Each year, in July, women who make horror movies gather for their very own Sundance. Founded by actress/filmmaker Shannon Lark in 2007, the Viscera Film Festival takes over Hollywood's Egyptian Theater for a day's worth of short films made by women, networking events, Q&As, a red carpet ceremony, and a guest speaker (last year's was Pet Sematary director Mary Lambert). For the festival's programming needs, Lark calls upon her close friend Heidi Honeycutt, a prolific blogger and journalist who's written for magazines like Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland and, in 2004, launched the first-ever female-minded horror website, Pretty Scary, a precursor to her current site, Planet Etheria, dedicated to, naturally, women who direct horror.
Originally an online festival, Lark's brainchild has evolved into more than just a showcase of movies it's a steadily growing movement. Through the Viscera Organization, she and her team also host Honeycutt's science-fiction-and-fantasy-geared Etheria Film Festival, the action fest Full Throttle, and the Women in Horror Month, an initiative that's dedicated to throwing events, education seminars, and pushing for press outreaches for female directors every February, spearheaded by Hannah "Neurotica" Forman.
Don't try telling Lark or Honeycutt that there aren't many women making horror movies—based on the hundreds of film submissions they sift through every year, they're perhaps more knowledgable about the ever-expanding number of aspiring female filmmakers than anyone. And they're determined to let the world know about every single one of them.
What were the initial motivations behind the Viscera Film Festival?
Shannon Lark: Heidi and I were already colleagues, so she started helping me find filmmakers. I wanted to do something completely different, and I didn't feel like there was a proper platform for female filmmakers to not only have a strong platform to show their films but also to be recognized specifically for what they were doing. We started doing this tour and started working with other film festivals who would show these films as a block, or just one showcase. That got these films into film festivals all around the world, to where they were collecting awards, and people were becoming more and more aware of not only the filmmakers themselves but also Viscera.
Heidi Honeycutt: Shannon and I knew each other from being around the horror film industry. She presented the idea to me, and when we first started, we had 10 films. I didn't go to school for film programming, so I asked my friends if we could use their films. At the time, there was really no way for women to connect with each other and network. If a woman's film wasn't getting covered on a horror website like Bloody Disgusting, then how would you hear about them?
Lark: We have over 30 people on staff, and it's all volunteer. They work all year around. This past February, we had around 50 Women in Horror Month "Ambassadors." They educate the audiences on all of the underrepresented female professionals working in the horror genre, in the past, present, and future. People who are coming up and people who have already established their careers. And we continue to tour throughout the year; we do university screenings, we do traditional movie houses. We do art galleries, we do museums.
It's really about providing amazing content to the public and making them realize that they need to be supporting not only female genre filmmakers but also female filmmakers in general. The more awareness we create and the more education we provide to these women, the more likely they're going to be able to access equal opportunity and pay. They have to demand it.
The festival seems to get bigger and bigger each year. What do you have in store for this summer's edition?
Lark: We're working with the Egyptian Theater again, in association with the American Cinematheque. We'll have an entire weekend of festivities, and we're launching a new service that's really exciting. The Masters of Horror had the TV series but also these Masters of Horror dinners. Mick Garris [creator of Masters of Horror] is an exceptionally nice guy, and basically there was a lack of women at their dinners, and that was the result of networking opportunities being unavailable to women. Women mostly work in low-budget independents, so the bigger mainstream projects that would put them alongside the Masters of Horror guys just aren't accessible.
A few women have been at those dinners, but not many. We've created a service called the Mistresses of Horror Alliance, and it will provide workshops, networking opportunities, and an annual grant. All the members will pay one annual membership due, and then they'll submit proposals to make a new short film, and then we'll take most of that money and apply it to a grant for one filmmaker. Whatever proposal is accepted, that filmmaker will receive that money and be able to make their film, and all of the other members will become producers on that film.
How has the status of women filmmakers in horror evolved since Viscera first launched?
Lark: There's definitely a change on the horizon. To keep that change happening in a very positive and strong way, women really need to get the education and learn how to work in the field. There is all of this stigma floating around women, that we have to juggle so many things and choose between our lives and our families. We're also really stepping into a boys club. It's going to take both genders to get women on an equal plane in any industry. Any press that comes out about it is fantastic.
At a lot of our Viscera events, I go around and talk to people, and a lot of these people, especially men, have no idea that women still don't have equal pay and opportunity in film. They think that's the past, that it's not happening, so it's important for them to start seeking out films made by women, whether directed and/or produced.
Honeycutt: Three years ago, if you went on Bloody Disgusting, you would maybe see an article on a Jennifer Lynch movie, or one if Kathryn Bigelow was making a new horror film. You would never see the small stuff, like Jessica Cameron's Truth or Dare—you would never see that stuff a few years ago. It was not getting covered, because nobody gave a shit and people weren't using Facebook and Twitter as effectively as they are now. People are learning how to promote themselves better. Also, there are more horror websites today, so there's more competition for news stories.
What these websites do is they post anything and everything they can possibly find, so they're more open to the content as well. Now, they're like, 'Oh, Jessica Cameron, I met her three years ago at that convention, so I'll write about her film,' whereas three years ago it would have been, "Oh, Jessica Cameron, she's an actress, so why should I write about her film [Truth or Dare]?" They have to pick their content very carefully, and the people who write for them don't get paid. The way that they've done business over the years has changed, and now suddenly women directors are newsworthy because everything is newsworthy now.
Lark: In 2012, only 5% of mainstream films were made by women. Everything else was made by a man. You would think that Kathryn Bigelow winning the Oscar would have propelled women, but it's pretty sad. If you want to call us "feminists," we're total third-wave feminists. We're not like, "Men are bad!" We love men, and we totally try to involve men. We encourage men to find female producers, but only if she is qualified. Don't work with a woman just because she's a woman.
We also try to get men to seek out women for their crews too. It's generally 90% men on a film set. My theory is that bringing more women onto film sets will only benefit the experience, because women will have different perspectives than men. Those will create more dynamic stories and characters, and new themes and thoughts. That's only going to create more interesting, and most likely more profitable, films. And that will create more jobs for both men and women.
Since most horror films are written and directed by men, do you think that results in weaker female characters?
Lark: Men make amazing films, but the horror genre has a total stigma about it. It's interesting how people who don't specifically like the horror genre, they'll say things like, "Oh, I don't like horror movies, but I liked that thriller." But thrillers can be in the horror genre. The stigma is there, though, and then you get these filmmakers who think they'll make a piece-of-crap horror movie to launch their career. There's a huge disconnect there.
Making a horror film, I think, is way more difficult than making a comedy. In comedies, the set-ups are pretty standard and characters are, for the most part, just talking heads. With horror, there are so many different visual elements and editing approaches you can use to convey fear. A really good horror film is very difficult to make.
Do you see male-dominated networking as being a big issue?
Lark: There are two sides to the film industry: the independent side and the mainstream side. Women are kicking ass in the independent side. They're getting more and more opportunities, but not in the mainstream side. Only 5% of women are holding directing and producing jobs there.
I don't think men are doing it intentionally. It's more that when they think of potential filmmakers to work with, they naturally think of people who've already been giving opportunities and have already proven themselves capable of delivering a great film. It's safer to invest in someone like that. We all naturally do that. If there's a job opening at your work, you're going to recommend someone you know is competent enough to handle it, and to know that you'd need to have seen what they can do already. It's just unfortunate that not as many women filmmakers have been given the opportunities to prove themselves.
With American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska have put themselves in a position that women directors rarely find themselves in.
Honeycutt: Jen and Sylvia are, first of all, good filmmakers, which helps—if you'e a shitty filmmaker you're going to have a hard time no matter what. Second, they are marketing machines, where they have really learned the system and learned how to exploit the horror system, in a good way. There's nothing negative about what they are doing.
If you're part of the horror community, you will see Jen and Sylvia Soska everywhere, and that's because they work their butts off. But if you look at the larger grand scheme of Hollywood, the studios and distribution companies are not pimping Jen and Sylvia's films; any pimping you've seen, they've had to do themselves. They've had to work their asses off, so while it may seem like they're everywhere, that's only because of their own efforts. In the industry, Jen and Sylvia still have to worry about being women in a sea of men directors.
Their movies have done incredibly well, so why weren't they directing a segment in first ABCs of Death? Why were there only two women directing out of 27 filmmakers? Are there only two women directors? No. It was a bunch of guys calling other guys, and then they were like, "You know what? I once hung out with [ABCs co-director] Angela Bettis at a convention—you think we should ask her? Yeah!" I guarantee you there was no discussion where someone said, "Let's make a list of all the directors we want to ask…wait, this list is all white guys, and three Asian guys, and hardly any women." It was just, "Let's hit our bros and then fill in any gaps we have at the end with hot chicks."
Do you think it'll lead to anything outside of the independent world?
Honeycutt: That's the thing. While Jen and Sylvia are getting all of this press, is it getting them any jobs? Will this help them get their next project off the ground more easily? I don't know. I think they still have challenges in front of them that are due to the fact that they are women. Part of it, too, is they're very attractive and they're twins. While no press is bad press, one thing they're going to have face is will they be taken seriously because men find them attractive?
That's a shame. If you're a woman who's attractive, that should have nothing to do with your work, and if it does have something to do with your work, that's a problem. Then, you have to worry about, am I too attractive? Am I too ugly? Men don't have to worry about these things. You can be a fat, ugly, disgusting pig, and it doesn't matter if you're a good filmmaker—all that matters is that you're a good filmmaker. For women, and I think Jen and Sylvia are going to run into this, they are going to find that sometimes their looks will hurt them and sometimes it will help them. That's just the way that people see women in our society.
Lark: The studios are always looking for directors who have proven themselves with a couple indie movies and can handle whatever remake they have lying around. But I think it's always best to get outside financing and then sell your movie to the studio, because you need to retain ownership. Being a work-for-hire director, or what they call a "hired gun," is definitely not as good as executive producing your own movie and getting the financing yourself. That way, you own a good amount of that movie. Distribution companies can really screw you over. For me, I would feel very uncomfortable being a hired gun. Studios can change the script at a moment's notice and they will be in your face constantly, and that's the worst thing to happen to a filmmaker who's just trying to tell a good story.
Would studio executives think they can manipulate women more, thinking that they'll be happier to have been given the opportunity in the first place?
Lark: That's been going on since cinema was born. In the '20s, the banks bought out the major studios, so all of the females were basically told that they have secretary jobs or they don't have anything. Some women did preserver, though, like Ida Lupino. She started as an actress and got tired of playing these only sexual personalities. She started following the directors around a studio lot and asked questions. She created her directing career. She had this chair that she called "Mother"; the crews were basically all-male, so whenever a man would talk back to her, she would say, "Well, Mother needs you do it." She was able to displace the leadership to the chair to get the crew to do what she needed them to do. Women like her totally paved the way for every woman now.
Shannon, in addition to being a filmmaker, you're also an actress. How important is it for actress to consider making the transition into filmmaking?
Lark: Scream queens, in general, need to be making their own films. The way that careers are so set up, if a woman is just an actress, especially a scream queen, viewers can put them in boxes, and these movies are very low pay.
I started acting 10 years ago, and I quickly realized that I need to be making my own films in order to get the roles that I want. Being able to do that has gotten me in touch with other filmmakers because they've seen what I'm able to do. Starting out, I would go into auditions and they would expect me to get naked, to strip, and they'd see disrespectful comments about my body. Women have to put up with that all the time, and women should be claiming respect for themselves. If they want to get naked, then why not make their own film and get naked in it? At least that way they'll have the control and be on a set that's respectful to them.