British Universities Film & Video Council

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Film4 FrightFest:

 Branding and Sponsorship within Britain’s Premier Horror Festival

A Guest Blog by Simon Hobbs, PhD Research Student at the University of Portsmouth

This year’s Film4 FrightFest marked my first venture to the festival. A lifelong fan of horror cinema with an academic interest in paratextual branding, a trip to the Film4 FrightFest provided the perfect opportunity to combine these interests. On August 24th, I embarked on my journey to London Empire Leicester Square, for a day of horror cinema and paratextual research.

2013’s August bank holiday weekend marked the 14th annual Film4 FrightFest. The biggest to date, this year’s event saw 51 films screened across three screens. This year’s entry also saw Film4 return as headline sponsors for the seventh year in a row.

Julia Wrigley, head of the Film4 Channel, stated that this continued partnership is something the brand is “thrilled” about within the free Film4 FrightFest programme. Wrigley’s excitement about being associated with FrightFest is understandable. The Film4 FrightFest has seen a sustained growth since its debut in 2000, an escalation which has seen it outgrow both the Prince Charles Cinema and the Odeon West End. Due to the increase in attendees, this year’s festival saw the addition of a fourth screen, to re-screen sold out performances for those who missed them the first time round. This continued growth, which now sees the festival take over the Empire Leister Square, suggests the importance, stature and capital of the event to both the horror film community and the wider festival circuit.

The festival seemingly provides a perfect platform to promote the Film4 brand to a committed and cine-literate demographic, who, through their attendance, provide commitment, loyalty, and, importantly, the economic sustainability of the event.  However, the ever-growing stature of the event has transformed it into a self-contained brand; an event which carriers its own cultural implications, understandings and currencies independent to that of Film4.

This idea of growth and the effect it had on the brand of FrightFest interested me during my time at the event, and subsequently, while watching the hand-selected genre films, I looked to investigate the level of Film4 branding apparent at the event, and its relationship to both the channel and the festival.  Consequently, this article works as both a diary of the day’s events and exploration of brand identities, with several key questions resting at its centre: how large is Film4’s presence at the event, how important is Film4 to the festival, and finally, how important is the festival to Film4?

My experience as a Day Pass ticket holder held me in good stead to answer the initial question, and explore firsthand the visual and paratextual impact of Film4 at this year’s FrightFest event. As I arrived on a rainy morning in central London and joined the long queue, which I later learned is for tickets to the Discovery Screen (the crowd were especially anxious to obtain tickets to the  zombie-comedy Stalled), Film4’s presence became instantly apparent.

FrightFest sign outside Empire Leicester Square

FrightFest sign outside Empire Leicester Square

As the queue shifted forward, a digitalised screen shifted between promotions of up-coming films and an advert for the Film4 FrightFest. The digital poster, displaying the Film4 logo in its traditional red, importantly displays the words ‘Film4’ and ‘FrightFest’ in the same sized black font. This parity, which significantly suggests equality between the two brands, was mirrored on a secondary banner running across the entrance. Reading “Welcome to the Film4 FrightFest”, the outwardly facing poster instantly entrenched FrightFest within the cultural image of Film4, and vice-versa. Here, the two brands are inseparable, sharing paratextual space while exchanging and feeding off each other’s inherent cultural capital.

As the queue gradually dissipated, I was able to enter the cinema’s stairwell. The small staircase which led up to the ticket office was lined with various posters of the films being exhibited during the 5-day festival. Interestingly, one of the posters stuck to the marble wall was that of Film4 production In Fear. Promoted in the free festival guide through Julia Wrigley’s introductionary welcome, the film’s presence here was far more understated. Upstaged by its placement next to the most commercial film at the festival, R.I.P.D, the modest promotion of the film suggested that Film4 is not using the festival to advance their own cinematic productions. Therefore, one has to consider what Film4 are achieving through the sponsorship of FrightFest, if not a privileged promotion of their genre orientated productions.

As I got my tickets to the re-screening of the Ford Brothers festival opener The Dead 2: India, an ambitious yet neatly executed zombie film set in India, I walked into the foyer to see it dominated by one paratextual artefact.  A large illuminated poster, set against a sizable curved wall, featured the familiar Film4 FrightFest logo and typography with the tagline “the dark heart of cinema”. As the wall arced towards the ticket office – an image of the festivals mascot, a green demon with exposed brain, designed by leading paratextual horror designer Graham Humphries – became visible. The poster presides over the lobby, centralising the brand identity of Film4 within the FrightFest space. Again, the proximity of the Film4 logo and Humphrey’s now iconic design (a homage in itself to EC Comics and traditional horror imagery) foregrounds the exchange of cultural imagery between the festival, the channel and the broader horror discourse, forcing them to merge, combine and begin to inform one another in a constantly shifting and self-initiating process.

Within the cinema...

Within the cinema…

This circular cultural exchange, instigated through large paratextual posters and banners, continued within the theatre space. In between the screening of films within the colossal Empire 1, a projection which nearly filled the huge screen clearly illustrated the Film4 logo. Its continued presence throughout the event neatly and continually asserted and re-asserted the dominance of the channel and its inherent and inseparable relationship to the brand of FrightFest. This level of coverage is essential, as Film4 is not the only sponsor of the festival; it is also endorsed by the Horror Channel, Variety and Total Film.  Therefore, several other brands have the ability to obtain coverage for their product, creating a competitive environment in relation to promotional opportunities. This notion became clear prior to the English premiere of Frankenstein’s Army. A film that had created a buzz within the festival’s attendees due to its promise of Nazis, mechanical monsters and gore, the screening was well attended. Following the World premier of Will Gibley’s short film Turncoat, starring Ben Wheatley mainstay Neil Maskell, an advert for the Horror Channel was screened. Displacing the perceived dominance of Film4, the advert promoted the channel’s upcoming seasons and unwavering dedication to horror cinema. The Horror Channel’s focus enabled it to create an instant connection with the audience, a relationship that is not as harmoniously achieved with the far boarder scheduling of Film4.

This is important, as the audience can be clearly defined as a fan community, a group of people who share a common interest in horror cinema, rather than the more disparate audiences that attend less specific festivals. This community spirit informs the running and delivery of the festival, and induces the event with a convention atmosphere rather than a traditionalist festival feel. Its impact is visible throughout the festival, as fan-orientated aspects prevail throughout the Empire Leicester Square. A large stall opposite the food kiosk sells horror merchandise such as action figures, DVDs, originally designed posters and Film4 FrightFest t-shirts. Outside, dressed-up volunteers, supplied by FrightFest through a charitable donation, pose with the public and festival goers. Fans and passersby are able to get free pictures with the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Scream’s Ghostface and a slightly out of place Kick Ass. Within each screening, the audiences clap, celebrate and cheer inventive sequences of gore and corporality. The moment within No One Lives, in which it is its revealed that Luke Evans’ psychotic killer has hidden himself inside the hollowed corpse of the recently diseased Ethan, played by WWE superstar Brodus Clay, is met with a mixture of applause, exclamation and excitement.

These moments, and the presence of distinct fan symbols such as merchandise and give-aways, suggest the Film4 FrightFest is an event run by and for a committed community of like-minded cinema goers. Within this fan discourse, the Horror Channel will already be a familiar entity due to its persistent exhibition of horror cinema. However, whilst Film4 has produced several important horror narratives, such as last year’s festival success Berberian Sound Studio, and has a history with the exhibition of marginalised cinematic forms (for instance the short-lived Film4 Extreme pay-per-view channel), their cultural heritage is not as firmly ensconced within the structures of the horror genre. Therefore, their over-arching dominance, through both scale and repetition of paratextual representation, suggests that Film4’s involvement seems to be an attempt to capture the attention of a dedicated community, whom, through their attendance at the festival, are an economically proven and commercially valuable demographic.

This interpretation is reinforced by the promotional activities that took place before the screening of the aforementioned No One Lives.  Following a competition run by music label Death Waltz Recording Company, in which a one-off poster designed by Graham Humphreys and signed by Lucio Fulci’s long time composer Fabio Frizzi was given to the person with the best Fulci themed tattoo (I won), a Film4 advert played.

Vitally, the advert was nearly the same as the one that had been used on the Film4 channel throughout the promotion of their adjacent Film4 FrightFest Season. The ending had been altered in order to tie the advert more coherently to the festival, rather than its usual ending which promoted the television season through a visualisation of the exhibition schedule.

While the advert continues to assert Film4 as the lead brand within the framework of the FrightFest event, it comes to expose the way Film4 sees, applies and performs its role as sponsor. As stated, it is clear that Film4 do not use FrightFest to promote their own horror productions, as In Fear was given equal advertisement within the lobby space while the Film4 production company itself does not produce enough horror films to justify annual endorsement of the festival. Furthermore, it is clear that it is not just about the promotion of Film4, as their presence in regards to paratextual extras detached from the FrightFest branding is non-existent (significantly, there were two complementary versions of Variety on hand, asserting their brand identity within the festival space). Instead, as the replication of the advert featured to promote the television season suggests, Film4 uses the festival as a platform in which they can attract a dedicated fan discourse to their horror season, which runs on the channel prior and during the festival.

This notion is evident throughout Film4’s contribution to FrightFest outside of the physical space of the Empire Leicester Square. While within the confines of the cinema, Film4’s branding and FrightFest are inherently linked through the posters and banners that are part of a circular legitimisation and exchange process, externally, the process is very different.  Within the festival’s free guide and the social media sphere, this intrinsic relationship between festival and channel is severed in favour of a more traditional method of self-promotion.

Within Julia Wrigley’s introduction to the Film4 FrightFest 2013, available in the free festival guide and replicated on the Film4 website, the promotion of the television season rather than the festival is evident. While Julia Wrigley highlights the pride Film4 retain within their endorsement of the event, and talks about the films she is most excited about, including V/H/S 2, The Curse of Chucky and Cheap Thrills, the brief welcoming passage quickly shifts into highlighting the importance of the FrightFest Season. Listing the details of the season, Wrigley states that the channel gives “you a chance to take your nightmares home with you”, confirming the importance of the home entertainment sphere within the consumption of the Film4 horror product. Following this, the text highlights some of the films that will be showing as part of the season, linking it back to the festival by stating that it will feature “past festival favourites” as well as illustrating the depth of the Film4 catalogue by claiming it will showcase “some real classics from the crypt”.  While references to the festival exist here, what is significant is that more films are mentioned in relation to the television season, making that seem a more significant and varied event. This suggests that to Film4, their endorsement of the festival and their own promotion of the season is of equal importance. This notion is confirmed in Wrigley’s closing statements, as she states “we can’t wait to get started again for another year, both on the channel and on the big-screen. Whether you’re watching at home or in the cinema, please be seated…the best is yet to come”.

Importantly, this balance between festival and season is less apparent within promotional activities on the internet. The Film4 Twitter feed, prior to, during and after the festival is dominated by the promotion of the FrightFest Season rather than the physical festival event. The majority of tweets revolve around reminders of films showing on the channel as part of the FrightFest season, rather than references to the actual festival. When Film4 FrightFest is mentioned, it is done so in relation to the season, for example: “It’s @Film4FrightFest opening night! And our FrightFest season continues with Red Hill + William Friedkin’s Bug”. Therefore, it becomes easy to conclude that FrightFest as a physical festival serves as a platform in which Film4 can promote a neatly contained, genre-driven film season with an existing and proven demographic attached.  This notion becomes clearer when the other Film4 endorsed exhibition orientated events are considered. While events such as the Summer Screen at Somerset House are promoted heavily on the Film4 website and across social media, they fail to provide a neat and ready-made theme in which a season can be based around.  This in turn implies the importance of the FrightFest brand to Film4, and the success not only of their individual season, but their ability to attract a new fan demographic.

The idea that the channel’s sponsorship of Frightfest exists as a platform in which they can look to promote an adjacently running horror themed season is usefully confirmed by Alan Jones. Jones is the co-founder, co-curator and co-director of FrightFest and also an important figure within the horror community.  In an interview conducted by Film International which previews this year’s event, Jones talks about Film4’s role as sponsor. In conjunction with the assessment of Film4 made in this article, Jones states “They [Film4] saw us as a great opportunity to promote a horror season on their channel. Their FrightFest season is, I think, the highest rated season they do, so we lend our name to them because the fans will follow.” Within this role, Jones suggests that Film4 are a very supportive entity, and allows Jones and his co-founders to curate and run the festival as they see fit. Subsequently, Jones claims Film4 have no say in the programming of the event, and even if the channel has a production that would befit the festival program, Jones and his fellow curators still have the final say as to whether it goes into the festival schedule.

Therefore, it becomes clear that Film4 use the festival in order to promote the television season and attract the demographic attached to the FrightFest name. This cultural exchange between Film4 and FrightFest is central as it comes to suggest the FrightFest is a powerful brand within itself. Jones suggests that FrightFest lends their name to Film4 in order legitimise their horror season, rather than the perhaps more logical notion, given the history of Film4 within the UK, that the channel works to validate the festival within UK film culture. Therefore, the FrightFest brand identity itself is powerful, and while it needs the funding support of the channel and other various co-sponsors, the name of the festival, going into its 15th anniversary next year, carries a sustainable and valuable cultural capital, which, marginal or not, helps to elevate it perhaps above its own sponsors.


Simon Hobbs