FilmQuest’s Jonathan Martin Talks About What Makes This Fest Unique [Interview]

FilmQuest Founder, Jonathan Martin, chatted with us about what makes his festival unique.

I attended FilmQuest in Provo, Utah. I saw quite a few awesome movies, and met so many amazing filmmakers, at this year’s fest. Afterwards, I caught up with FilmQuest Founder & Director Jonathan Martin to learn more about this fest’s history.

Dread Central: What inspired you to start FilmQuest? 

Jonathan Martin: After my first successful run on the festival circuit from 2011 through 2012, I learned a lot about film festivals. I didn’t learn everything, but I learned a lot. I saw what made a great festival great, and a bad festival bad, and everything in between. So I had this seed planted during that run where I thought it might be fun to start my own festival when I got older, maybe in my 50’s or something. 

Then a chance meeting in 2014 while I was in post on my next film opened a door of opportunity. I was in the offices of an animation studio that was situated across the hall from the offices of FantasyCon, an upcoming fantasy-themed convention to be hosted in Salt Lake City. I met the owner of the Con, and after some discussion about what I’ve been doing he pitched me on the film festival they were going to do as part of their convention.

Everything they said was exactly what you don’t do when running a festival – especially if you want people to care about it. I told them as such, in a nice way, and he took my number and said he’d call me later. He did and proceeded to offer me the job of running their festival. 

I countered that I would do it, but it had to be its own separate entity, that I got to decide everything about it and how it was run, etc. He agreed, and thus FilmQuest would be born. We had 4 months to put together that first season, so we hit the ground running and haven’t looked back since!

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FilmQuest provides a lot of panels, sessions, and chances for filmmakers to network and learn how to advance in their careers by learning from industry professionals. A few people referred to it lovingly as “filmmaker boot camp.” Do you think your background in film helped you pinpoint what is missing from most of these other festivals?

JM: I do love that people refer to FilmQuest as “film camp,” and have been doing so for a few seasons now – completely independent of each other too. It’s not something I consciously set out to do, but now that it’s become a part of the DNA of the festival, we’ve fully embraced it! 

I do think a lot of festivals are good festivals without these kinds of events and don’t necessarily need them. However, I personally, believe that if someone is going to spend money to come out of their way to come to a festival then a festival needs to provide more to them than just screenings and maybe an awards ceremony at the end. Screening and selecting films is the easy part – putting on a true experience and a “show?” That’s where the art is.

I think having played so many festivals the past 10 years, over 250 and some of the most high-profile to date, and just seeing how they operate has informed me the most. I can take a look and say “this is what I’d like to see,” or “I wish they had this…” So a lot of this is my personal tastes and interests coming to the forefront, along with my instincts, and putting that on display for others to partake in. Fortunately, it seems there’s a lot of like-minded filmmakers who dig it! 

How did you know Provo, Utah was cool enough to host it before the rest of us?

JM: I think living here for 20 years has helped a lot! Provo is a cool town, but the irony of it being the host city for an emerging genre mecca isn’t lost on me.

We actually began in the Salt Lake area and held the fest there the first three seasons, and while Salt Lake is nice, you were just kind of stuck where you were and there was really no way around that. The cinema we played at was state-of-the-art, but there wasn’t anything to do outside the doors since everything was so spread out. I knew I wanted to bring the festival to Provo for a while but hadn’t built the confidence to do so yet.

It was during 2016 when I had a film in Sitges, the King Daddy of all genre fests and a festival that does it right, and I started walking around the town. Sitges is just this gorgeous resort town of about 30,000 people on the Mediterranean coast, and most everything was within walking distance. It was then that the eureka hit that Provo is where FilmQuest needed to be, and where we’d bring everyone in and grow. As a local headline read “FilmQuest is coming to Provo not to get smaller, but to get bigger.” 

Let’s do a checklist. It’s literally situated in just about the most gorgeous mountain setting in the country, giving a view that is unmatched. Check. Everything you need to do is within easy walking distance of the venue, the restaurants, parties, activities, etc. Check. It’s a young town – statistically the youngest city in America by age. Check. It’s affordable. Check. The hotels are a block from the venue. Check. The venue itself is badass and totally one of a kind, with its own significance with rock history. Check. 

In fact, when you look at a lot of the most successful festivals in the world, regardless of theme or genre, a large percentage of them are hosted in smaller towns where all the action is within walking distance. 2016 in Sitges confirmed to me that Provo has that unique quality, and so far I’ve been proven right.

Also Read: FilmQuest Review – The Parker Sessions Boasts a Clearly Stellar Lead in an Unclear Tale of Trauma

I am still kind of in awe about how many people consistently came back to support each other’s work. Or would power through all of the events during the day and the social activities you had planned for the evening. I think it stems from this sense of community that you all establish the second you walk into the door. Is this something you do on purpose? Or is this one of the unexpected perks of having a festival with so much awesome stuff programmed? 

JM: A bit of both. I want it to be known and clear to all that come to FilmQuest that all are equal. I can’t stand a festival that acts like feature filmmakers are better than the short filmmakers. Or that the writers don’t matter…or even that the filmmakers don’t matter and it’s their celebrities in their films that do.

The bottom line is this: not a single film, or festival, is possible without filmmakers and/or writers who make the films. We simply can’t and wouldn’t exist without them.

We’re all in this together. We need each other, and you really can’t survive in this industry without a community and a support team. So we harbor that and encourage that at the festival. We want you to leave here excited about your prospects, and to have friends that you can collaborate with for life. We want you to achieve your dreams together.

It’s what we all crave, right? Friendship, love, camaraderie, etc. A festival should go beyond films and events – it has to involve love and sincerity. A love for cinema, a love for those who make it, and a love for those who love it. Cheesy as it all sounds.

That said, we totally want to give you that “fear of missing out” feeling. When the events are groovy, and the networking is unlike any other if you miss out – that’s okay, but it’s on you. It’s a sense of responsibility and accountability as well. We take the horses to the water, and whether they drink or not… that’s on the horses. 

I loved that you get to know everyone working the fest because it is a small crew. It feels very like a family business that happens to be a massive undertaking of a festival. Can you talk about how you found a group of amazing people that help you do this every year?

JM: I 110% could not do this without my team. I wouldn’t want to do it without them. It just wouldn’t be the same. Believe me, our success is their success, and vice versa. And you’re right, it is like a family business because my team is like a family to us. They’re all important, and all so integral to how this works. If they’re not happy – I’m not happy. They know they can approach me, or Jonna or Richard, with anything, and that openness just makes it a happier, more collaborative event from top to bottom.

But it began in 2014. Most of the volunteers and staff have been with us since that inaugural season, and they’ve been nothing but the best. Through the years word gets out how much fun and awesome the festival is and others have joined in, but we’ve had a solid core since the beginning. 

I also have Jonna Jackson and Richard Teasdale, who co-founded the festival with me and serve as the Assistant Director and Deputy Director. 

Jonna, I met at Screamfest when my film played in 2011, and we literally became best friends ever since. So with her experience being the Production Manager at Screamfest, she was a perfect choice to run this bad boy with me. Richard and I have been editing my films together since 2010, so having him with me as well was a no-brainer. Between the three of us, we also do the majority of the film programming and screening as well. 

Also Read: ‘Not Alone’ Director Cezil Reed on Subverting Horror Fans’ Expectations, Working With Richard Lawson

You wear a lot of hats as the Founder and Director of FilmQuest. I personally watched you climb a couple of ladders, run Q&As,  facilitate some of the introductions to people who ended up becoming best friends, and that was just the first day. What is your favorite part of organizing and running this festival? And why is that your favorite?

JM: Giving me a bit of a Sophie’s Choice moment here!

I’m going to mostly cop out and say that I like it all just about equally. Everything takes just about the same amount of work as the rest, outside the screening process. In my mind, it’s not necessarily categorized one-by-one, but as a whole. I eat the whole pie, not just a slice! 

Yet, the whole festival experience should be just that – an experience. Everything should be thought of, from how the lights are lit, to where the art sits, to the pre-show, etc. It’s the little things, and I thrive on creating a wholly unique experience that no one else can replicate. 

That said, my two favorite things are probably seeing audience reactions for the first time to the films we programmed. It confirms that we hit the mark and that our programming was spot on. I also love seeing people fall in love with the festival and realizing that it’s better than advertised and that they found a new friend for life at the fest. At least I hope that’s what they’re thinking and doing! I mean, I know we can’t satisfy everybody and that to do so is really an impossible task. But connecting people and seeing us help transform their opportunities, maybe even change their lives, is immensely rewarding to me and to everyone at the festival.

The 7th and 8th year of FilmQuest is probably a bit different than pre-COVID years? Could you talk about what changed just because of the pandemic? Did it end up changing any aspects of the fest for the better?

JM: Honestly, outside of an added virtual component, I don’t think there was that much different outside of some little, albeit important, items that contributed to the overall experience. The delay in the 7th festival due to Covid allowed us to figure out what was working, test it during the abridged 7th edition in May, and then go to town for the full 9-day event this Fall. 

For example, we were able to really lock in how our Closing Night awards show operated. We figured out how to get some great motion graphics involved, hone in on the perfect length for winner’s clips, etc to create an entertaining and exciting awards show experience. We were able to perfect the pre-show trailers and clips, and analyze what works and doesn’t to streamline things a bit.

Of course, the added virtual component – which we provide for free via a private link and password – allows for those who can’t attend the festival to participate from afar, allowing for more participation beyond what is seen in person. 

Lastly, the festival got safer. Of course, we can’t guarantee no one would get sick after being at the fest, but making sure everyone was vaccinated who attended (99%) and then testing everyone who wasn’t to keep exposure and potential spread to a minimum allowed us to take the filmmakers and guests even more to heart. We became more conscious of everyone’s well-being, and I think that contributed to an even more “hearty” event, so to speak. 

Outside of all of the amazing movies, we watched as a group, there was also a screenwriting competition. Unproduced scripts are recognized alongside filmed products. Can you talk about that part of the festival? And, why it is important to celebrate the script at that specific stage of the process?

JM: There’s no movie without a script, right? And it’s highly unlikely there can be a good movie without a good script either! So since the very beginning, I knew we had to have a screenwriting competition – for both features and shorts.

I also know that screenwriters can sometimes be a more introverted bunch. So, how do we get screenwriters to meet filmmakers who can actually make their movies? By putting them all together of course and taking them all out of their shells! 

Ultimately, we want these scripts to be read and ultimately produced. The best way to do that is to treat the screenwriters as equally as possible to the filmmakers. Along the way, we started to host more events for screenplays and to get them more exposure, and we also started doing more labs for screenplays. Every festival, we try to do at least two writer’s labs, which benefits both the writers and the filmmakers – who are often on in the same. 

Moving forward, we’ll be looking at even more opportunities to bring these writers to the forefront and to hopefully get their screenplays noticed. 

You had 207 shorts, 18 music videos, 16 features, 15 animated shorts, and 6 web series included this year. How do you find so many quality filmmakers with work ready to go?  

JM: It begins with the submission process. We stopped taking “high profile” films from sales agents a few seasons ago because we get so many incredible films submitted to us already. Also, no one ever came out from those films. We want to celebrate the films that need the help, that extra push and attention, and also showcase that these films are just as good, if not better, than the “high profile” ones. 

So first, you gotta submit. Fortunately, our reputation has grown to the point now where we barely have to advertise. We get a huge amount of submissions for a genre festival now. So we’re having submitted to us the majority of the “best” work already in a given year. 

Next, we have a very thorough judging process. There’s a bit of a “you know it when you see it” aspect to it. But we start at the production value. Audiences are trained to appreciate and gravitate towards works with higher production values. Most people attending a festival outside of filmmakers have never seen a festival film. You get one shot with them, or they’ll never return. So you need to wow them by showing them works that look and feel just as good as what they’d see in the cinema or on streaming.

But then, of course, the story brings it all home. After we analyze each film from top to bottom, we look at the story – which we’ve of course been looking at since the very beginning. If the story, or at the very least the concept and execution, match the overall quality of the piece – well then you’ve got yourself a FilmQuest film and filmmaker.

I do want to say there’s many more films that we could take. We really could. There are more good films out there that would be deserving, and in other season’s would get into the festival. But despite our huge lineup, there’s still only so much time and space for films to take. I think that’s where the future of virtual festivals is – it allows you to expand your lineups with “virtual exclusives.” These are films that for whatever reason can’t screen in-person, but can still be a part of the competition lineup. We had several winners this season from this particular group, and I think that it provides for even more opportunity moving forward.

Also, what is the submission process for the festival?

JM: Pretty easy! Just submit your genre film or unproduced genre screenplay via FilmFreeway. Here’s a link as well:

We’re not just sci-fi, fantasy, and horror either. We celebrate ALL of genre cinema, which we say includes noirs, westerns, action adventures, thrillers, etc.

Also Read: FilmQuest Review – An Ideal Host is a Darkly Funny, Disgusting, and Delightful Alien Invasion Story

When will tickets go on sale for the next festival?

JM: We’ll put tickets on sale about 4-5 weeks before the festival, likely around the beginning of October 2022. The 9th edition of the festival itself is currently dated for October 28th – November 5th, 2022, again in Downtown Provo and Velour.

What drew you to Cthulu as a mascot? Also, who does the awesome designs for the merch and awards? 

JM: I don’t know what the exact “eureka!” moment was that we came upon Cthulhu, but I know it came pretty early. We had discussed something that could be general, like a Bandersnatch for example, but I do remember that when I thought of Cthulhu I knew that he was the One. 

As a genre festival that celebrates all the realms of possibilities of genre cinema, he was just perfect. He embodied sci-fi, fantasy, and horror all in one. He was just perfect. Frankly, I’m shocked no one else had gone all-in on Cthulhu yet. 

As for the merch and awards, etc. I design a lot of it and/or art direct it. For the limited edition artwork itself, I hire out artists I know and come across and we work together to create the season’s centerpiece which then dictates the vibe of the season. The shirts, keychains, red carpet walls, motion graphics, stickers, etc. I do all that. I just switch it up a little from season to season.

The logo was designed by Juliete Koleva, an artist out of Bulgaria. We found her via a contest we held on 99designs. Once we saw her concepts, we knew she was onto something, and from there we honed it in and that’s where you see what I now feel is our instantly recognizable Cthulhu head logo and wordmark. 

The award itself was designed by Ryan Kenneth Peterson (@ryankennethpeterson on Instagram). He was an artist here in Utah that I knew who had worked with Rick Baker and several other prominent Hollywood effects artists. A dude really ahead of his time. He did Edgar for Men in Black, the creepy Benjamin Button baby, etc. He’s now at Sideshow Collectibles. With our Cthulhu Trophy, we wanted to make something different and organic – so naturally, we used Iggy Pop as our base inspiration and went from there! 

Ryan truly created something iconic for us, and we couldn’t be more proud.

Also Read: ‘Esluna: The Crown of Babylon’ Is A Beautifully Animated Adventure [Film Quest 2021]

You have a lot of projects going on outside of the festival as well. What is next for you? Where can people find out more about your work outside of the festival?

JM: Yeah! A lot of people who come to the festival know, or they find out, that I’m a filmmaker as well. I spent the first several years of my career making shorts, music videos, etc. but now I’m finally ready to branch out into features after a few close calls for getting some big projects off the ground.

I’m currently producing a film for Academy Award winner Joel Harlow, and we’re just looking for our female lead and we can move into production. I’ve also got a few feature scripts and projects of my own that I’m hoping to move into production early next year as well. There are a few that are more likely than others, and it’s really just seeing what budgets I can put together to make the first happen. It’s time!

If people would like to see some of my work, they can visit my production company’s website at 



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