Toronto After Dark's director turned a childhood passion for cinema into a thriving film festival.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
When Adam Lopez was 13 years old, he went to the headmaster of his school in England and asked for permission to start a new club—one devoted to science fiction and horror movies. Nearly 30 years later, Lopez is now the founder and director of Toronto After Dark, a Toronto film festival that celebrates cult, crime, action, horror, and science fiction cinema. This year, Toronto After Dark runs for nine days—October 17-25—in its new home at the Scotiabank Theatre.
Lopez is a hyperkinetic former marketing and advertising man who turned his childhood passion for movies into a vocation. Before launching Toronto After Dark in 2006, he spent two years researching the nitty-gritty of running a film festival, speaking to both homegrown experts at the Toronto International Film Festival and travelling to check out the competition overseas. “We didn’t want to just launch a festival. We really wanted to create a community,” Lopez says. “This is really for the fans.” Now, Toronto After Dark offers screenings, pub nights, contests, and a robust social-media presence for fans to tap into.
We spoke to Lopez about the timeless appeal of horror movies, the importance of a good template, and the festival’s surprising romantic side.
Torontoist: How do you decide what makes the cut? How many submissions do you get, how many go on to play the festival, and what makes a film Toronto After Dark material?
Adam Lopez: Obviously, we’re very specific: we advertise that we only want horror, sci-fi, action, and cult films. People are submitting to us with that in mind, and because of the great profile we’ve built over the last eight years, we get a lot of entries. Filmmakers want to get into Toronto After Dark, and each year we look at an astonishing number of films. We get over seven hundred submissions. About five hundred of those are short films, and two hundred are feature films. We have to winnow that down: we play about twenty feature films a year. With the short films, we get that number down to about thirty. If you’re a short filmmaker, you’re looking at odds of about five per cent of getting in, and of about ten per cent if you’re a feature filmmaker. It’s really hard to pick that ten per cent! We have huge debates and discussions.
One of the things I’m really lucky and gifted with is my programming team. But as the festival’s champion and guardian, I really want to make that final call. I’m very proud of each year’s lineup. I think of myself as the head chef in a restaurant. I’ve got five chefs, and they show me items they want on the menu each year, and I, as the head chef, will say, “I’m not sure if that’s something we should have on our menu, we already have plenty of flavours that are similar,” that kind of thing. For example, we have to put some horror, and within that, there are different shades: supernatural, monster, some scary, and some funny. With the sci-fi, action, crime, and cult movies, we’re looking for films with a bit of a dark edge that we think will play in the lineup.
Has anything been submitted to the festival that you’ve had to turn away? Specifically, horror movies that are way too much—or is there such a thing as “too much?”
There was a film a couple years ago that was doing the festival circuit rounds. I didn’t actually watch it, but two of my programmers did, and we could tell that because this film pushed boundaries and buttons so horrifically, it was getting into a lot of festivals based on notoriety. I want to think of Toronto After Dark as a crowd-pleasing genre festival. I want our films to be getting 5.0 audience ratings. I don’t want to be the festival where half the audience gives the film a five, and half give it a zero or one, or even worse, walk out. I know there are films that play the festival circuit that are very graphic, and they push horror to an extreme, violating level—sexual violence, mutilations, violence against children—in a nasty, exploitative way. I get a few emails asking why we’re not playing those notorious films, and there’s a reason: there are only going to be 50 people that like it, and 350 who hate it. I don’t want to cater to such a narrow crowd.
Can you talk about the difference between a festival in its first or second year, and one that’s now in its eighth year?
[Laughs] Every year, I think this job’s going to get easier. Yesterday, I pulled a 40-hour shift. With a grassroots festival, there isn’t really any gravy. We basically cover our costs each year, and it’s still a stretch. It’s a lot of fun, but the workload doesn’t get that much easier. One thing that has gotten easier is that we’ve built a lot of templates, from the website, to emails, to our program guide. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel if you’ve got things that work. We also get a lot of data from our audiences, and that allows us to tweak things. For example, we got data last year that said that some of our screening times weren’t very fan-friendly. From polling, we’ve discovered that 7:00 and 9:30 are the optimal start times for our audiences. There are little tweaks you do, but there’s still so much work.
Why do you think genre movies appeal to people?
I get asked this question at least a couple times a year, and I’m still debating the answer. For me, it’s just that I love these films. I love the escapism. With horror films, you can feel scared of things that are very primal. It’s hard to scare audiences these days, but they always come to us looking for that. We have a couple scary movies this year, including a Bigfoot movie called Willow Creek with some genuinely chilling moments. With science fiction, there’s the general escapism of going into the future or another planet, which takes us out of our day-to-day. That’s what genre films are all about: escaping somewhere for two hours in the dark. We maybe want to feel like there are still monsters in the dark.
How do you keep a film festival’s momentum going through the rest of the year?
If we find a film that will be gone by the time of the festival, we’re open to dropping it into the calendar and building an event around it. What we did this year is pick four films, pair them up, and then screen them. The spotlights are sort of like a mini-festival in one night, and the feedback we had from fans was fantastic.
To be brutally honest, it’s very hard to create gravitational pull in the city of Toronto. Every night of the week, people have so many choices for entertainment, so some of the spotlights did very well, and some really struggled in the noise of Toronto. Having said that, the main festival is so much hard work, and we really do burn out on that.
How does Toronto After Dark leave an impact on people’s lives?
We’ve had people who have become best friends by coming to Toronto After Dark screenings and the social events, from just talking to the people that they meet in line. We had a couple of volunteers who have gone on to get married and are now expecting their first child, so we have the first Toronto After Dark baby coming! And they met through the festival. We’ve had people who met at the festival go off and make films together. It’s nice to be a part of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo by Kaitlyn Kochany/Torontoist.