain the audience that ends up attending, and I’m not suggesting festival directors should select bad films just so the filmmaker can get some experience under their belt — but it would be nice if the selection process could be a bit looser, and a bit more open to things that, at first glance, might not seem like a winner. Having said that, a lot of filmmakers tend to hamper themselves by not fully embracing the system and trying to understand the other side. If someone is putting together a short film festival, they want as much good material as possible, so every minute is precious — and yet I still got submissions that had unecessary scenes, weird story tangents, and overly-long closing credit crawls. Seriously, folks, cut those films to the bone! If your opening or closing credits last more than 30-45 seconds, they’re too long! :p

5) What motivates you and your team to do this festival?

Honestly, for this first year, it was mainly just to see if I could do it. I like a challenge, and I’ve never assembled a project quite like this before — it’s a bit terrifying, but also thrilling. I don’t expect to make a nickel of profit (I’ll be thrilled if I come anywhere near breaking even!), but I suspect it will be more than worth it. And, as I said above, I really wanted to provide a forum where the filmmakers who participated would come away thinking, “Wow, that was a really cool festival. They cared.”

And, on a purely selfish level, I got to see a LOT of cool horror films I might not otherwise have seen. AND I get to share the best of them with an audience, in a really cool theater with a great projection system. That rocks.

6) How has your FilmFreeway submission process been?

FilmFreeway have been fantastic — I can’t say enough good things about them. A couple of times I had questions that weren’t on the FAQ page, and they responded super-quickly and helpfully. Their interface for people running festivals is clean and user-friendly. We used them exclusively, and they’re great. Highly recommended.

7) Where do you see the festival by 2023?

I hope over the next few years we can expand to 2 or maybe even 3 nights. I would love to be able to incorporate a couple of feature-length films as well. It would be great to build enough of an audience that we can keep holding it at the Texas Theatre (the beautiful and historic venue where the fest is taking place) — it’s a fantastic place, and I’d love to continue to call it home. And I hope we can continue getting really interesting and challenging material to showcase. Also, I’m committed to keeping our submission fees low — a lot of festivals have what I would consider to be outrageous fees that many low-budget filmmakers simply can’t afford to pay. While, to a certain extent, I understand the economics of this — submission fees help fund the festival as a whole — it still feels weird to take money from someone and then reject their film. So I really want to keep our fees as low and non-exploitive as possible. I’d like to think that, ten years from now, we’ll be charging about the same as we did this year. Hopefully I won’t have to eat those words. 😮

8) What film have you seen the most times in your life?

Oh gosh — probably Monty Python and the Holy Grail? That would definitely be a contender. I did see the original Alien eight times the first week it was released (and yes, I’m old enough to have seen the original in theaters!).

9) In one sentence, what makes a great film?

The late, great film critic Gene Siskel used to say that a truly great film has “three great scenes, and no bad scenes.” That works for me. 🙂

10) How is the film scene in your city?

Pretty strong, actually. In a big city like this (Dallas), we have a remarkable pool of talent, from actors to make-up people, cinematographers, writers, you name it. I don’t know that any of them are truly “hitting the big time,” or making a lot of money, but I see a lot of folks who are passionate about their craft, and willing to make sacrifices, just to make art. That’s thrilling, and very empowering. The real trick is getting people to stick around, and not move to Austin, New York, or Hollywood! I myself have no desire to relocate — I love living in Texas, and I want to stay here and keep creating.

I’d say we have at least a half-dozen or so local/indie film festivals per year, and another handful of national/higher-end fests. There are always opportunities to get your films seen, once you’ve made them, but obviously, the more prestigious festivals can be tougher to crack. Still, ya never know til ya try!

texas terror 1

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every single month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 3 times a month. Go to http://www.wildsoundfestival.com for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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