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Toronto: Eli Roth Reveals How the Fest's Midnight Madness 'Changed My Life'

Eli Roth The Green Inferno - H 2013
Roth (center) on the set of his latest horror opus, "Green Inferno."

The horror auteur recounts how a last-minute 2002 screening of "Cabin Fever," previously seen only by him, launched his career: "By the time the credits rolled … a sea of distributors swarmed me shouting offers."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I was an unknown filmmaker with an unfinished film, borrowing money from my parents to pay my $700-a-month rent for a studio apartment on Beachwood Drive. Cabin Fever was not finished, and we needed another $400,000 to mix and make prints. I had submitted the movie to the Toronto Film Festival, and we were told it was rejected. But then something happened where a guy named Colin Geddes (the Midnight Madness programmer) got hold of the tape (yes, the VHS tape of my AVID edit) and played it. Apparently the main festival had rejected the film, but someone said, "This seems more like Colin's thing." Colin loved the film and put us in the festival -- dead last. We were so dead-last that the closing-night party was scheduled to end before our film began.

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I was ecstatic. Not only did this give us the time we needed to finish the movie, we now had a real shot at selling the film if buyers stuck around till the last day. My producers and I found a group of investors who said they would put in the last $400,000 to finish the movie, but they hadn't wired the funds yet. I was sitting on the mixing stage, with the mixer looking at me, waiting for the deposit to hit the account so that we could start. I was on the phone with the investors, saying: "We're in Toronto! We're not gonna get another chance like this!" We sat there for two hours waiting -- until finally they agreed to wire the money. It turns out one of the investors was showing the VHS tape to his 12-year-old son, who, 95 minutes later, looked at his dad and said, "This is better than American Pie." My career was literally in the hands of a 12-year-old, who, thankfully, liked horror movies. We mixed the film, and I watched the print at the lab then took it with me on the plane to Toronto. This was Sept. 9 -- the day before our press screening.

At the time, Midnight Madness was considered some strange sidebar to a very prestigious festival. The films were insane -- exactly my taste. I met directors like Vincenzo Natali (Cube) and Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train). It was a wild introduction to world genre cinema, which at the time was very hard to find in the U.S. I remember the fear that all the buyers were going to go home after the first week of the festival and that no one would be left to see Cabin Fever at the day 10 press screening. I showed the edit of the film to Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, who kindly had come in and done the makeup effects for next to nothing just to help me out. Howard said it was the best horror movie he'd worked on since Evil Dead 2, and he called Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News to tell him. Harry called me right away, and even though Harry hadn't seen the film, we were clearly kindred spirits and bonded right away. That night, Harry wrote up his Toronto prefestival report, and it began by telling buyers not to leave before the end. He told them that although he hadn't seen Cabin Fever, he could tell from talking to me that my passion was real and that this could be the R-rated horror film fans had been waiting for. At the time, everything was PG-13, and people told me nobody wanted violent horror films anymore. I was also told by "experts" that an R-rated horror film couldn't make more than $15 million at the box office, which I knew was nonsense. I always believed if you gave people a great scary time at the movies, they'd come out in droves to see it.

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I remember going from the airport to the hotel and getting my badge. It was my first film festival badge, and I still have it. I realized then I could go see any movie I wanted -- this badge allowed me to see every press screening. I went right to the theater and saw a friend of mine from NYU Film School who was now working in acquisitions at Miramax. He said to me, "Everyone who's seen your film said it's f--ing amazing!" That's when I saw the power of Internet hype -- I was literally the sole person who had seen the finished print, by myself, at DeLuxe, yet the buzz was off the charts.

I ignored everyone's warnings to not go to the first press and industry screening and went. Ten minutes into the film, we had sold out the U.K. By the time the credits rolled, I walked out into a sea of distributors, who swarmed me shouting offers. The bidding war lasted through the night, and by the time we had our Midnight Madness screening four days later, I was able to announce our sale to Lionsgate for $3.5 million, and $12 million P&A -- the largest screen commitment they had ever done for an acquisition. I was so exhausted from the bidding and sale that by the time Midnight Madness happened, I was almost too tired to attend. Earlier that night, I ran into a friend who introduced me to Shalom Harlow, the actress. They invited me to go to the InStyle party with them, so I went. Shalom looked at me shyly standing at the head of the red carpet. "Is this your first red carpet?" she asked. I nodded, like a deer in the headlights. "It's easy. Come," she said and took my hand and pulled me down the carpet, posing with me like I was her date. Within hours I was getting phone calls from friends who saw the pictures online, saying "You're already dating supermodels?!? That was quick!"

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I, of course, returned the favor and invited her and all her friends to the Midnight Madness screening. I remember walking with Colin Geddes up to the theater, and he pointed and smiled: The line was wrapped around the block. The theater, the Uptown 1, was a beautiful 2,000-seater, and we stood at the top of the stairs as they opened the doors and the fans ran for the seats. This was always Colin's favorite part. The geeks almost trounced me as they ran, leaping over one another to get the best seats. The screening was a roaring success -- the audience squealed in all the right places. The lights went up to wild applause, and I saw a geek with a beard in the front row wearing a Last House on the Left T-shirt with tears rolling down his face. He just looked at me and mouthed, "Thank you."

♦♦♦♦♦

5 Flicks Not to Miss at Midnight Madness
Alien abduction, cannibalism, flesh-eating diseases -- when  the clock strikes 12, it's time to take a break from prestige pics. — Borys Kit

AFFLICTION

This found-footage thriller about a man's mystery illness already has been acquired by CBS Films, E1 and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.

ALMOST HUMAN

The budget for this alien abduction splatter-fest was so tight, director Joe Begos turned to a haunted house attraction for monster costumes.

GREEN INFERNO

One of the hottest sale properties at the fest, Roth's homage to Italian cannibal movies will give international buyers plenty to chew on.

OCULUS

Rising horror star Mike Flanagan directed another hot sale title, the supernatural tale of two siblings and their parents' mysterious death.

THE STATION

Austrian helmer Marvin Kren's cross between Alien and The Thing already has buyers talking about an English-language remake.