INTERVIEW - Christian Burgess (Toronto After Dark Film Festival)
Christian Burgess Programmer/Programming Manager/Communications Manager/Publicity/PR Manager Toronto After Dark Film Festival Christian has over twenty-years experience within the home entertainment industry, including working for one of Canada's leading video rental franchises to running his own online DVD business, during the early and lucrative booming years of the format. He also worked at the film distribution level, working for a division of Canada's largest distributors, and short stints for the renowned Toronto International Film Festival and the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival. An avid addict of anything film related, Christian is also a Program and the Programming Manager for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
Interview conducted on 11/02/2016 (Skype Interview)
throwdown815: You're the Programming Manager at Toronto After Dark, but this isn't a full-time job for you.
Christian Burgess (Toronto After Dark): No, I wish it was! I wish it was a full-time paying job that I could make a living out of, absolutely.
td815: So out of a given year, aside from during the film festival when you're probably working for TAD every day, how much of your time is spent selecting movies for the festival?
CB: I'll reword it this way; I did the cliche work at a video store in the 90s when it was fun. And then I got into having my own DVD business when DVDs took off in 1997 and exploded in 2000. And then I worked up the food chain and got into film distribution - I worked for a division of Entertainment one (not called that back then) - and I've moved up the ranks. But I've always had a fascination with film and I like all aspects of it. I like to read up on film stuff year round, and, I don't just particularly take a period of the year to work on something for TAD. I'm kind of just engaged in film stuff all the time. I want to know what's in the trade, who's been cast in what. I have a spreadsheet - I call it my tracking sheet - so films that some of the other genre sites or major trade publications put out, I'll add to my list. So that 'ABC film' is on my list for 2017. And sometimes films get bumped. And to give you an example, there's already a zombie film, and it's been 3 years since I've contacted the director, and it's in post-production now so it should be ready in 2017, but I don't know when yet. And if it's a good fit, maybe we'll program it.
td815: But I understand that TAD gets a lot of submissions every year, so it sounds like the final program is a combination of both submissions from filmmakers and invites from the programmers.
CB: Yes, it's a mix. A lot of people submit through 'withoutabox' and 'filmfreeway'. And there's the film that we go after, films that I think would be a good fit for us or interest me personally. Because film festivals are all about personal taste, personal choice. And also, we're very aware of other genre film festivals, especially the big ones - Sundance, SXSW, Tribecca, Fantasia, Fright Fest - so we become aware of what's out there, and that's another way of getting more product to look at. And then referrals - other programmers will say 'check this out', or someone will say 'hey guys, you should take a look at this film' - because it might be too late for their film festival, but someone will recommend TAD. And then alumni, we're always looking at TAD alumni for another film. Over the years, we've had The Void guys, they've had - including shorts - 11 products with us. And every year we keep breaking our submission record for shorts, so it keeps Peter and Shannon very busy. For features, we get a lot and break the record every year too.
td815: I think it's really great that you have Canadian shorts playing before each feature presentation. It's such a great way of promoting local talent.
CB: Absolutely, I love it. And I try to make a focus now, because I find that at most film festivals - you don't really hear about the shorts. They'll play short films but you don't hear a lot about them. So the last 3 or 4 years now, we've asked our accredited press to take a look at them and if they want to write about all 40 of them, great! I wanna try to get these short filmmakers a little bit more buzz and awareness because they are the people who will be making a feature (maybe) years down the road. So I think it's important to give back so that the festival isn't just about the features. Short films are just as important and there's some great stuff out there. And so we do one Canadian short film before each feature.
td815: For sure, even thinking back about TIFF ever year, I always plan to see some of the short film presentations but the features end up taking over your schedule.
CB: Yeah, they kind of get drowned out.
td815: Exactly. So they way you program it here, it doesn't feel like you're forced to watch these shorts, it just blends into your schedule very nicely.
CB: It makes it very tough, like I don't do the shorts programming, but this year we had like 600 short films, and I don't know how Peter and Shannon get it down to around 40. It's crazy. But there's always that time of year when you have to turn films down, not because they're not good, just because you can't fit it.
td815: It's a good thing for the film festival though right?
CB: Absolutely, I'd like to play more. The attendance this year was up, which is really good, and I know some of the regular TAD audiences really liked the shorts, and they made a point of going now. Some of them even liked the shorts more than the features, so that's saying something.
td815: TAD used to be at the Bloor cinema, and only recently became affiliated with Cineplex and relocated to Scotiabank Theatre. Has partnering with Cineplex changed TAD at all?
CB: We're strictly an independent film festival, we do not receive any grants or subsidies or money from any government organizations. We don't get any money from the city of Toronto, or the provincial or federal government, we're like a small business. And Adam initially started it at the Bloor, I'm not sure why he started it there and not anywhere else, but the Bloor (the old Bloor) had a certain personality to it. If you remember the old bloor, it might not be the best theatre on the block, but there's something about the history and the character that just stood out. So in a way, it was great that it was bought because it needed some TLC and upgrades it deserves. But even though it's the Bloor 2.0 (ie. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), it doesn't feel like the Bloor, and I kinda liked the Bloor. And then we didn't go back to the Bloor because of costs. And then Cineplex contacted us, and they've been experimenting with lots of event programming, like operas and live events.
td815: And the video game stuff too.
CB: Yeah, exactly. And so they're stepping outside of the box, which is nice. But it changed the dynamic because we were kind of worried that we went from a single screen theatre to a multiplex - Canada's largest largest exhibitor - it's like going from a small little fish in a small little pond to the big leagues. So we were a little bit weary about what effect would that have on the festival. But there's so much that Cineplex brings to the table as a venue sponsor. You can use your Scene points, you can buy popcorn. It's worked out very well, and I can't speak highly enough of the Scotiabank staff and management. And I think by having TAD at Scotiabank, it kind of opens up the festival to the non-festival crowd. I call them the streetwalkers, they're not like the die-hard fans, they might go to the movies and see TAD and say 'what's that?' - and they decide to try something different.
td815: What do you find unique about TAD's audience? Because they're definitely more energetic than your usual audience.
CB: Film festival audiences are different from the typical film audience. There's something about the people who attend film festivals - they get it. People who are sitting there with them, they're there for the same reason. Whereas for typical audiences, I find that lately, some people are just there to kill time. Like they're not invested into the movie. They're just there to kill a couple of hours, and that's why the mannerism and respect for the film goes out the window. And you hear horror stories about people on cell phones, people talking, the stuff that ruins the movie viewing experience. And that's why it's a shame that people avoid movies because it's been ruined for them by other people. And it's a shame because movies should be seen on the biggest screen, and in the biggest theatre you can possibly get. There's something about sitting with 500 people, and you can laugh, and everyone's having a good time. Everyone's in sync, that's the best way you can describe it. And we get busier every year, and we win over a few more people each year.
td815: Going through other genre film festivals in Canada, it seems like TAD came on relatively late in the game. You had Fantasia in Montreal that started in the late 90s, and then right here in Toronto, TIFF's Midnight Madness program has been running for years. Was the fact that something like Midnight Madness existed in the city once a year one of the reasons why TAD wasn't created earlier?
CB: It's a good question, it more of a question for Adam. It's the question of why he started TAD. From what I understand, one of Adam's biggest friends is a market researcher, and when he had this idea to start his own film festival, he did about 2 years of research. Seeing what was in Toronto, what was playing, talked with programmers, tried to get a feel of what was missing or what Toronto needed. And my two cents is, there's a misconception that we only play horror movies. We don't - we play horror, action ,sci-fi and cult movies, and I think their audiences have really grown because of festivals like TIFF, Fantasia, and Sundance in the States. Say, Blair Witch blew up in 1999 and that was founded in Sundance, and it brings attention to different genres and filmmakers who do really well with those sorts of films. And people are always bringing these films back. Like the Bloor playing the Rocky Horror, and TIFF does a variety of programs and anniversary screenings. And it's a been ruined being a filmgoer now because back in the day, we didn't have the internet. So if you wanted to see something, you went to the video store, that was heaven for you. And then you would say 'hey mom, let's rent this', and she'd say 'no it's restricted'. Now that's gone.
td815: What was your favourite moment from all your years working for TAD?
CB: Hmm. In 2014, there was a zombie film from Australia called Wyrmwood, I love it to death, I tracked it for 3-4 years, and it took a while to a get made because it was an independent film. The movie was a blast, and I think the screening was on a Wednesday or Thursday night, and I made it a point that we sold well and the screening went well. We try to get as much press as we can, most films get about 10-20 reviews. So I adopted that movie for the week, and I couldn't shut up about it. And the movie was a blast, it sold out and it was a humbling experience. I even dressed up, I was wearing a shirt and tie, because to me if was kind of my baby and I wanted it to make an impression and it went over very well.
I was a producer on a film called The Demolisher, and that was a humbling experience being on the other end of the spectrum where I got involved with a film project. And we had our world premiere in Fantasia in Montreal, and then we brought it to Toronto. It was humbling being on the other end, and be on stage, and be there with the cast and crew. And the screening went pretty well, we sold that one out too.
Another moment would be from a film called Motivational Growth directed by Don Thacker. Dawn is a very energetic and charismatic individual. And he warned me that he wins awards for best Q+As - I think that was the longest Q+A we had at TAD, it went on for 50 minutes. We were literally being kicked out because Don is a machine when it comes to talking about him and his films and background.