For the Future of Film Festivals, Look To Tennessee

Genre movies for everyone in Chattanooga

In 1979, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and a small crew of friends traveled to a cabin in Morristown, Tennessee, to film The Evil Dead. Made on a shoestring budget, the horror film became a phenomenon, launching Raimi’s career and ushering in a new wave of independent cinema.

But when genre film fans think of horror movies like The Evil Dead, they don’t think of Tennessee. Chris Dortch wants to change that.

Dortch just celebrated 10 years of bringing genre films to Chattanooga, Tennessee via the Chattanooga Film Festival, where he’s the executive director and lead film programmer. Many of the films highlighted throughout CFF’s past decade embody The Evil Dead’s independent aproach. Most are debut features, some from local or student filmmakers. One feature from this year, Mind Body Spirit, echoes The Evil Dead in its warnings about not reading the Latin (or, in this case, Sanskrit) in an old evil book.

“We’ve basically just been programming things that we love, no matter what they are, no matter how strange they are,” Dortch told me in an interview the Saturday of the festival.

In CFF’s early days, Dortch programmed everything: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, family films, even the 1986 Transformers movie in 35mm. But the audience wanted something they couldn’t get anywhere else.

“We noticed that the strangest stuff, the horror stuff, things we hadn’t necessarily expected to do as well, were running away with our audience awards,” Dortch said. “So we’ve kind of leaned into the weirdness gradually.”

Despite the Evil Dead of it all, plus Tennessee’s penchant for Southern Gothic stories (the ghost of a dead prostitute supposedly haunts The Read House in downtown Chattanooga, the location for this year’s festival), Dortch knows the feeling of not being able to find genre films at local theaters.

“A very big part of my childhood was seeing trailers for movies that Chattanooga wasn’t quite big enough to get at the loal multiplex, like Edward Scissorhands. I remember it being a huge coup that movies like Trainspotting or Swingers even got to play here for a couple of nights,” Dortch said.

That frustration, combined with what he felt like was a lack of pactical education at his film school at Belmont University in Nashville, caused Dortch to found CFF, and he’s been running it ever since.

More movies for everyone

This year’s fest is the first time CFF has been back in person since 2019, but the virtual part of the festival that came out of the COVIS-19 pandemic is here to stay. The in-person festivities ended on Sunday, but virtual festgoers can buy passes to watch screenings until June 30. Some offerings are virtual-only, too, like a series of seminars on how to budget your first independent film. Accessibility to film matters, Dortch said, something that became increasingly apparent during the fest’s virtual-only years.

“We got thousands of emails and comments from people telling us things like, ‘I’m disabled, I’ve never had the opportunity to do anything resembling a film festival until now,’ or ‘I’m a mother of six, I can barely afford to feed my kids, but you guys allowed single ticketing to be a thing, so I can see what I want for this festival,’” Dortch said. “And I’d like to see distributors regonize that accessibility is important, too. That’s not saying that we all didn’t fall in love with movies and movie theaters, or that movie theaters aren’t a sacred thing to great many of us.

“But I’m a video store kid, and a lot of us saw our first favorite movie on our couch in our parents’ living room. And I want people to remember that’s an important part of the movie going experience, too.

“We’re almost becoming activists for what it means to be a film fan and kind of brushing aside some of the pretension.”

Local pushback

Running a genre film festival in the middle of the Bible belt doesn’t come without its challenges. Before this year’s in-person screening of Satan Wants You, a documentary about the misinformation and bunk psychiatry that led to the Satanic Panic, Dortch read some angy emails from a few years ago when CFF screened the documentary Hail Satan? He expected more pushback after this year’s offering, but so far, he said, he hasn’t experienced it. That’s a change from some of the reception the fest has had in years past.

“Early on, we had a couple of foundations and people that seemed to believe in the festival until we started going in the direction of being more horror. It seemed like they were mildly embarrassed by that kind of programming,” Dortch said.

So that led to starting partnerships with local businesses like distilleries, dispensaries, bookstores and bars. The CFF is a non-profit, funded by donations and Patreon subscriptions. As of Tuesday, next year’s fest is only a few thousand dollars away from being completely funded.

“Our community is our secret weapon,” Dortch said.

What we saw at the CFF

Virtual passes are still on sale for the back half of the festival, which lasts until June 30. If you want to purchase tickets, here are some recommendations:

-The aforementioned Satan Wants You documentary

-Crossing Tides, a short film about a widow with a gut punch of an ending

-netneutral, a short film about the survivor of an alien abduction

Mind Body Spirit, a found footage film about a yoga instructor who uses her dead grandmother’s practice to get YouTube clout

Sour Party, a two-hander comedy about two dirtbag women who spend a day in L.A. trying to shake their friends down for money for a baby shower gift

Molli and Max in the Future, a sci-fi romcom that’s equal parts When Harry Met Sally…, Doctor Who and The Fifth Element

LOLA, a black-and-white time travel movie about two sisters who prevent most of the bloodshed of World War II, with disastreous consequences

Kokomo City, a talking heads documentary about Black trans sex workers in New York

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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