Neuchatel Fantastic Film Festival Brings Genre Out of the Shadows

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Running July 2-10, the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) will mark its 20th edition this year with a nod to the past, as organizers look to commemorate the lakeside festival’s rise from modest fan gathering to one of Switzerland’s leading film events. Fueling the festival’s ascent has also been the explosive growth of genre fare, which in ways big and small the very festival has helped usher from the periphery of the international film business right to the center.

“I like to think that the evolution of the genre market and the growth of the NIFFF are in response to one another,” Neuchâtel artistic director Loïc Valceschini tells Variety. “It’s a dialectic. On one side, the festival built its identity on offering the widest possible vision of fantastic films, while at the same time the genre itself was diversifying – diversifying in terms of content, but also in terms of production and consumption.”

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“That’s why I wanted to return to this subject for the festival’s 20th edition,” says Valceschini, who organized two panels dedicated to the subject and offered past directors and co-founders Anaïs Emery and Olivier Müller and incoming director Pierre-Yves Walder – due to take the reins after this year’s edition – a carte blanche to program films from previous years they felt marked the festival’s unique stamp.

“The founders didn’t want to recreate another pure and simple genre festival,” Valceschini explains. “That’s what has distinguished the NIFFF for many years. At other festivals people say to us, ‘Oh, NIFFF you’re the arty festival!’ And it’s true, without turning our noses up at anything, we do try to show the full spectrum of the fantastic, to show how it can work in other forms of production.”

Carving an identity in the European genre circuit alongside longer established festivals in Sitges and Brussels, NIFFF built a brand on unconventional programing and high-profile guests, hosting the likes of George R.R. Martin, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter in recent vintages. Both plans of action helped to bolster a loyal audience, which topped at 49,000 attendees at the festival’s most recent physical edition in 2019.

NIFFF has also partnered with the Swiss Film Archive on a traveling program of 13 films that showcase genre standouts from the past two decades.

“They’ve chipped away at an established film culture that is intensely conservative in Switzerland,” says Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions at the production and sales outfit XYZ Films. “They really did have a role in changing that conversation [around taste and funding] by coming in early, betting on people while they’re still making shorts, championing them and being a voice in the ear of funders to say, ‘Look, there is an audience for this. Look who’s coming.’”

“Neuchâtel has been a real voice for change, trying to get people to understand that there are more kinds of art than just a family sitting around a dining room table talking about sad thing,” he adds.

As Brown sees it, by building and sustaining loyal bases of attendees, festivals like Neuchâtel, or Montreal’s Fantasia or Austin’s Fantastic Fest (for which Brown was a programmer) have succeeded in breaking genre fare out of a niche ghetto. But he also cites more proactive measures from further up the supply chain coming from that same genre circuit. Brown point to the Frontières Market, a co-production initiative developed by the Fantasia Film Festival, as one illustrative example.

“This particular festival community – especially those who started during the early 2000s – really did come in as outsiders. So there’s a certain type of positive tribalism where they want to find and take care of their people, and this is a natural way of doing it.”

“They’ve embraced new opportunities and responsibilities and really actively looking to [fill the gaps in the market],” Brown continues. “They started off as being pure fan celebrations and now they’re really actively taking a hand at driving things forward, leveraging their relationships [to do so].”

Over the past decade, Neuchâtel has sat in pole position within this growing network remaking the current landscape. Frontières’ current executive director Annick Mahnert, for example, started at Neuchâtel in 2003, programming shorts and then features for the Swiss event until 2011. Through her NIFFF programming work, Mahnert met Frontières founder Stéphanie Trepanier, who later invited Mahnert to join the co-pro market as a mentor and project evaluator in 2013.

One of Mahnert’s first pet-projects at Frontières was Julia Ducournau’s “Raw,” a title Valceschini, Brown, and Mahnert all cite as one that broke barriers and created new opportunities for genre fare on the international stage. (Indeed, Ducournau’s genre friendly follow-up, “Titane,” will launch in competition in Cannes next month.)

“With the success of ‘Raw,’ the bigger sales agents started to be interested in genre,” Mahnert explains. “Suddenly the film goes to Cannes, Toronto and Sundance and… all bigger companies starting to do it. It all kind of exploded when one film had this [intense success].”

As Neuchâtel continues to build out its industry offering under the NIFFF Extended banner, Mahnert believes that it must also continue banging the drum for genre fare as loud as can be. “We need to give these films visibility,” she says. “Whatever buzz comes out of the festival, the industry hears it, because there comes a point where they can’t ignore it anymore… So it’s an important actor. It brings films to Switzerland that aren’t being bought and don’t have distribution.”

“Switzerland is not very big,” she adds. “So word travels very quickly.”

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