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Fade In: Upstart Film Festival (Houston, Texas)

By Michael Scrutchin

From November 16 through November 18, 2001, the first annual Upstart Film Festival took place in Houston, Texas at the Aurora Picture Show (a film and video arts center housed in a 1924 church building), proving that even without financial backing a no-budget filmmaker could start something so audacious and time-consuming and make it a success. The filmmaker in question is Mel House, who produced his indie thriller Fade to Black for a mere $300. While throwing a three-day film festival ultimately cost him much more than his first movie, the turnout and positive response proved wrong all the naysayers and turned the Upstart Film Festival into the little indie fest that could.

When Mel House decided to do the festival, he likened it to the cinema version of the original '91 Lollapalooza tour. House says, "Basically, Perry Ferrell was like, 'Hey, I want to play a few summer shows, but I want to bring some friends along for the ride.' That's pretty much what I wanted to do for the Houston premiere of my movie, Fade to Black."

Earlier that year, his movie had played at the Bare Bones International Film Festival in Oklahoma and he met the filmmakers behind Rules and The After School Special and asked them if they'd like to screen their movies in Houston. They were down. "That became the core lineup and the impetus for everything else," House says. "I put out calls for entries and courted filmmakers at horror movie conventions to get a diverse programming schedule."

And diverse it was. On Friday, November 16, which came to be dubbed "Horror Night," the films screened were the zombie flick Siege of the Dead, the political horror film Raising Hell, the Blair Witch-esque faux documentary Blackwood Evil, and the short film Pottersville, which isn't really horror but seemed to fit anyway. Saturday, the lineup included the short romantic comedy The Story of Marcus and Rena, the intense drama Rules, the short comedy sketch Abe's Hot Date, the comedy The After School Special, House's darkly comic thriller Fade to Black, and the neo-noir thriller Hall of Mirrors. The final day saw the mock documentary Schusterman Levine, A Boxing Fable, the romantic comedy-drama The Distinct Smell of Red, and ended (with a bang) with the twisted satire Duck! The Carbine High Massacre.

The filmmakers behind eight of the 13 movies were in attendance to do Q&A's with the audience. Mel House says the response from filmmakers and audience members was positive all around. The fact that the festival did so well surprised him, since it had very little advertising and was ignored by regional magazines about independent filmmaking.

"I don't think anyone took me seriously," House says. "I guess the fact that the venue and dates changed three times didn't help solidify my street cred, but things like that happen to a first year self-financed film festival. What eventually happened when things solidified is that all the information about the festival got out through word of mouth and grassroots promotion, flyers, posters, strippers, midgets, and we still had a packed standing-room only house on Saturday night. The Q&A's went over well, also, no uncomfortable silences. Well, not many."

Mel continues, "Everyone keeps telling me that they can't wait until next year." Although he wasn't sure if there would be another one, he says, "All the positive feedback has convinced me to take another stab at it."

With the next one, to take place in November 2002, his first goal is to not go broke again. Now that he knows what it takes and has a secure venue in the Aurora Picture Show, he can concentrate on doing all the things that he wanted to do in the first place. "Maybe have the workshops, guest speakers, and prizes that I hoped to have this year," he says. Mel House is especially interested in finding good indie horror films for "Horror Night," but he also wants quality indies in any genre.

Looking back on the first Upstart Film Festival, Mel House says he's really proud of the lineup of films that screened. "I think we're giving people exposure that would not normally receive it, especially in the case of micro-budget horror." At one point, he had even thought of doing an all-horror fest, but finally settled on having the "Horror Night" to kick things off instead. "In the future, I would love to do an all horror fest, though. Maybe I could get the Misfits to play."

And who wouldn't be up for that?

Article published 04.05.2002.

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