Viscera is a visionary not-for-profit based in Los Angeles. Founded by Shannon Lark in 2007, its mission is to expand opportunities for female genre filmmakers and artists. Its range of activities is mind-boggling. I think it’s globally unique, and it provides an extraordinary model for other women to follow. There are the festivals: Viscera, which specialises in short horror films by women, Etheria, a fantasy and science fiction festival, and Full Throttle, for action films. And once Viscera selects a film for its own festivals, it works with partner festivals and events that film screened all over the world. It has teamed up with Hannah Forman to provide Women in Horror Recognition Month (every February). Viscera also offers educational programmes and critiques to people who submit films. And recently Viscera announced the Mistresses of Horror Alliance (MOHA), a membership-based service within which Viscera provides merchandise, networking, education, workshops, and an annual filmmaking grant to one MOHA filmmaker. The Viscera website is jam-packed with information, but I was delighted to check a few more details with Shannon.
Q: What gave you the idea for Viscera?
I was directing a small film in 2007 with an all-female cast and crew in San Francisco. While on set I had an epiphany at how rare it is for female genre filmmakers to get together in professional and public environments and truly support each other for their achievements. I went home that day and the Viscera Film Festival was created in less than 24 hours.
|Viscera filmmakers Rachael Deacon, Tyrrell Shaffner, Susan Bell, Molly Madfis, Annette Slomka|
Q: Why did you start with horror?
I’ve always loved horror, ever since I was a small (and slightly morbid) child. My mother was fascinated with body parts and would show me chicken hearts and discussed how she worked on cadavers at her university. I’ve always loved horror or extreme situations and films and started making movies when I was in high school. It was a natural yearning to get films screened before audiences, which led me to directing and programming film festivals and cult movie nights at a second-run theatre in Oakland CA, called The Parkway Speakeasy. Viscera was just a natural outcome of my tastes in film and interest in women sharing their fears on screen. Cinema is a tool, and horror is one of the most extreme mirrors of society, gender, and politics in existence. To me, it’s one of the most important genres and extremely liberating.
Q: Are Etheria and Full Throttle run in the same way as Viscera (the festival)?
The Viscera Film Festival started a bit backwards with a grassroots DIY tour wherein local organisers and festival programmers would incorporate the Viscera films into their program. These films screened in Australia, South Africa, Canada, and all over the United States before we had our first carpet ceremony in Los Angeles in 2010. We continue to have an on-going tour that gets bigger and better each year as we are now hitting educational institutions, art galleries, and museums. These films are good and truly reflect what women’s intense fears and desires are in modern society, and we are thrilled that their content is being dissected via educational discourse.
The Etheria Film Festival is kicking off with its premiere in Boston, Massachusetts with event directors Chris Hallock and Mike Snoonian of All Things Horror. Afterwards, we’ll be setting up the tour.
Full Throttle will be very much like Etheria, except we intend to throw the premiere in Austin, TX within the next 6 months.
Q: What happens after the premieres?
Our partners look through our private online archive of films (now over 70 films by women) and choose what they want to screen, or we create a programme for them. The filmmaker is never charged for submission with our partners and we do all the work in getting the films to the organisers. The tours are ongoing, so even if we selected a film in 2008, we still fit it into many programmes, depending on what each geographical location is interested in. We love to involve the filmmakers and promote them, so we focus on hosting events where they are located so they can attend and receive the recognition for their hard work.
We just threw our largest Viscera Film Festival carpet ceremony as of yet, as a co-presentation with the American Cinematheque at the historical Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA. On our tour we have hit Penn State University, the University College of Dublin, and several festivals and events. You can check out our Tour page here.
For Etheria, we threw our premiere on September 15th, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts at the Somerville Theatre. No tour dates are posted yet but expect those soon!
For Full Throttle, we’ll be revealing this baby ASAP. I’m especially excited for this one. It’s amazing what female filmmakers are creating with very, very little resources. The independent filmmaker today has so much creative power.
Q: What happens in the Women in Horror Recognition Month?
Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) was created by a woman named Hannah Forman in order to promote the underrepresented female professionals in the horror industry. These are women not in front of the camera: the directors, the writers, the cinematographers, and FX Artists. WiHM takes place each February as a service of the Viscera Organisation to celebrate these professionals while raising money for charity. Events, projects, and even films are created to raise awareness about these hardworking artists and the need for equality in the industry while also assisting others through charity work.
We have a WiHM Seal of Approval that was donated by Rue Morgue magazine so we can ensure that WiHM content and events are for charity only and promote these artists in a respectful fashion. So if you see an event or website with the Seal, it means that its WiHM Approved. To get the Seal, a simple application is available on the website and we have a board of female professional filmmakers and journalists who vote on the content.
Q: What have been key turning points for you?
There have been several since the idea of the Viscera Film Festival was created in my mind. Each year is marked with some incredible movement and growth that I never even thought would come to be when I originally created the festival. The major turning point was when we grew into a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation, the Viscera Organisation: no longer were we just a film festival. Now we have many services. We might have started with the Viscera Film Festival but now we have grown into a full fledged not-for-profit with a staff of over 20 volunteers who work at getting films screened, the public educated, and these filmmakers the tools they need to reach their potential. The Mistresses of Horror Alliance (MOHA) is one of our newest services wherein we can focus completely on developing the filmmaker and giving her opportunities.
Q: What’s your background, educationally and otherwise? Who and what have influenced you? Do you define yourself as a feminist?
I’ve always been awful at school. I learn best when I am 'doing' not 'sitting'. I studied at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco and at several small colleges for film and art. Once I found what I wanted to do in life (film), I picked up books, pursued film acting, and followed crew members around asking questions. The film set was mostly my education. I’ve fallen on my face a lot, but that’s what learning is all about. David Lynch, Peter Jackson, Gaspar Noe, and Alejandro Jodorowsky have greatly influenced me. So have Ida Lupino and Alice Guy. I love high fashion photography, brilliant cinematography, and intense expressions in art. I am absolutely a feminist. Anyone who thinks women should have equal pay and opportunity is a feminist. It’s unfortunate that the word has such negative connotations. Perhaps it should be changed to “equalist”.
Q: It’s a lot of work. Who helps?
Over 20 volunteer staff, who deeply care about women’s rights and getting these filmmakers the promotion they deserve. It takes a lot of people to work the machine. Director of Programming Heidi Honeycutt has been monumental with the organisation. Not only is she an amazing programmer, but she teamed up with me in 2010 to throw the first carpet ceremony in LA. Stacy Pippi Hammon has been insanely helpful as well, saving us with a team of volunteers in 2010 and has become an integral part of the organisation. Viscera is just as much part of these women as it is me.
Q: How do you fund Viscera?
Since we are a non-profit, we rely completely on public donations, fundraisers, and grants. However we have scraped by up to this point and have made incredible things happen simply with our passion and drive. We generally receive about $300,000 in-kind donations each year: that’s venues, staff hours, and products from sponsors. Although none of the staff are paid yet, we hope to change that within the next year.
Q: You believe that the horror genre is a great place to explore themes that are personal to filmmakers. You encourage women to explore what terrifies them, and have films that focus on plastic surgery and body issues, childbirth and child loss, and how society views the female form and gender. What does horror offer that is different than say making a documentary?
The horror genre, or genre films in general (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and action) offer intense or fantastic modes of storytelling which can be done in metaphors, symbols, and acts of violence or passion. Generally it’s human nature magnified and exploited to explore a deeper message. Documentaries are wonderful and can explore true acts of horror but they lay out the facts, not working so much with creative exploration or symbolic scenes that comment on topics such as gender identity, displaced sexuality, and our fears manifested.
Q: Why are fantasy and science fiction and action useful for women? What can we explore there? Have you got other genre festivals in mind? Have you considered including animation? Rom coms?
Genre films in general are useful for everyone. However, we love being able to play with themes and ideas and literally make them explode off screen. Genre is also a place for women to be as creative as they want, especially since the gender has had the negative connotation of desiring ‘chick flicks’ by Hollywood’s standards. We do have a few romantic comedies that are on the lighter, wittier side of the genre. However the characters must be dynamic and interesting-no films we choose have cookie cardboard cut-outs to portray what the audience views on the screen. We love animation! We tend to choose at least one animation for the Viscera Film Festival and there are several in Etheria. These films truly stand out. The animated film we chose for the Viscera Film Festival 2012 lineup is titled Escape from Hellview, by a woman named Hadas Brandes who resides in Israel. Our films may be genre but they span all across the board to hilarious to incredibly disturbing. It’s a vast array of tastes that reveal how different women are from each other. Genders aren’t just black and white. Thank goodness for that.
|Shannon Lark & Kai Blackwood (photo:|
Q: Do you have a place for foreign language work? (This is linked to the animation question for me but I’m sure it’s relevant to the other genres too.)
We haven’t descended into translation yet for the films. Perhaps in the future when the organisation receives more funds and can support dubbing/translations. Otherwise, all films are dubbed, closed-captioned, or spoken in English.
Q: You’ve developed partnerships with events and festivals around the world. Why? How do you choose them, or do they choose you? How do you work with them? I notice that none of your partnerships are with women’s festivals. Is that for a reason? The other day I was emailing with Kate Kaminski for Bluestockings, the Bechdel Test series, while I was thinking about these questions and I can imagine that a partnership with her would be valuable for both of you.
There are several ways we develop partnerships! We reach out to local organisers through our Tour Coordinators and assist them in creating the events with artwork, the programme, and promotion. Many festivals reach out to the Viscera Organisation to screen the films and new line-ups, working them into their programmes. It’s wonderful to know that Viscera is becoming the place where programmers go to get the best modern genre films by women. It means we are doing something right. On top of that, the production quality is amazing and many of our films could have been directed by a man. The proof is there that women can make quality films that appeal to the public. However, in 2011, less than 5% of all directors who worked on major motion pictures in Hollywood were women. The discrimination in the film industry really needs to stop.
We are definitely open to working with female film festivals/female-run events. However most festivals and organisers are men, so we work with who is interested. We have reached out to other female-based festivals but many are not interested because we are genre. There is a negative outlook on horror in general by the mainstream, which is something we are working at changing, by screening at universities and discussing the importance of women sharing their intense feelings on screen with the public. We certainly intend to keep spreading out and working with programmers and organisers of all kinds. Some festivals tend to be elite and we don’t agree with that-we should all work together. The only reason we exist is to help the filmmaker...at least that’s why festivals should exist.
Q: What responses do you get from filmmakers? What aspects of your programmes work best for them and why? What would they like you to do more of?
We have gotten amazing responses from filmmakers and special guests who have written letters on our behalf, as the only festival that has gone painstakingly far to include them, communicate with them, encourage them, and create a network of female professionals. The screenings have been great, and they’ve expressed wonderful gratitude for their films being screened all over the world just because we accepted the film into our festival. It’s been thrilling to hear from the filmmakers that they have never been treated better by any other festival, or received so much recognition and support. They want workshops, attorney services, and equipment, which is exactly what we are working on right now. We hope to open up a Viscera Organisation production building, for film/photo shoots, equipment rental, meetings, castings, workshops, office for the staff, and networking/fundraising parties. I would cry if we could bring this much to these filmmakers and the organisation.
Q: What about audiences? Was it a strategic decision to start with horror because you knew there was already a big specialist audience? Do you know the age range of your audience(s)? Gender? Countries? How do you reach them? I’ve found on social media that there isn’t a lot of crossover among people who follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and I wonder if you’ve identified how best to reach particular audiences?
We simply love genre films, so the Viscera Film Festival was a natural place to start. We have about 54% men and 42% females who enjoy our social media pages and over 10,000 views on our website so far this year. The major demographic ranges from 18-44, although we are expanding our scope to encompass younger girls with our new Fresh Blood category and future mentoring services.
We like to link our social media accounts and share important news items with the public that educates them on female professionals winning awards, their screenings, and views. We also share news articles that demonstrate how women still do not have equal pay or opportunity in the film industry. We also spotlight filmmakers, staff, and volunteers - creating a family, a unit, a network of both men and women who support each other and believe in equal rights. We receive the most attention from the United States, but as we spread out with our tour and services into venues located in Ireland, Australia, and even Portugal, the more people show us (and the filmmakers) their support. We have done this with pretty much no budget at this point, because of the staff, the filmmakers, the partners, the sponsors, and the supporting public.
Viscera Organisation is hiring!
Wanted: a Tour Co-ordinator to work 5 hours a week from anywhere in the world.
The Viscera Tours the vehicle that propels the films and their makers forward, and Tour Co-ordinators work hand in hand with the marketing team to make each event a success. This position report directly to the Director of Media and Distribution, and work closely with each local organiser/promoter. This is a great position for someone who is focused on producing, event coordinating, and tour logistics or who wants more experience because they're preparing for a career in the entertainment industry. This particular experience is with a 501(c)3 non-profit film festival, so if you're looking for event managing, this is a great starting point. If you have an interest in women's studies, horror films, independent films, and non-traditional work environments, you'll be a great fit.
Please send a resume and a description of yourself, why you're interested, and any questions you might have to shannon[at]viscerafilmfestival.com