The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival and Marathon kicks off this Friday at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, marking the 40th anniversary of the iconic local showcase. Boston SciFi, held from Feb. 6 to 16, is the oldest official genre fest in America.
The event, which features both feature-length and short films, has attracted hundreds of independent works over the years, and has served as a launch pad for cult classics like “War of the Worlds” (1953), “Them!” (1954) and “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951).
“There is so much incredible filmmaking talent that has existed the world over, so varied and groundbreaking,” said Suzzanne Cromwell, a second-year head judge and co-curator of the fest. “We’re proud to put these awesome films in front of an equally awesome audience.”
According to Cromwell, the event curators’ goal for 2015 was to broaden the reach of the intimate festival, which generally attracts a very specific niche of fans. In doing so, they accepted films from four broadly defined genres: horror, sci-fi, fantasy and “experimental.”
“Our goal each year is to accept even more quality films into the festival, and this year we reached an all-time high,” she said. “The quality of the work, especially the film shorts, is stellar, and almost 100 shorts from around the world will be screening in addition to our features.”
One of these standout shorts, “Moonlight Bait and Ammo” (2014), is framed as an 11-minute, animated graphic novel. The plot features an insurance worker investigating a hunter’s claim that his barn was attacked by aliens. The film is narrated by Richard McGonagle of “(500) Days of Summer” (2009).
“I got the idea because I’m a personal injury lawyer and thought, ‘how fun it would be to see an arrogant executive get their comeuppance in the wildest circumstances possible?’” said writer and co-director Alfred Catalfo, whose other films, “Bighorn” (2010) and “Slam Man” (2013), have screened in two previous Boston SciFis, as well as Boston Comic Con.
It’s not uncommon for the festival to feature independent artists such as Catalfo, who spend years putting together high-quality films as side projects to their day jobs. According to writer and producer Bob Heske, the genres featured in Boston SciFi lend themselves to a specific, D.I.Y. market.
“I’m a 50-year old, first-time filmmaker, I’ve dabbled as a screenwriter, and I just decided, ‘why not go ahead and make a micro-budget movie?’” said Heske, a marketing director from central Massachusetts. Heske’s film, “Blessid” (2014), is a drama that explores the relationship between a pregnant, struggling woman and her immortal neighbor. It will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 8.
“A lot of these films are locally sourced,” he explained. “’Blessid’ features music from local musicians, as well as local actors and on-site directors, producers and editors.”
Still, Heske emphasized that the annual bump in film quality means that, for filmmakers, gaining admittance is no walk in the park, especially for no-name producers who lack star talent. Competition was unusually steep this year, as little-big films like “The Babadook” (2014) and “Boyhood” (2014) rocked the mainstream festival circuit.
“They look at hundreds of films for 10-15 spots,” Heske said. “This has been a record year for submissions, and you have to have a finished film on a tiny budget before you even submit, so it’s very hard for a feature.”
“I started my film in 2012, and was in post-production for almost two years,” he added, outlining the lengthy process micro-budget movies go through from conception to screening. “You’re working around other peoples’ schedules. But most movies don’t even get made! So I think it’s a great accomplishment.”
The festival will show between three and seven films daily over its 11-day span, bringing together hundreds of indie artists, curators, judges and fans. Also included in the lineup are “I Was A Teenage Superhero Sidekick” (2013), “Alien Outpost” (2014), “History of Time Travel” (2014) and, of course, “Robot Overlords” (2014). The overall winner is awarded “The Gort,” a robot-shaped statuette.
Cromwell noted that this year’s committee saw a large spike in international films, with a large number of high quality works coming from Australia in particular. The judges, she said, agree that each country has “its own flair and flavor.”
“What a treat to be one of the first people to see the works of these artists. The storytelling and overall production of these films are top notch,” she added.
All of the screenings will eventually culminate in “The Thon,” a yearly 24-hour capper that will show such sci-fi staples as “The Iron Giant” (1999) and “Snowpiercer” (2013). Heading up the marathon will be Douglas Trumbull himself, who worked on 1979’s “Star Trek,” as well as “Blade Runner” (1982) and “The Tree of Life” (2011). Trumbull will be introducing the first film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), for which he was a Special Photographic Effects Supervisor.
“People should make it a point to hit the fest on the 14th to see [Trumbull] in person,” said Cromwell. “I look forward to this event every year – it always holds a truly special and sentimental place in my heart.”
Cromwell’s not alone. The festival has been known to attract a loyal legion of fans, dozens of whom keep trekking to Somerville for the community Boston SciFi fosters. One such fan is Miriam Dennis, a movie lover from Weymouth, Mass., who hasn’t missed the festival in three decades.
“I’m a big-time supporter,” said Dennis. “In 30 years I have never seen any trouble, fight or altercation. Never have the police been called. It is like a peaceful Woodstock, only with films and not music.”
“People camp out the night before to get up front and get a good seat,” she continued, emphasizing another communal part of the experience: waiting in line. “They come from all over the states … it’s like how your neighbors react during a huge blizzard. We all get together and help each other.”
Visitors and curators alike say this strong community is the absolute highlight of the festival. Franciso Urbano, a family man who’s been attending each year since 1978, says he cannot see a day where he doesn’t make it to the event.
“Originally, what kept me coming back was the idea that for 24 hours, my wife and I could get lost in one of our favorite genres — science fiction — while doing one of our favorite things — going to the movies,” Urbano said. “Eventually, we began to build friendships with the faces we would see year after year and, suddenly, this community took on a special meaning. For 24 hours, we form a society where everyone ‘gets it.’”
Urbano and his wife have been dubbed the unofficial “king and queen” of swag at the festival after years of doling out prizes and loot bags to fans. They’ve also taken on the responsibility of decorating Somerville Theatre and promoting the fest through local outreach.
“My favorite thing about the marathon is the brotherhood and sisterhood that has formed over the years,” he mused. “It really is like the mythical ‘Brigadoon’ (1947).”