HorrorHound Speaks to the Team Behind Horrible Imaginings

Returning to The Frida Cinema Thursday, September 2nd through Sunday, September 5th, the 12th annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival will offer a cinematic and artistic experience that will challenge, educate, invoke, and enrich the viewer both in theater and virtually. In concert with the special presentation called Horrible Realities, the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival will reveal the second wave of their 2021 lineup featuring five more films and five more short film blocks (all listed below) totaling the Labor Day weekend festival programming to over 80 films! Returning to a hybrid model for the 2021 edition, the California based genre film festival will showcase a diverse slate of voices and narratives within the cinema genres of horror, science fiction, dark drama, black comedy, and fantasy. This year’s programming slate redefines the use of standard troupes and themes like alternative knowledge, broken trust, dark inspiration, isolation, social anxiety, transhumanism, and truth. These selections allow a fresh darkness to wash over the viewer through a range of complex and challenging conflicts, stories, and characters.   

The Horrible Imaginings Film Festival rounds out their 2021 program with the reveal of a huge “Opening Night” feature, "We’re All Going to the World’s Fair," directed by rising trans Filmmaker, Producer, and Editor Jane Schoenburn. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair focuses on a shy and isolated teenage girl is a small town, that becomes immersed in an online role-playing game. “Say, ‘I want to go to the world’s fair’ three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood, and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin...”

With a variety of films, panels, filmmaker Q&As, networking, and more, we were lucky to spend some time talking with the Operation Team for the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival just days before the current went up on their 12th annual celebration of things that go bump on the screen. We are joined by Horrible Imaginings Film Festival Director Miguel Rodriguez, Project Director Rabia Sitabi, Head of Programming Sterling Anno, Director of Marketing & Content Creation Lauren Cupp, and Director of Human Relations & Production Laura Vasquez. More information, updates, full schedule, to purchase passes, and more, can be found at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival website.  


HorrorHound: How has the return to a hybrid event (live/virtual) been? What has been the biggest challenge as part of your position with Horrible Imaginings?


Laura Vasquez: So far, the return has been somewhat challenging because people are busier, and their time is fragmented since COVID. Communication with people who help us execute the festival and its activities has resorted mostly to emails and texting. Sometimes miscommunications occur. I've had to drop by to visit a few people for a face-to-face discussion for clarity. Following up is crucial.

 Lauren Cupp: Having a hybrid event like this, is a mix of old and new experiences. It’s definitely exciting to get back to an in-person event, but we realize the challenges in returning to 100% normalcy. Since the success of last year’s virtual event, we realized that our future for HIFF does include a virtual aspect to reach our wider community and provide an accessible viewing experience to those outside of the Frida. I believe our biggest challenge is still successfully executing a personal, meaningful virtual event for everyone and marketing the event as such on socials. I think we are on our way just by how we program and share these films with our audiences, and how we interact and communicate with our HIFF family on a daily basis. 

 Miguel Rodriguez: My personal biggest challenge has been mostly with the internal struggle I have faced over the last couple of years. The desire to do this festival has always been steeped in a philosophy that is sometimes at odds with financial realities. Certain life events like having a baby and purchasing a home have heightened the stakes of that conflict. Now, that would be the biggest challenge any year, but both the pandemic and the endeavor to do a hybrid event--essentially two festivals simultaneously--have exacerbated my anxieties to an extreme degree. The pandemic has also led to a sponsorship drought that I hope lets up for arts and culture events everywhere.

 I know I have focused more on the second part of your question. In terms of the first part, I will have a lot more to say after the conclusion of the festival. Right now, there are a lot of uncertainties, but the program we have is killer, and one that I can’t wait to share with people. Ultimately, that is the most important thing.

Rabia Sitabi: We have an amazing team, and everyone is working well remotely, so the only challenge we really had are the uncertainties surrounding corona and possible lockdowns.

Sterling Anno: It's been great knowing that we'll be back home this year, surrounded (safely, I might add) by people who truly love what we do as much as the HiFilmFest team ourselves. As for it being hybrid, the virtual aspect is going to be a wonderful way for the many filmmakers abroad who were planning on attending if it weren't for the current travel restrictions in place due to Delta and other various trains of the virus. That said, one of the biggest challenges for me this year has not been the annual influx of emails to keep up with, but instead in the act of communicating with so many amazing people who sadly know they cannot visit our festival in person this year thanks to the world we're living in at the moment. We cannot wait until we live in a safer time and once again be able to meet and welcome these wonderful artists into our home with us.


HH: What does The Frida Cinema mean to Horrible Imaginings?


LV: The Frida Cinema is an important relationship to Horrible Imaginings. They have been more than supportive with HIFF's efforts to carry out its Mission. In return, HIFF supports The Frida's changing environment and growth to thrive and supports their Mission as well. Some of HIFF's members have participated in fundraising for the Frida, community events, and rented the Frida to host events on behalf of other organizations. 


MR: The Frida cinema is a home. Many festivals can boast a venue, but not necessarily a home. Many of the people who attended our festival from the beginning have expressed some longing for the 10th Ave. art center, which had its punk rock charms as a DIY screening space. It also had space for art galleries, parties, and its own lore as a haunted space. It was not, however, a cinema venue. Filmmakers traveling from out of town to exhibit their work at a festival generally hope for a certain standard of picture and sound that we were unable to provide at that venue.


Our venue at the Museum of Photographic Arts was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The venue at the heart of San Diego’s gorgeous Balboa Park was mind blowing for filmmakers. It looked and sounded spectacular. They were also like working with a very strict and stingy landlord. No food of any kind was allowed in the theater--including bottled water. It was expensive to take place there and, despite many wonderful people on the technical staff, they could be a challenge to work with--not to mention Balboa Park itself. We always felt just like renters there, rather than an arts organization that was wanted, cared about, or respected.


The Frida is the perfect balance of stunning presentation and genuine care for the festival’s mission and the art we showcase. I couldn’t be happier with our partnership, which has been so worth the challenges of uprooting ourselves and starting over in a new community.


RS: Community and home. It is important for Festival like us to have a Home-base where the local community can come out and hang. It’s part of our whole festival experience, even though we try to emulate it as much as possible online.


SA: The Frida Cinema to me means a loving home as open-armed to us as a festival as we intend HiFilmFest to be for the filmmakers showcased in our yearly programs. We think that speaks miles about our high praise for the theater we're lucky enough to call a partner.


HH: What has the impact been to programming through FilmFreeway?


MR: This is a great question that really requires recollections of a not so distant past. FilmFreeway is still an extremely young platform that really rocked the industry a few years’ back, leading to the downfall of their biggest competitor WithoutABox. What is interesting is that back at the turn of the millennium, WithoutABox had a similar seismic effect.


Even in the short life of our own festival, which is entering our 12th year, I can remember having to inventory and catalog submissions I received in the mail via the WithoutABox platform, which had no usable interface for digital submissions. This history is really only important because I think it behooves us to remember that FilmFreeway could not have been so successful right out the gate without both the successes and failure of WithoutABox. Before 2000, film festivals that weren’t the hugest Sundances or Tribecas required quite a bit of detective work to be discovered by filmmakers. Then, contacting those film festivals, getting their submission rules, mailing a VHS (or later DVD) screener for consideration was an agonizing process. WithoutABox solved a lot of those problems.


Without belaboring why their own complacency and greed turned most festivals against them, I will say that the Canadian FilmFreeway was able to see with minute detail everything that was pissing festivals and filmmakers off about WithoutABox and provide specific solutions (streaming that worked, lower costs, FAR better support). In 2000, WithoutABox revolutionized film submissions by putting a directory of film festivals, their rules, and their contact in one searchable database. FilmFreeway has taken that further by taking almost every aspect of the film festival experience (submissions, ticketing, awards judging, communications, websites, laurels, marketing, reviews, inventory of films, etc.) and, with varying degrees of success, putting it all together in one place that is simple to learn and still continues to have pretty stellar support even though they are the next de facto monopoly. And yes, there are many other platforms, but none at this scale.


RS: Personally, I’ve always programmed through portals like this, so no big difference luckily. it’s nice to be able to collaborate more with co-programmers on FilmFreeway though.


HH: What is the responsibility of Horrible Imaginings as a platform for horror cinema? 


LV: Horrible Imaginings' responsibility is to provide a voice to all artists who want to exhibit their work of horror to public audiences, media, and other artists. The Horror genre itself has many sub-genres which are evolving as our world changes and new generations are up and coming. Horrible Imaginings gives filmmakers ample time to discuss their work, provides in-depth Q&As, and networking opportunities in person and online. 


MR: I view our responsibility as providing a space for artists to share their expressions of fear or anxiety, time for audiences to experience and discuss those expressions, and hopefully build some common understandings based on each other’s experiences of taboo, outré, or otherwise challenging narratives.


RS: HiFF is an important part of the Horror Cinema landscape as it is the place where horror community can come together as well as where indie filmmakers have a better shot at getting seen. We pride ourselves in having a stake in diversifying the festival landscape more with our presence and offering a warm place for both people who love horror as well as the filmmakers of horror.


HH: How has it evolved since its move to the Frida Theater? 


LV: The move to the Frida Cinema in 2018 has been a win-win partnership. The Frida has a large horror following that Horrible Imaginings has tapped into it. HIFF's audience base has grown in Orange County & Los Angeles and surrounding communities. New audiences have discovered Horrible Imaginings at The Frida even though HIFF has been around since 2009.


On the flip side, Horrible Imaginings has brought its multi-day Film Festival and other events throughout the year to Orange County's hungry horror fan base


LC: The first time I went to Horrible Imaginings was the first time I saw an independent horror short film block. There wasn’t anywhere else that really highlighted the importance of short filmmaking like there was in this theatre in San Diego and was the reason I kept coming back. I still feel this way working with HIFF now. There is a unique focus on horror short films that not a lot of other fests put a spotlight on. And we do it four times a year! 


MR: Regarding our evolution as a film festival since moving to The Frida, I think the biggest thing has been our acceptance into a more welcoming community at large than we had in San Diego. We had some wonderful audiences and team members in San Diego, but the room to grow seems far larger in Santa Ana. On top of that, there is The Frida itself, which has given us the capability to dramatically expand our programming to include more year-round events. That continual exposure in the city has led to even more visibility in general. Now, we have a more structured Operations team that has been more streamlined than ever before. This is the latest and most significant phase in our evolution.


HH: How has the first year of this new operations team been? What has been the biggest challenge and surprise? 


LV: As a whole, this year's new operations team has performed well, especially since we are preparing for our first large, in-person event after Lockdown. We have the right people in place. The biggest surprise is how much progress has been made organizing the film festival since our team was organized back in mid-June of this year. Communication has been good. All of us are very busy people outside of Horrible Imaginings, but our dedication, as a team, has been exceptional.


The biggest surprise is Miguel delegating and letting us help him put together the event! I say this with affection. I've known Miguel through the Film Festival since 2010. Not only did he create Horrible Imaginings, but he used to do everything himself. It's his baby he's nurtured and grown throughout the years. It is a huge change for him and he's been handling it quite well.


The biggest challenge has been keeping up with COVID practices locally in Orange County and having to convey this to the team. We need to think quickly on our feet and modify plans as warranted.


LC: Having a dedicated team to work with has been a joy. We’re all here because we want to be, we’ve all been hand-selected based on our talents and our passion for horror films, and I love getting excited about what we’re doing as we do it. A team has definitely made planning and communication easier and more streamlined; I’m able to share ideas and gather feedback for socials and be able to develop a plan. The biggest challenge is determining how much we can really take on. It’s great to dream big about what we will be able to do, but in this first year (an especially difficult one), it’s important to remember that we need to walk before we run. Finding our footing as a team is important before we (eventually) take over the world. :P


MR: When I realize that we formed the current iteration of our team just a couple of months ago, I am astounded. Every new team has some growing pains with personalities discovering how they mesh, workflows becoming defined and mastered, and just generally having everyone find their groove. We certainly experienced a growing pain or two, but it has been remarkable how well our new Core Ops Team has both met and exceeded my expectations.


My biggest challenge for me is letting go. It can be really tough for me to delegate tasks and let go of responsibilities, so I have my own learning curve. Everyone has been super patient with me, especially since my headspace has been unstable this year in particular.


RS: It has been great with this team! Everyone is so passionate to get things done and making sure we succeed. The biggest challenge as Project Director was making sure work was evenly distributed and no one burned out, as well as making sure we moved processes that existed for decades from Paper to Digital workflows. I am happily surprised how fast everyone in the team adapted to new systems and tech!


SA: This inaugural run of our newly assembled structure has been incredibly successful and an absolute pleasure to be a part of. I'd like to give a huge shout out to our project manager, Rabia Sitabi, for providing her immense levels of experience in helping reformat an already effective team into a more focused version of what we already were.  Each member of staff has been able to shine brightly in their own personal arena and although such a structure wasn't christened until halfway through our organizational year, we've already seen leaps and bounds of productivity from it.


HH: How have you built chemistry overall being virtual for the most part?


LC: I started working with HIFF in a virtual setting, so meeting everyone on the team, and meeting/chatting with filmmakers virtually isn’t easy because you’d like too physically be there with them. However, it’s been great to utilize virtual components to our advantage. We opened the “Frida Lobby” every day of last year’s festival - which was a zoom chat to simulate congregating in the theatre lobby to talk about films, our experiences, anything. We also started hosting events for our zombie ranger ticket holders, like a virtual escape room experience, as a perk for joining us on an annual basis. We’ve been able to get creative in the ways we can reach our audience and build community through this time. 


MR: Providing a time for audiences, filmmakers, press, and anyone else in the ecosystem to sit and talk is critical to this. We have to be open and willing to risk letting people jump on the same Zoom call for these periods of scheduled chats. Having topics, shows and tells, and other engaging points of conversation at the ready to keep people going is also pretty important, though in my experience we have rarely needed them. We have a very active audience.


When it comes to discussion and Q&As, I find it is best to allow the audience to chat actively throughout the discussion and send questions the entire time. We have team members engaging with the chat and interrupting me when a question comes up. Rather than forcing people to wait for the last few minutes and watch some talking heads, I find this to just be more engaging, and helps people get a feel for one another.


RS: Making sure we always were in contact and keeping a finger to the pulse. We have a communication flow habit we build with the team to make sure everyone stayed involved and in contact weekly. And just making sure to have fun along the way.


SA: Being apart from one another, yet still knowing we deliver on deadlines on such a constant basis builds a level of confidence and trust in one another that simple words alone fail to describe. It's been great having weekly meetings and consistent communication in order to collaborate and push each other to our next levels as professionals.


HH: What has been an overwhelming theme that you have found in this year’s programming this year? Has covid affected the submissions?


MR: Ok, I will start with the last part of your question and say YES. Covid has absolutely affected submissions. What I noticed in a large part was that, if a film dealt too specifically with some aspect of our 2020 pandemic experience, then it could feel both dated and irrelevant by the time we saw it. The zeitgeist just evolved so much from March of 2020 to May of 2021.


That being said, I think the biggest thing I noticed from submissions overall was less thematic and more stylistic. So many of the films we got moved at deliberate, slow paces with lingering camerawork and narratives that were either hyper-realistic or attempting to present that way. It was clear that the films of A24 have had a dramatic influence, which has led to some serious ambitions amongst independent filmmakers.


RS: Personally, I did not notice a particular theme, but I haven’t seen all submissions.


SA: This year has seen an almost universal dip in submission numbers across festivals across the world, some more than others. It's been an unfortunate occurrence, as 2020 offered such a great hurdle in many filmmakers' ability to actively produce work in a year of lockdown and a multitude of rampant anxieties. Many of the themes we have seen come about have related themselves to the mistrust one puts forth into any body of authority or figurehead in this digital age of information. Many commentaries on the frightening and problematic ideals manifested by various truther movements, political leaders and even those sworn to protect us have been a common sight this past season. However, after a year like 2020 just put behind us, such a time for healthy discussion has arrived to our filmmaking zeitgeist.


HH: How has social media impacted this festival? Is it more important now than previous?  


LC: The tool of social media is essential to how our information is found and shared. We have definitely found our footing on Instagram and Twitter without regular audience, and as we continue to grow virtually, we are looking into different ways to engage our regulars while attracting newcomers to our content. It’s always difficult to really push through the muck that is social media on a daily basis, but we have started a Discord channel, a Spotify, and a Letterboxed to experiment with our audience, and find other avenues to share our voice in the community in a fun and engaging way. 


MR: This is a toughie for me, but thankfully we have an incredible social media team as part of our new Operations team. Social media really is critical, which is a gift that bites because I also found social media--particularly in the last couple of years--to be extremely detrimental to my psychological and emotional health. My therapist basically said to delete my Facebook (not in so many words, but yeah). I have indeed basically given up Facebook personally and I must say our festival’s presence has suffered on that platform. Thankfully both Instagram and Twitter have increased considerably.


Social media is the ultimate cursed blessing. I used to work very hard to focus on the clear and very real positives of it. As time goes on, I find myself oppressed and saddened by enough of the negative aspects of social media to make it a challenge to keep up. I really do miss the efficacy of just going to Kinkos and printing up a bunch of fliers to put all over town, though.


RS: Definitely, socials is the main way to reach your audiences when you can’t flyer and use other physical channels.


HH: How has the partnership been with the town of Santa Ana and what kind of support have they offered in growing the festival since 2018?


LA: The partnership has been great with Santa Ana. City officials and vendors are easy to work with. Santa Ana has encouraged our festival because it brings income, entertainment, and art to their community. Santa Ana is a well-supported art community; therefore, Horrible Imaginings is a good fit.

MR: We were a decade in San Diego with very little civic recognition outside the festival world, which we still get a lot of love from, but Santa Ana has so far been much more receptive. This is thanks in large part to the support of The Frida Cinema and its founder Logan Crow, who is a beloved person in that town. The first time we were ever nominated for a City Paper “Best of…” was in Orange County. I think that says a lot.


I do think that our partnership with the city of Santa Ana will grow rapidly in the coming years.


HH: Can you talk about the poster art for this year’s festival?


LC: I love what Jason Ragosta cooked up for us, and it’s made a big impact with our audience. It’s bright, loud, in-your-face… all in the best way to capture the attention and sheer craziness of Horrible Imaginings. It’s been a pleasure to put it all over our social media. We’ve been able to make social templates to match the color scheme, animate the poster, put it on pins and coloring pages and buttons… We love it!  


MR: Yes! I love it! Ok, so the poster art is by graphic designer and filmmaker Jason Ragosta. I met Jason on the social media app Clubhouse earlier this year, and we hit it off. I saw the work that he did for independent film posters and thought he could do something really cool.


When I approached him, he asked me what I wanted the poster to be. This can always be tricky, because the posters are revealed before we know any of the titles that we are showing or the themes we will be discussing. I knew that we were likely going to be in person, so I thought of the MacBeth quote, “When shall we three meet again…”


That play is a big part of the festival. It is where we get our name and the name of our awards, so I figured, why not? I told Jason the line and said just use that as an inspiration and gave him creative control otherwise. He seemed pretty shocked that I wasn’t going to dictate every piece of it for him, but I view our poster designers as another artist we are showcasing. I want them to create something they are proud of and love themselves. I love the poster, and Jason told me I was a dream client, so I suppose that is a mutual love!


SA: 2 things: 1. Jason Ragosta is an immense talent and true force to be reckoned with. and 2. If you get the chance, ask Miguel Rodriguez about the Burt Reynolds anomaly.


Returning to The Frida Cinema Thursday, September 2nd through Monday, September 5th, the 12th annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival will offer a cinematic and artistic experience that will challenge, educate, invoke, and enrich the viewer both in theater and virtually. In concert with the special presentation called Horrible Realities, the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival will reveal the second wave of their 2021 lineup featuring five more films and five more short film blocks (all listed below) totaling the Labor Day weekend festival programming to over 80 films! Returning to a hybrid model for the 2021 edition, the California based genre film festival will showcase a diverse slate of voices and narratives within the cinema genres of horror, science fiction, dark drama, black comedy, and fantasy. This year’s programming slate redefines the use of standard troupes and themes like alternative knowledge, broken trust, dark inspiration, isolation, social anxiety, transhumanism, and truth. These selections allow a fresh darkness to wash over the viewer through a range of complex and challenging conflicts, stories, and characters.   

HH: What are you looking forward to the most during this year’s festival?

LA: To be honest, I'm looking forward to screening the films.

LC: I haven’t physically worked the festival yet, since I started on the team! So, I’m really looking forward to being a part of bringing it back to the Frida this year and watching the audience's faces when they see what we got in store. 


MR: I have rewritten this one so many times. I don’t think this year is different from any other in that the thing I look forward to most is hearing people react to the program. Virtually, we are robbed of the in-the-moment visceral reaction, but conversely, we have more time to actually go more in depth with discussion after the fact. It is a kind of trade off. Ultimately, I do this because I want to share stuff and see or hear reactions. Fielding that conversation between audience and artist is the thing that fuels me every single year. This year is no different.


RS: Everything, due to my geographical location I am attending Virtually myself, so I can’t wait to see the panel and interactions online on socials and especially the festival Discord.


SA: Quite simply, I look forward to an audience coming together to appreciate some great art once again. Just to know our filmmakers' work is getting the in-person attention it truly deserves, as well as to see those attending enjoys the filmgoing company of one another in a safe & distanced environment. It's what our world needs right now when possible and what we take much pride in being able to provide just that.