NOLA's Terrifying New Festival

Horror film fans received a special treat last month.

The Overlook Film Festival was created last year by industry veterans Michael Lerman and Landon Zakheim as a sort of summer camp for horror movie fans. The idea? To pair an incredible collection of films from the genre with intimate, interactive experiences all put together in the perfect horror setting — hence the name Overlook, the Colorado hotel that inspired Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

Last year’s inaugural festival was held at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon — the hotel used for the exterior shots of “The Shining.”

“We liked the idea of hosting the festival at an out of the way, rural location,” said Zakheim, “and the festival was great — everyone loved it. But we quickly realized that we were already outgrowing our surroundings. In order to expand and grow the festival we needed to find a place with more options. We needed not just a haunted hotel, we needed a haunted city.

New Orleans became the natural choice for The Overlook, which attracted thousands of attendees from around the country in its first year.
So the festival made the move, filling downtown New Orleans with horror lovers from April 19 – 22.

Designed to be much more immersive and intimate than many film festivals, in addition to 40 films (23 features and 17 short films from 12 countries) showcased at Le Petit Theatre and Cinebarre Canal Place, the festival included an array of parties, live performance and virtual reality and interactive experiences. All access passes went for $380, film and panel passes for $280 and individual movie tickets sold for $13.

Zakheim said the diversity of the programming dovetailed perfectly with the move to New Orleans this year.

“The more we came to check out spaces, the more we got really excited about the possibilities,” he said. “Every venue we explored and business we talked to was so excited to work with us, and honestly, we’re used to that being a lot more work. Everything was here. For instance, we usually have to build the theaters. We didn’t have to do that here to have the intimate experience we wanted.”

The Overlook also didn’t have to look far for staffing.

“We are a scrappy bunch — I’d say under 15 as far as staff — and almost everyone was local,” Zakheim said. “We got a lot of people through the New Orleans Film Society; they were incredible. As were other groups like Novac and Shotgun Cinema. Our goal is to create a community while embracing the one that already exists.”

Of course for community, you can’t do better than the most haunted city in America, and Zakheim said this year’s festival also happened to fall within a particularly exciting time for the genre.

“Since starting the festival last year there’s been such an upswing,” he said — think recent huge hits including “A Quiet Place, and last year’s big hits, the Oscar-winning “Get Out,” and “It” (which surpassed “The Exorcist” to become the highest grossing horror movie of all time).

Why the resurgence now? Zakheim feels it’s a mixture of three things.

“First, we’re seeing a lot of people who grew up as horror fans — like Jordan Peele and John Krasinski, for example — who are now in the position to make their own films. Secondly, we’re seeing studios either doing these big blockbusters or cheaper independent films. There’s less of those mid-level adult pictures.”

Finally, Zakheim says the boost in horror popularity tends to fall at times when people feel less secure.

“I read somewhere that in the months after Sept. 11, folks thought that haunted houses wouldn’t be popular that year, but what they found was that attendance actually shot up a staggering amount. People embraced the horrific as an escape. In general, genre and fantasy movies do better when the world feels unsafe.”

The result, he says is that the genre is currently “seeing some of the most creative filmmaking in a long time.”

So will Overlook become an annual thing?  

“We’ll have to see,” said Zakheim, “but I can tell you I’d like to keep it here. It’s been such an incredible working experience and I’m so excited about the possibilities and partnerships that we could have moving forward.”

Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.