Behind the Fest: Women in Horror Film Festival
an interview with Vanessa Ionta Wright, Festival Director & Co-Founder
edited by Sam Kolesnik
The Women in Horror Film Festival (WIHFF) was founded in late 2016 by filmmaker friends and producing partners, Vanessa Ionta Wright and Samantha Kolesnik. This annual event in Georgia celebrates and showcases women creatives in horror, thriller and science fiction films. The festival is currently open for submissions for its third year, which is set to take place in February 2020 during Women in Horror Month.
Screen Fervor sat down with Vanessa Ionta Wright, the festival’s director and co-founder, to dive behind the scenes of the fest.
Running a film festival can be a thankless job and often, it pays little, if anything at all. What drives you to devote your time to running the Women in Horror Film Festival?
Well, I think it's the mission of what we've started and put together. I think I knew going into it that there wouldn't be any kind of monetary benefit to it. At least, not in the beginning. I mean, sure, it would be great if it would turn a profit at some point and you could make a career and decent living doing this, but that's not the drive behind it. I think the fact is, there's a need for this and that, to me, outweighs the money.
When you say, “there’s a need for this,” what do you mean by that?
I don't think we're at a point within the industry and especially within genre films, where it is a level and equal playing field. And not just for women, but for a lot of minorities. There's a lot of talent out there. There's lot of remarkable women filmmakers making films, and for whatever reason, they’re having trouble having their work taken seriously. This is a platform for them.
New film festivals are spawning left and right. What do you think sets WIHFF apart from other film festivals?
That's always a tricky question. That's really hard for me to put into words. You look at it, you're right. There's probably over 7,000 festivals on FilmFreeway alone. And there are new ones popping up left and right. I think there’s a misconception possibly to how easy it is to put one together and run. A lot of people think, “Oh, maybe this is going to get me noticed or put me on the map. I'm going to go ahead and start a festival,” or, “Maybe I'm not getting recognized, I'm going to start my own.” Unfortunately, it tends to spoil the bunch and there's a lot of people hesitant to try new fests because some of them are not run with the best intentions.
I'm a filmmaker and when I started this fest, we had attended many fests, and I think we're understanding of what works and doesn't work. We understand what to offer filmmakers and screenwriters. I think we've achieved that and have been able to do that well.
What has been one of the most rewarding moments for you as a festival director so far?
I think seeing what it does for the filmmakers and screenwriters. It feels really good to see the joy on someone's face when their work has been recognized. I know how hard it is to create something and to put it out for others to see. It makes you feel very vulnerable. You've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into a project and I understand what that's like. To recognize someone's work and to see that kind of joy and sense of accomplishment on someone's face. You feel it. And that, to me, has been really rewarding.
I'm sure if I had a moment, I could come up with specific examples. Overall, one of the greatest things, is when it's a filmmaker who hasn't established themselves yet or who truly is a first-time filmmaker. In year one, we had several people screening and it was their first-ever festival. That's a lot of pressure because you want to make sure they have a great experience. You're kind of setting the tone for them on their festival journey because they're going to compare every experience after to that. At the end of the day, seeing those people and hearing them echo the sentiment, "This was the best experience for me," makes me feel like we did it right.
What are three things your programming team looks for in a WIHFF film submission?
Thoughtful and artful storytelling. This is horror and a lot of people’s preconceptions with horror is that it's just going to be a lot of gore and half-naked women running around. I know it can be so much more. I think looking at films and stories that really are set apart from that. I guess that's one thing.
You know, we look for quality. Budget really has nothing to do with it. I think if people know what they're doing, you can make a high-quality film for very little money. That's something we look at. I'm always impressed with filmmakers who are able to pull that off. There were several films that I would be shocked at the little amount they spent to make something that looked like it came out of a studio.
Okay, third thing. It's hard. I would say more diverse storytelling. And diverse teams. There's a lot of female-focused festivals and events and they specifically look for work directed by women. There’s not too much concern with the makeup of the rest of the crew. It was very important to us to look at the whole picture. We know so much more goes into the creation of a film than just the director. We were looking for balance and equality.
How would you describe a night at the Women in Horror Film Festival to someone who’s never been there?
I don't want to be generic and say 'fun' but it really is a lot of fun. We've really done our best to foster a sense of community and a sense of inclusion.
I know in attending a fest I've never been to, the mingling events and the mixers, and the opening parties -- those can be a little intimidating, especially if you're not there with someone. If you're by yourself and you go in, you have to just start talking to people. I don't think there's intimidation at WIHFF, if that makes sense. It feels immediately very comfortable and like you're where you're supposed to be. You can talk to anybody, from a celebrity to a volunteer to a colleague. It's a very level playing field.
What do you wish you’d see more of in horror films today?
I want to see more thought-provoking storytelling. I don't want to just be visually shocked. I would like the story to do that. I want to walk away with my jaw on the ground. I think we're seeing some of that in recent years.
I was really impressed with A Quiet Place. I know that might not fall completely into horror, and I know that there's a lot of people in different camps. There's controversy with that film for whatever reason. Personally, I think it was brilliant. I think it's really difficult to pull off what they did with sound and silence. There was very little talking. To me, it was a unique way to tell that story.
What do you want to see less of?
I feel like I can give you a long list. I'm kind of sick of the whole shock for the sake of shock and exploitation. We saw a huge rash of these films in the 70s and even a little bit in the 80s. Then it died down a bit in the 90s where I think they were trying to be a bit more intelligent with their scares. And now, especially in the indie world, there seems to be a re-hashing of these exploitative films and I would like less of that, personally. I know there's a lot of people who would disagree, and that's ok. That’s allowed.
Do you think exploitation films have a place at WIHFF?
No. I don't. I just don't. I'm sure there will be backlash from that. I would draw the line at exploitation.
The Women in Horror Film Festival is a competitive event, both in terms of selection and awards. How would you describe your selection process?
It's probably the most difficult part of the fest, but also kind of the most fun. When we're in the moment of, "this is it," then you have to start going through all of the notes and having the conversations. You have to look at these projects from every angle. Honestly, as much work as it is, I love that part of the process. It's a lot. I mean, you know, we could fill binders with the spreadsheets. We take it very seriously. We watch every single film that comes in. Not every judge gets to watch every single film, but I do. It's a process that I take and continue to take very, very seriously.
Are premieres important at WIHFF?
To an extent, yes. I would like this fest to get to a point where filmmakers are vying for the chance to premiere their film at this fest. We're still somewhat in our infancy. We're just now going into year three after what I feel were two very successful years. I hope it does get to the point where we're competitive enough with some of these larger-tiered fests where filmmakers would want that.
The WIHFF trophy, which is called, “The Lizzie,” is quite striking. What does a “Lizzie” represent and what does it take to win one?
I've always looked at it as breaking the mold and breaking barriers. The sculpture, itself, is a woman's hand wielding an axe and breaking and cutting into a reel of film. It's very representative of how I view what we're trying to do for women in horror. Breaking this mold. Breaking these traditions of how people see women.
It takes a lot to win one. It's not just difficult to decide which films are going to be programmed and which screenplays make it into the finals, but trying to decide the winners within those categories is both difficult and grueling. It’s also exciting. It takes a lot. We don't handle that lightly, either. Many, many, many conversations will happen before it's decided upon.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are interested in screening their work at WIHFF?
I definitely recommend that if you are going to submit and if your project is chosen, I definitely recommend trying to attend. Clearly, I understand you cannot go to every single festival that you submit to or that you get into. But if you have to choose, clearly I'm going to say, “Choose WIHFF.”
We really strive to create opportunities beyond the fest and I think the networking is great. It has been amazing to see filmmakers and screenwriters attend, come together, meet for the first time, go home, collaborate, create something new, and come back. That is a beautiful thing. I absolutely love to see collaboration happen. Outside of that, I'd say submit your work. A lot of the times, I hear from people, “I didn't submit because I wasn't sure I'd get in.” Well, if you don't submit, you definitely won't get in. Take a chance. I want to see it. I want to see what you've been creating.
We accept submissions strictly through FilmFreeway. FilmFreeway allows you to create a profile about yourself. Make your profile as detailed as possible. I'm much more interested in a film or a screenplay when I know who's behind it and I can really start to care about what you're putting in the world. And definitely put in a cover letter. Introduce yourself. Tell me why you're submitting. To me, that looks like you're putting in the effort versus just hitting a button. The tools are there. Utilize them.
What can horror, thriller and science fiction fans expect from next year’s festival?
Well, they can expect a new venue! We are moving from Peachtree City into the city of Atlanta, so we're technically going to be in a new city and a new venue. And what else? You're going to see lots of great horror, thriller, sci-fi and suspense films!