Since 2014, a female-focused horror film festival has wowed movie fans in the greater Los Angeles area—and this year it’s reaching a whole new audience. Etheria Film Night, also known as the Etheria Film Festival, champions women directors, editors, producers, and screenwriters of horror, science fiction, fantasy, action, thriller, and dark comedy movies. The short film festival showcases bold new voices and facilitates career advancement by screening the works of the filmmakers in front of the showrunners who want to hire them.
Now in its seventh year, Etheria stands as the world's most prestigious genre film festival for women filmmakers, providing a vital platform for women who create and direct genre film and TV. In years past, the festival screened its shorts in movie houses and at in-person events. 2020, of course, is an altogether different beast. So the fest is doing something different. In response to the pandemic and social distancing orders, Etheria joined forces with horror streaming service Shudder as its exclusive partner for the Etheria 2020 Shorts Program. From now until July 20th, horror fans from around the world can stream all of the Etheria 2020 Shorts Program entries on Shudder—from Mia'kate Russell's "Maggie May" and Yoko Okumura's "Basic Witch" to Alexandria Perez's "The Final Girl Returns" and more!
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Heidi Honeycutt is Etheria's founder and its Director of Programming. We were lucky enough to connect with Heidi for a phone interview about the festival's origins and its future. In the conversation below, Heidi shares her thoughts on Etheria, feminism in genre films, working with Shudder, the future of horror, and more. In addition to her work with the festival, Heidi is a film journalist who works extensively at the intersection of horror and feminism. Etheria is the embodiment of this integral discourse.
I'd like to start by asking what initially drove you towards creating such an integral film festival for women directors, producers, and editors in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy? Are there are any particular instances of memories that come to mind that may have inspired you?
The Etheria Film Festival started as an idea back in 2007. I was surrounded by an eclectic crowd of people and there was an attitude of “if you want to do something, go do it.” At the time, horror films were far less female-friendly. While there were a lot of women involved in it, they were primarily actresses. It was rare to go to a convention and see female horror directors and I thought that was odd. It felt like a boy’s club. That’s when the festival that grew into Etheria came into being.
When Etheria was conceived, we took what we had from the original festival and transformed it into fun genres like sci-fi, action, horror, and more. Women are mostly encouraged to create dramas or documentaries, which are then viewed as women genres. Typically, people don’t go to festivals to watch these types of films. They want to see Star Wars, something from Blumhouse Productions, and comedies. Statistically, that’s true. The good Hollywood jobs are in those genres and if you don’t have a body of work in your repertoire, then you’ll never break through into those genres. That’s why we wanted Etheria to showcase women who did have skills in these genres so they would be more visible and could immediately get hired as a director. There are a lot of men who get full-features from their shorts but there needs to be the opportunity for women to do the same.
You've dedicated a great majority of your life to horror, including working for Fangoria magazine. What impact has your past experience at Fangoria have on the festival, if it has had one at all?
My work there did not necessarily help Etheria but it did make my name more visible to Fangoria readers. If a reader hears of Etheria, they’d be familiar with my work. Even better than name recognition, it offered the opportunity to develop relationships and friendships with people who are doing great stuff in horror like Chris Alexander.
As a horror fan, are there any specific films that inspired you and your work? Furthermore, are there any directors whose films have influenced you in any way?
I am fascinated with women directors, especially those I have become friends with. Stephanie Rothman is a director I admire a great deal. She was one of the first women to make a modern horror film. I met her through researching her films and, honestly, fan-girling about female directors. Mary Lambert and Rachel Talalay are great friends that I’ve gotten the chance to meet and build friendships with them. I admire the women who contribute their shorts to Etheria. At the end of the day, it's valuable to feel you have friends. When you’re friends with people you respect and they respect you, there’s nothing better.
Alongside your background in communications and journalism, you've appeared in documentaries on feminism’s connection to horror. What has it been like for you personally to watch Etheria grow, with this year marked by Etheria's partnership with a major streaming service like Shudder?
It’s been amazing. At some point in my life, everything went really wrong. This happens to everyone. Once you feel like you might be getting a grip, it crumbles. What makes all of that worth it is when one thing goes right and, for me, that’s Etheria. I am so proud of it and it seems to go right year after year. Having one thing you can be proud of is all you can really hope for in life. If you get that you’re ahead of the game from most people.
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Being on Shudder is two different things. Yes, more people saw it but the biggest triumph was knowing that the horror community takes us seriously. The best part is the fact that Shudder is the horror community. The people who work there are in the community, they come from the horror fandom. Knowing that they support Etheria and that they don’t think it’s silly or just a woman’s festival means they take it and the filmmakers seriously. It means a lot to have people in your community support you with enthusiasm. It’s validation, we shouldn’t need it from the outside, but it feels pretty cool when it does happen.
For 2020, the festival has an amazing lineup that offers an array of genres and unbelievably exciting stories. What was it like going through the process of viewing submissions, choosing the films, and perfecting it to include something for every fan?
We watch every single film. There is never a film that doesn’t get watched. We have a lot of judges that go through two rounds to pick the featured shorts. During the first round, we normally receive 1,200 films and we reduce that to a pool of 50. The second and final round, the finalist judges watch shorts in genres they’re familiar with. At the end of the day, it comes down to what the audience wants to see. As a programmer, curating a lineup that works together, that the fanbase likes, and makes sense, is crucial. Our selection is a mix of genres so that there is something for everyone.
As viewers may have noticed, most of the films, if not all, contain a message about the experience of womanhood with a surprisingly horrific twist. With that in mind, have you found that submissions are growing more politically centered on themes such as the patriarchy, misogyny, violence against women, and health access?
We see a lot of female protagonists and by the very nature of that fact, as a female character, they face sexism and violence because women actually face it in the real world. You drop your character in a situation and have them react in the way they would naturally. In “Basic Witch” it is clearly about the issue of consent and how two people are talking about it to figure out what it really is. It’s very different from movies where a bunch of men are killed because they assault women. Great storytelling will get the point across.
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No one should pick favorites, as stated by Sylvia May in Mia 'Kate Russell’s horror short "Maggie May", but if you could pick one short to watch over and over again from this year's submissions, which would it be?
It would be too hard to pick a favorite. These shorts are the ones that really stuck out to us. Each one has its own merits. "Basic Witch" sticks out to me a lot considering the script. If someone were to read it, they’d think it would turn out horrible, but the director, Yoko Okumura, did it perfectly. She takes an uncomfortable subject and explores it with comedy, elements of magic, and the perfect set of actors.
You have given such a vital platform to women in horror. How do you see the Etheria festival growing from here? Are there any future plans to expand the festival to different locations or possibly doing both in-person and digital screenings to provide access to anyone who wants to participate? Furthermore, do you see Shudder and Etheria working together again in the future?
We would love to explore doing digital alongside a live event. If someone isn’t able to be there in person, you can’t see it, but being able to have people watch it online puts a lot more eyes on it. At the end of the day, that means more eyes on the films and filmmakers. It’s important that people get the chance to present their genre film to people who also appreciate whichever genre they’re working with. We would be happy to work with Shudder again in the future.
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What has it been like transitioning from a physical festival to a near-exclusive digital event? What are the pros and cons?
It was so much easier to go digital and it did not cost nearly as much as an in-person event. If you have a live event, it’s like planning a wedding. You need to consider sponsors, decorations, posters, if you want alcohol, and so much more. Going digital, we sent the files to Shudder and the banner, that was it. The only downside was contributions from sponsors for the digital event were relatively slim.
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Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions previously stated that there "are not a lot of female directors" in horror as a reason for not hiring them. Blum later apologized for the comment. Do you think Etheria could play a part in dismantling the misogynistic views of women directors in horror?
I hope so, it would be arrogant to say that it definitely will but I do hope that women filmmakers will be more visible to major studios with the exposure Etheria provides. In regards to what Jason said, he is silly because Blumhouse has worked with a lot of women directors. He’s silly for saying it, he knows that women have directed for him.
Do you believe that the feminist overtones of each short could drastically alter the sexist male gaze in the genre over time?
The biggest problem with Etheria right now is that it feels very representative of who I am, a white woman, and my partner who is Asian. We have white, Asian, and Hispanic directors but we would like for the festival to have a lot more diversity. No one’s outright racist or sexist, but people are friends with people that remind them of them. Most of the people with hiring capabilities are white men, so the most likely candidate is a white man for hire. We all want more diversity in all films no matter the genre. Etheria is a space that provides the opportunity to expand the network of filmmakers who are not white men.
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As a fan of horror, are there any feature-length films directed by women you are looking forward to seeing hit theaters?
I’m really looking forward to new movies from specific directors. For example, there’s a movie coming out by Elza Kephart, a Canadian director, called Slaxxx. I am really looking forward to seeing it.
What would be your idea of a dream team of women producers, editors, directors, cinematographers, etc. that could make one of the most incredible horror films of all time?
I would have to say Gale Anne Hurd as a producer, you have to have her as the producer. The screenwriter I would pick is Claire D’este. She’s only done shorts but she is brilliant. My friends Ama Lea and Izzy Lee are two directors who have made horror films and shorts for a while, they would be a great choice. Another director who could really work in a dream team would be Jill Gezargizian. She’s a short film director who made a film called "The Stylist" in 2016 and is now making it into a feature on her own. Picking anyone for a dream project is difficult because there is so much talent out there but right now, these are my definite picks.
All photos, logos, and stills courtesy of Etheria Film Night