Behind the Fest: Nightmares Film Festival
edited by Sam Kolesnik
Nightmares Film Festival, founded by Jason Tostevin and Chris Hamel, is a destination horror and genre festival held annually at the acclaimed Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio. Nightmares was named “one of the 30 Bloody Best Genre Fests in the world” by MovieMaker Magazine in 2019. In this interview with Jason Tostevin, the festival’s co-founder and festival director, Screen Fervor asks about the festival’s rapid growth, their programming process, and the vision that started it all.
The world of horror film festivals is a crowded space. Yet in just four years, you and co-founder Chris Hamel have built Nightmares Film Festival into a destination film festival for horror filmmakers and fans. What has propelled such rapid growth?
I think, in whatever way we’ve connected to our fellow genre fans through Nightmares, a meaningful part of that comes from two core tenets of the festival: surprise and belonging.
First, we create every Nightmares experience to evoke the delight of being surprised. Here, you will always discover something unexpected that challenges and surprises you, which I believe is what all us horror fans are perpetually hunting for, whether we’re plumbing the depths of Shudder or someone’s old tape collection. We want something that changes our outlook and makes us reevaluate, because that’s what being alive feels like! That might be learning something new about your taste in films because we push borders, or discovering a new way to look at filmmaking that inspires your own work.
Second, you are loved here. Really loved. If you’re a filmmaker or screenwriter, you’re loved for the work you did that brought you to the festival, whether you are in the program or not. If you’re a fan, you’re loved for your commitment to the art of the genre, and for whatever your tastes are. We don’t tolerate shittiness in any form – from True Scotsman arguments about what’s horror to harassment of any degree.
Maybe that’s the third thing: the festival is bigger than Chris and me, and we treat it that way. The program is integrous. Participating is a privilege that comes with expectations of how you treat one another. People can trust Nightmares to be what it says it is.
The Nightmares Film Festival programming has been lauded by premiere horror publications such as Bloody Disgusting and iHorror, among others. What are a few key elements you take into consideration when developing the program each year?
I approach the festival with the belief that the program is the Alpha and the Omega. Without a program that is trustworthy and that lives up to the promise of the festival’s vision, none of the other things we do – from having this beautiful venue and art and whatever else – will mean anything at all. It would just be bullshit.
So we have a complex and demanding set of criteria for inclusion in the program. We call work that matches that criteria #BetterHorror as a shorthand. Something might be #BetterHorror if it does these five things: pushes genre boundaries, aims for excellence, earnestly strives, has a voice, and surprises.
Now, under and around those five things are a whole framework of purpose, values and structure we’ve built to ensure we stay on mission.
I also want to say explicitly, we are trying to shape the culture around genre, and that includes advancing inclusion. The “Voices Represented” column in the filmmaking ledger is way in the red on women, persons of color, persons with disabilities and out LGBTQ+ people. We actively take that into consideration in our programming, both because representation matters, and because the more perspectives we include, the stronger the program is.
Your awards, the Night Mares, are works of art in their own right. What do they symbolize for the festival and how do they fit into the festival’s overall vision?
You know, part of the magic of this festival is that I’m still in love with it. I look at Tony’s work on the Night Mare, and it dazzles me.
The Night Mare came about both as an obvious play on the festival’s name, and to reflect our recognition of the dark horses of filmmaking – horror creators. The festival’s purpose is to elevate horror and inspire horror filmmakers, and the very first rule under elevate is, “I believe in the cultural merit of horror.” It is as valuable and influential as any art today, and even if it isn’t treated that way everywhere, we’re leading the charge with our stance. The Night Mare statuette reflects that: it’s a hell horse – a dark horse – rising up and breaking out of the chains of social expectations, with a phoenix-like mane of flames.
The statues are hand-made, authentic, rare and precisely crafted works of art, to match what we showcase and who we are as a festival.
Last year’s The Film from Hell award winner was Trauma directed by Lucio A. Rojas. How would you define the spirit of this award?
Our awards are meant to tell filmmakers, “Keep going. We’re invested in you.” They don’t mean you’ve made it. They mean you have shown a level of #BetterHorror that we believe is worth the investment of additional recognition from the festival.
For us, the Film From Hell award goes to the film that pushed us all the most. It was, within the world and vision it set out, the most challenging, the most innovative and the most engaging for the audience. In its way, it’s the “spirit of Nightmares” award as much as it’s the best of the fest award. I guess I think those two should always be the same award.
The Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio is the official venue of Nightmares Film Festival. Why did you choose this venue and what does it offer both filmmakers and attendees?
As a venue, the Film Center is the perfect match for Nightmares, spiritually and functionally.
It matches our spirit because it is nonprofit and independent, but aims to be a standout. Nonprofit doesn’t mean cheap. Independent doesn’t mean slipshod. It’s a world-class operation with a world-recognized program chosen by Chris Hamel. It’s also the home for the Central Ohio horror community, because it has probably the best year-round horror program in the country.
As a venue, there’s nowhere better. It’s perfectly designed for the festival, with dedicated bars, a VIP lounge, private auditorium entrances, a downtown location, and most importantly, extraordinary presentation.
GFC has what might be the last dedicated tech and projectionist team left in the nation. They take unbelievable care with the NFF films. Every year, one of the raves I hear from everyone is, “My movie has never looked so good” or “I finally got to see and hear it the way I made it!”
Your festival has a dedicated screenwriting competition. Why is it important to the mission of Nightmares Film Festival to celebrate screenwriters?
I just believe that writers and screenplays are as integral to #BetterHorror as filmmakers. We’re a celebration of the genre and its films. I don’t think you can present a true worldwide program and attract the full breadth of top genre creatives from around the globe if you don’t also hold up writers and their work.
Also, we’re a place people come in from the lonely work of making movies and find their tribe and team. Part of the purpose of the festival is to connect people in a way that promotes production, which you can’t have without writers. Every year, people with screenplays in the competition and people with films meet, hit it off and end up making something together. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of running NFF.
Nightmares Film Festival may be an annual event, but you maintain an online community with festival alumni year-round. Why?
It’s back to shaping culture. We are a valuable stop on people’s festival run, but neither our vision nor our value ends when the fest ends. We are creating a community that shares expectations, values and a commitment to one another and to really doing it right. Being fair. Being inclusive. Being honest with ourselves and one another. Cheering for each other and helping each other, not competing.
To make the difference we want to in the world, we have to support our NFF family year-round. So we created a private Facebook group and we bring alums into it and encourage them to share their knowledge, ask questions, debate important topics and plan productions together.
Can you offer any advice to filmmakers hoping to premiere or play at Nightmares Film Festival?
Absolutely. Here are the things to do to help give you the best chance to play with us.
First, study the festival. We are incredibly active on social. I have a whole series on how to be successful on the festival circuit called #BetterFesting that’s available online. All the information you could possibly need to understand what we’re looking for is out there. So look carefully at all of that and consider if what you want to make might be a fit for us.
Next, submit through FilmFreeway with a profile that is completely filled out. Drop us a few lines in the cover letter about why your film or screenplay might be a fit. We read them!
Finally, come to the festival! Whether you have work in the program or not, come see the movies, meet the people, say hi to Chris and me. Nothing will help you tune into the festival’s vision more than being there, in the moment.
Lastly, can you tell us any news about this year’s fest? Any early selections, partnerships, etc.?
We are focused on acquisitions coming out of Nightmares. We have made great progress in that area that people are going to be very excited about. Can’t announce it yet, but stay tuned.