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An Extremely Brief History

… of the Festival that could not be killed

Well it goes a little something like this...

That's Incredible Cinema

Re-enactment of The Piano in 1994
with sledgehammers and chainsaws

The ever-changing chameleon-like entity known as the Incredibly Strange Film Festival had its humble origins in the wintry climes of Dunedin 1984. It was there that I threw away a law degree to hold keg parties and get vicarious thrills watching others pay money to watch mini-film festivals in student dormitories. The term "Symbiotic auto-voyeurism" or "Us getting off watching you getting off" was in later years used by myself to describe this pastime.

In 1985 I waltzed into the legendary Auckland arthouse Charley Gray's to speak with Mr Gray about showing some films that didn't include travelogue footage from France. Mr Charley Gray, being a Cormanesque showman himself, smelt the fragrance of moola and greenlit the first annual Bad Taste Film Festival.

This hodge-podge without-a-budget festival was comprised of film flotsam that most exhibitors turned their noses up at. Its success was a surprise even to the organisers who thought it would do 'okay' but not spectacular biz. Pretty cruddy titles like Surf Nazis Must Die, Mondo New York, Blood Diner sat alongside a few oddities like Zodiac Killer and Hot Spur pulled the punters in like Greenpeace volunteers to a stranded whale.

That's Incredible Cinema

Robin sweating it up as
RO-MAN in Ponsonby

With this success, Mr Gray allowed me to programme more offbeat titles to varying degrees of success. It was a foreshadowing of things to come. When the arthouse went through major troubles (a long story of law suits, affairs, studio clout, bad pipes, etc) I ended up managing the eclectic surburban cinema for a couple of years.

Here my passion for offbeat cinema reached giddy heights and though the highs were high, the lows were borderline terminal. The freedom of "Why Not?" meant that anything was tried with vary degrees of success; including the fun Thursday Night Cult Series which aired everything from the XXX version of Cafe Flesh to The Beast Within on unsuspecting locals. Its days were numbered when Woody Allen's SLEEPER was screened to one person. I remember being so shattered I asked the guy if he'd take a refund + 1 so we could leave for the night - his reply and the correct one "hell no I wanna see SLEEPER" was a turning point for me. The show never stops and even if you're the only person there, it was something you wanted to see originally - so stop being a baby and sit down and watch something you love. So thanks mysterious person whoever you were.

That's Incredible Cinema

Mike as carny dude

The crazy level of pressure of running a single screen and competing with new 'plexes popping up every 10 feet was too much and Charley Gray's closed its doors. As with most single screens, it refused to die and under new management re-opened and continued for another few years.

During this time I approached the management and proposed the first annual Incredibly Strange Film Festival. This self-proclaimed "Greatest Collection of Cult Films Ever!" opened to huge audiences and ended up travelling the country. From being part of the exhibition chain for a few years, I knew that it could be disadvantageous being beholden to one location where your bargaining power diminishes as the years go by. So the festival, like some transient, wandered from single screen to single screen over the next decade. The public just followed the aroma around.

That's Incredible Cinema

Cookie & AT recreate
Midnight Cowboy
and get zero offers.

It was a joy to see such oddities playing on some of the country's most respected screens. It all culminated in 2001; wherein the fest got a facelift as the Incredible Film Festival and played at the historic 2300 seater, The Mighty Civic Theatre in Auckland - a theatre deserving of its mantle as the most stunning cinema in the South Pacific.

As you would hope with most people, the Festival matured and began to seek out what it calls "populist genre fare" from around the globe. It hasn't totally forgotten its humble beginnings - there are still enough eccentric titles to please its diehard core audience but it has expanded its scope to include solid contemporary films that cross all film genres. Without the Festival, it is highly unlikely that many of these films would ever see any kind of release in New Zealand. And with that in mind, I find it easy to sleep most nights.

And without the help of a loyal team of cinema-mad mavens this whole endeavour would not have been the wild ride it has been. The Strange team does it all with an unabashed pure love of seeing these films screened. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty over the years (from being beaten up by gang members to sleeping 5 to a bed); put up with my impatience and tendency as a minor (ahem) control freak.

Without them, I doubt it would have been possible.

So a hearty big thanks to Team ISFF:

  • Maniacal Mike Sheils
  • Crazy Cookie Rouse
  • Madman Matt Timpson
  • Angry Aaron Yap
  • Sleazy Stu Page
  • Gunnin' GT
  • Dribblin' Derek D'Coffee
  • Babblin' Brett Garten
  • Robust Robin Gee
  • Froggies Amanda & Dave