Interview: Adam Lopez

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Adam Lopez is crazy busy. It’s a scant three days before the festival he helped to create, The Toronto After Dark Film Festival, enters its eighth year bringing a wide spectrum of spooky, gory, goopy, silly, creepy, and sometimes flat out insane genre films to Toronto audiences. On the phone with him from his uptown Toronto home, one can hear Lopez through the speakerphone multitasking – rustling papers and cracking away on a computer keyboard at brief moments – but talking with a great deal what’s undoubtedly adrenaline fuelled vigour and excitement at what’s about to come.

Over the past eight years – seven of which took place at The Bloor and one at the now defunct Toronto Underground Cinema – Lopez has had some really high profile genre films pass through his festival making their Toronto, Canadian, and sometimes world debuts: Let the Right One In, Tokyo Gore Police, Dead Snow, the Eli Roth produced The Last Exorcism, Neil Marshall’s Centurion, stoner comedy High School, Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber and his follow-up Wrong, Astron 6 titles Father’s Day and Manborg, A Lonely Place to Die, Lucky McKee’s The Woman, Ti West’s The Innkeepers, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and American Mary are just a few of the films Lopez and his team have landed, making them one of the most viable festivals in a city full of them when it comes to gauging cult audience appeal.

It’s the fans that makes the festival for Lopez, though. “It’s a huge labour of love for me,” he said. “But I always felt from the beginning that this was always about the community behind the festival and watching us all – programmers, volunteers, fans, the press, filmmakers – building something and watching it all together.”

This year brings new challenges for Lopez and his team, but not in terms of film programming – which kicks off Thursday, October 17th with the Toronto premiere of former TAD alum Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are and closes on Friday the 25th with the local debut of Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli thriller that Quentin Tarantino recently branded as the best film he’s seen so far this year.

This year, Toronto After Dark moves from its long time home, to a theatre at the downtown Scotiabank Theatre, owned by Cineplex. Moving to a more corporatized chain wasn’t an easy decision to make, marking the third time the successful and indeed still growing festival has had to move in three years, but it’s had its share of advantages for the little festival.

We talked to Lopez about how he feels the personal burdens of the festival on behalf of the fans, what he loves about working alongside Cineplex, the unexpected benefits of partnering with a chain outside of the obvious, why accessibility has always been a priority for him, theme nights, and why they chose We Are What We Are for the opening night gala.

Dork Shelf: The first place I wanted to start with is that you guys have continued to grow over the past few years, but you have also had to switch venues for three straight years now. And yet, it doesn’t seem like it has hurt the festival at all with your move to Cineplex this year with passes still selling out. That’s a real testament to the fans that keep coming out year after year.

Adam Lopez - F2Adam Lopez: I’m really glad that you bring that up because I think, as you know, I’m incredibly sensitive to changes for fans, and I have to be as sort of the organizer, guard of the brand, etc. I think as you’ve noticed or anyone who has ever been on our email list or enters into even one of the contest giveaways that we do knows that we are constantly asking questions from our audience and our fans because it’s the only way we will ever know the answers to a lot of our most important questions. But they have always been very supportive and indeed very vocal and thoughtful with their responses, and knock wood we can retain that solid attendance.

Three years ago now, everything that happened with The Bloor kind of left us scrambling because they were remodelling. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be there, but we had to find something. Thankfully the Toronto Underground Cinema was there just by chance, and while that was a bit grungier of a venue and more of a seat of the pants kind of change for us, people still came out in droves. Then we went back to The Bloor last year, and now we find ourselves at Cineplex.

And it’s not easy to make that change. I talked to other people who book for other various kinds of festivals that said to expect at least a 25% drop off in attendance if you go through a venue change or a date change of any kind with an established event, and thankfully we have never experienced that the past couple of years.

So this year, since The Bloor has indeed made the move towards doing almost strictly documentary fare because it works best for them, we had to find something new, and thankfully Cineplex was there, and even more thankfully the reception from fans has generally been really positive. Every year we always reevaluate where we are going to go anyway, and this year I watched and saw that Cineplex was having a great deal of success with this monthly genre series called Sinister Cinema. So I talked to the people from Raven Banner that were a part of working with them and they had nothing but really positive things to say about it and how much fun they had and how much support they were getting, and that was great to hear.

And yet, a part of me did sweat and worry about it a lot at first. I carry a lot of the emotional weight of the festival on my shoulders because I know it would ultimately be about how fans would emotionally connect to the festival and the films that mattered most. And I think that maybe 5 or 6 years ago if we said we were going to hold this festival  in a multiplex styled venue it would have been poo-pooed or people would have been horrified. But the truth is that Cineplex has been making the shift to doing lots of interesting specialty programming and branching out and they were offering a lot of support.

So after I heard about how Sinister Cinema had been going, I went into meetings with Cineplex, and originally they were pitching us with smaller venues, like 300 seat auditoriums, which I knew wasn’t really going to work for us. So then they came up with the idea of saying “How about Cinema 1 at the Scotiabank?” which was the largest auditorium that they could give us at over 550 seats and in one of their flagship theatres. It was the biggest thing they could offer, and we even tested it out this summer as you might have seen with our summer screenings, which went really, really well and we were both pleased with the results.

But one of the things that I have always held in high regard was the keep the festival accessible for fans every year. This year there’s the addition of fans being able to collect Scene points, which are huge here in Canada. Even just the venue itself has made our festival a lot more accessible in a lot of ways. When we would do surveys every year and we would ask people if they knew where our venue was, when people would see The Bloor or The Underground, there were still people who said they had no idea where either theatre is. With the switch to Cineplex, which is the largest theatre chain in Canada, that number has shrunk considerably.

Another thing that I found really interesting that I hadn’t thought about before was how convenient it was going to be for fans coming from out of town. As you probably know, genre fans love going out to events, and a lot of them would love to come in from out of town, but sometimes the late nights weren’t really conducive to having everyone come out that wanted to come out. Now one of the things I have been getting a lot more positive feedback on than I would have initially thought was how close the venue is to Union Station and how happy people are that they can still come out and be able to get back home at night with relative ease, as opposed to our previous venues which could have been difficult at times.

And of course, there’s still our post-screening Pub After Dark, which is still happening at The Office Pub on John Street, which is right around the corner and less than a two minute walk from the venue. So this year has proved to be really accessible in a lot of respects.

Also, I think just having an association with Cineplex for this kind of festival helps with that accessibility. One of the things I always wanted to do was to open the festival to wider audiences. Say what you will about Cineplex being a giant corporation, because they are, but they are the type of company that has been doing great things with event and independent film programming, and we’re definitely more in line with what we think is event cinema, making this kind of a perfect fit. You don’t have to look much further than the North American box office numbers to see that the actual number of “butts in seats,” as it were, has been steadily declining. They have really been working with some exciting options, not just in genre film, but also with theatre, ballet, sporting events, and independent films to try and reverse that. They really understand what we are all about.

And, I mean, it also helps that they have been so supportive and promoting us on their website, so someone who might be browsing this weekend for something like Gravity or Carrie might come across our programming that’s playing at one of the busiest theatres in the largest chain in Canada. I mean, there are still some tiny little teething problems, where we’re still working on getting our system and their system to work together, but that’s mostly on the side of ticketing, and something that can be easily sorted. I have nothing but great things to say about our partnership.

 We Are What We Are

DS: So what led to your selection of We Are What We Are as this year’s opening night film? What made you stand up, take notice, and make this one a gala?

AL: Well, first of all, I have a wonderful programming team at my disposal: Steven Landry, Justin McConnell, Christian Burgess, Peter Kuplowsky, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, and these guys are with me year round helping me take a look at what’s available, but I ultimately make the final call when it comes to the major gala screenings at the opening and closing, and this year two films really stood out above the rest in We Are What We Are and Big Bad Wolves, both of which had great support from the programming team as a whole.

There was something about the prestige of We Are What We Are that made it really appealing, and there’s something about it that’s a bit different from a lot of genre fare. I don’t know exactly how it will go over and it’s impossible to predict, but I feel it can be as successful as some of the more artful titles we had, especially something like the success of Let the Right One In from several years ago. There’s a really similar feel to the trajectory of both movies. It has a great deal of crossover potential

It’s a really great sort of coming of age story, this one. It’s the story of siblings living with an authoritarian and widowed father, so you can look at it just from that perspective if that’s what interests you, but there’s also a lot of tension and the family has a dark secret that adds the genre element. For lack of a better word, the family is made of cannibals, so there’s that element that can bring in the crowd who normally comes to us for that kind of stuff, too. (laughs) It’s just so well acted and written, and also a bit of a crime thriller at heart because the town starts wondering about all these bodies that have been piling up after a flood.

And director Jim Mickle was someone we really had a great relationship with. His debut feature Mulberry Street was a gala premiere for us back in 2006, and even back then with that film I could feel and see the heart and passion that he had. Then three years later he got into TIFF with Stake Land, which won him the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award. Now, I wasn’t able to attend the premiere of the film, but I did see Stake Land at, I think it was the third screening of it. It was just after he had been told he was the winner of the People’s Choice award, and he was so emotional and grateful, and he was thanking the City of Toronto and he even thanked After Dark for playing his first movie, which really meant a lot to me. We have never had a filmmaker be a two time gala filmmaker, but I’m so happy it’s Jim. He’s actually off working on his next movie right now, but he was able to juggle his schedule around and he is going to be in attendance, which is great.

And, I mean, we also have a mandate that the film has to at least be a Toronto area premiere, and We Are What We Are, even though it had played Cannes and Sundance, hadn’t had that yet, and since we all liked it, we got in touch with the distributor, eOne, and since they weren’t quite sure what they were going to do with it yet, we said we would love to have it as the opening night gala.

DS: It also seems like this year, you have a lot more theme nights than in previous years. Was that something you planned on or somewhat of a happy accident in the way things aligned for you?

AL: A lot of it just seemed to line up. We had played with these kinds of things in the past, and we’ve always had a bit of an internal debate about them, but it’s still nice to have. There’s still a lot of casual filmgoers who will look at a line-up of 19 or 20 movies and not know what exactly it is they want to see, but they will know immediately what they want to see if they like something they see listed if it’s in their interest.  I am eternally grateful that every year fans always sell us out of our All Access Passes for every screening, but I know not everyone would come to see every film. I know we have quite a few fans who like Sci-Fi and really only want to come to the Sci-Fi night, and it’s really hard to find high quality indie Sci-Fi films, so I like that we have a night we can devote just to them. If you’re into monsters, we have a special bug night this year. If you like gore, we have a night for that, too. The more adventurous viewers might want to try our gross out night. It’s all about what kind of fun you like to have when you go to the movies.

And, of course, I can’t forget about our Zombie Appreciation Night. We’ve partnered up with the Toronto Zombie Walk again, and even though they are actually holding their event a week after us, I have no doubt that they will be out in full force again. The zombies are always a big part of what makes the experience every year so special.

For more information on Toronto After Dark and a full list of films and events, please visit their website. For tickets and passes, head on over to Cineplex. And check back all week for updates from this year’s festival line-up.