Toronto After dark, the ghouls come out as night falls. The twilight of 2021 is upon us, and the season of the witch takes hold.
A new Saw movie or a new slasher flick probably just hit theatres, as is the common cycle once October rolls around. But if you’re looking for something a little outside the mainstream, Toronto is home to a more grassroots horror movie festival.
The Toronto After Dark Film Festival is an annual independent festival showcasing independent horror, sci-fi, action, and cult films every October, just in time for Halloween. It took place this year between Oct. 13-17.
The festival usually takes up residence in the Scotiabank Theatre for a week every October, but due to ongoing concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, the fest shifted to a virtual platform. Instead of having the terror experience in a packed movie theatre as has become so synonymous with the genre, viewers tuned in from the comfort of their homes.
“Horror in person ,in the theatre, is the best experience. Nothing like a collective audience jumping out of their seats together on a Friday night,” said Adam Lopez, the festival’s founder and director. “So many, if not most, of our fans can’t wait for our in-person return next October!”
Though the format wasn’t one that the team at Toronto After Dark was used to, they found ways to adapt. Lopez is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. His desire to churn out the best possible product has led to the reverence and professionalism that the festival has become known for.
His professionalism ended up forcing his hand in 2020, when instead of making a half-hearted effort to put the festival on a virtual platform, he decided to cancel it for the year. That year off was a time to think, and to weigh how he would go about putting on this year’s iteration of After Dark.
“It was really bizarre and painful, not having any event going on. But, with no vaccine in sight in October 2020 and the first fall wave of the pandemic, we felt it was the right thing to do,” Lopez said. “Besides, I took a poll of my staff and asked them, ‘How many of you want to do a virtual fest instead, or wait for 2021 when we can come back in person?’ And everyone said, ‘Let’s delay by a year, everything will be back to normal, right?’ Little did we know.”
The change in format had many pros and cons for the festival and for the directors alike. Toronto After Dark, despite its humble beginnings, has established itself as a big player in the horror community, receiving submissions from around the world.
However, many directors that the team had reached out to ended up backing out this year.
“A couple of feature filmmakers we invited said, ‘No, thanks’ when we said we were doing virtual. They wanted the big-screen premiere that we are usually known for and just sadly could not do this year,” Lopez said.
On the other hand, the turnout for the virtual fest saw an increase in ticket sales. Most ticket buyers tend to be people who have attended the festival in prior years, but Lopez said that 20 per cent of pass buyers were new customers.
They also streamed the festival Canada-wide, which opened them up to new markets in British Columbia, Quebec, and the East Coast.
The festival showcased 10 feature films from across the globe, also put an emphasis on giving a platform to short-film directors. This year they had a total of 20 short films on the docket (nine from Canada, and 11 international selections).
Some familiar faces were featured in some of the films at the fest, from Gong Yoo (star of Train to Busan and more recently known for his role in Netflix’s Squid Game) to Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds), the grassroots nature of the festival doesn’t dissuade some big names in the industry.
“In total I spent almost three years on research before we launched in 2006. And with over 4,000 attendees in year one, we instantly became the most successful new film festival launches in the city in years, so all that effort paid off,” said Lopez.
“Today, some 15 years later, we average over 10,000 attendees and are considered in the top five film events out of close to 100 in the city, so it’s definitely grown up to be a big success!”