20th Century Flicks, one of the UK's last remaining video stores, turns 40 this year, and to celebrate, a new film festival is coming to Bristol's IMAX in May. Forbidden Worlds is a three-day genre cinema event themed around the year 1982 that will screen classics such as Blade Runner, Mad Max 2 and Poltergeist alongside select curios including Basket Case, Thrilling Bloody Sword and The Challenge. Beneficial Shock! sat down with its co-founders Timon Singh and Dave Taylor to discuss the ins-and-outs of putting on a film festival, bad films (meaning good) and gauging the importance of a video store in an age of streaming platforms.
Interview by Gabriel Solomons
Can you both tell me a little bit about the origin of the festival. What was the inception moment?
Dave Taylor: I think you just came in Ti, sat down and were like, I want to do this thing.
Timon Singh: Yeah, I think I sent you a tweet about six months ago, where I said ‘shall we set up a Southwest genre film festival?’
DT: Yeah it was a salty tweet saying 'I don't like going to London for these things, so can we do one here?
TS: It was once again looking with jealousy and bitterness at Fright Fest, Grim Up North and the Mayhem Film Festival and how expensive it is to travel and attend these festivals. I just thought, can't we have something like this here in the southwest and who wants to do it? And then Dave mentioned that it was going to be the 40th anniversary of the shop.
DT: Originally I wanted to do something with the Watershed, but they'd done a big event for their 30th anniversary and didn't really want to do something so big again. Also, because we were thinking of celebrating 1982 it didn’t really fit as they're whole thing is about looking forward, so we realised that we weren’t going to do this together.
TS: I thought that after the Watershed it would have to be the Arnolfini, but various things weren't right so we started thinking about the IMAX.
DT: For various reasons things hadn’t worked out in the past with events at the IMAX but we just thought we’d give it a go. So we eventually pinged off an email to them and they wrote back the same day, saying they'd love to do something with us.
TS: The initial idea was to do one screening, but they were really enthusiastic about someone doing something with the space so the potential for something bigger opened up. Since that initial meeting there have been lots of negotiations and discussions as there are lots of other people that got involved who needed assurances of what we were proposing to do.
DT: And it elevated quite quickly from being 'let's see what we can get away with doing in the IMAX with a lazer projector and a sound system' to the real nuts and bolts of acquiring the proper kit. As soon as that happened we realised the money involved in hiring that kind of kit gets significant, but we wanted to do it properly as we might not get another crack at using the IMAX.
TS: That’s when we got people involved who could help us to get the festival up and running financially, which relied on a certain investment from heritage organizations in the city.
DT: The video shop itself is fiercely independent. Apart from during COVID when we got furloughed, we've never had grants before. I've always been wary of going down that road because I didn't want the responsibility of taking that money and having to abide by the conditions put on it. Now having done this though, you realise you can't do it without some funding. And once you break that seal, you realize 'oh, this is how these big things happen' because you get comfortable with funding and the language that those people use and the expectations on you, so it's really eye opening.
The Forbidden Worlds programming team (left to right: Dave Taylor, Tessa Wiliiams, Timon Singh, Anthony Nield and Tom Vincent)
So what are the skill sets that you both have which makes for a good collaborative working partnership?
DT: What I'm quite good at is approaching people and talking through possibilities without any kind of baggage, I guess. We the Curious are the big landlords in the area as they own the aquarium and the IMAX and I got to talk with Donna Speed, the CEO there. It's really nice just talking to these people but you kind of see how things get stuck. The IMAX to me is a symbol of this, because relationships break down in some way. You just need to fiddle with it a bit and get them back into operation and Donna was just really receptive and encouraging to the idea of us bringing it back into use. I got in touch with her through Dave Sproxton who used to come into the video shop when I first started working here 20 years ago and was in awe of him because he was Mr. Morph. So I sent him an email about our proposal and he emailed back within an hour saying, it's really great to hear from you, I totally support this and the person you need to speak to is Donna, I'll put you in touch. Within two hours, she got back to me and within a day we were meeting and chatting. But I was very keen to keep everyone on slide, just trying to keep the spirit of openness about the project. So I think that is probably my superpower in this situation.
TS: Yeah, Dave's thing is he does know everyone and everyone knows Dave, whereas I've been putting on film events around Bristol since 2013. The Bristol Bad Film Club has been going for nine years now and I've also done a few outdoor screenings around Bristol, so I know what loopholes you need to jump through to get Council permission. But even though I've been doing all of that I don't know the wider Bristol higher-ups which is really important if you want to get things off the ground. Everyone knows Dave whereas I just kind of keep to myself and do my stuff.
Was the idea for the festival an extension in some ways to the Bristol Bad Film Club you run Ti, because you mostly show genre films?
TS: It's definitely a love of genre Yeah. I love sci-fi, action and horror and I just don't feel that in Bristol, that type of stuff gets the love that I think it deserves.
DT: I'm a good example of that because I didn't know what genre film meant until I started working on the festival, as I prefer Indy movies generally. But we've been having these programming meetings the past few months, and watching these films and they're brilliant. It's really opened my eyes as a 42 year old who's always been more a fan of Yasujiro Ozu and Nicholas Ray, so it's been a real renaissance for me to actually appreciate these films.
TS: And they're crowd pleasers which I think is core for festivals.
DT: Which is weird because festivals have never been about crowd pleasers for me.
TS: No exactly, and that's the thing. I've gone to enough festivals for work, and the last thing I would want to do is go to Sundance and spend a week watching films about, I don't know, a writer who's struggling with writer's block and then he goes for a coffee and thinks about what happened.
DT: Well I’m sold already!
TS: I want something where I ask is there a monster? Is there a car chase? You know, the lower brow stuff. But at the same time, genre film has produced some of the greatest films of all time. From the films we're showing like Mad Max 2 which is one of the greatest action films of all time to Poltergeist which is an amazing paranormal thriller, and of course Blade Runner was a game changer for the industry.
Poster by Ben Turner for a Bristol Bad Film event.
But is the appeal of genre films or B-movies also about the way they are experienced by audiences - more like a community of real hard-core fans?
TS: Yeah and that's what I've learned from the Bristol Bad Film Club, that it's got such a great community, where you've got 100 people in a room, all enjoying the same thing together.
DT: That's exactly the epiphany I've had in the last few months. My default in going to the cinema is that it's so often introspective by design. So you go in, you watch an introspective story, you go out and you consider it introspectively perhaps with another person, but it's such an introspective experience generally.
It seems quite timely then to have a film festival that celebrates community and the collective experience after all the lockdowns we’ve had due to covid?
DT: I'm pretty wary about calling time-out on the pandemic just yet, but I think there's that desire for it for sure.
TS: There used to be lots of genre stuff in the city like the Bristol Horror Film Festival or Dave Matthews with his film night where they would show Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest or Robocop with a stand-up comedian beforehand. A while back the Cube microplex put on a Star Wars convention event with guest actors from the films. They showed a documentary about the hype and build up to the Phantom Menace, and it was just a nice little Star Wars thing with fan films. But I can't see them ever doing that now. So apart from the Hellfire video club which does some great events at the Cube, all of that has kind of fallen away which is why the Bristol Bad Film Club was set up. But it’s the more shlocky end of things - so that's another reason why I wanted to set up this Festival, to show some higher quality genre films to a larger audience.
'There used to be lots of genre stuff in the city like the Bristol Horror Film Festival or Dave Matthews with his film night where they would show Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest or Robocop with a stand-up comedian beforehand... but a lot of that is gone now.'
So how did you select the films to show because it must have been a really difficult process? You’re fortunate that it's the 40 year anniversary of 20th Century Flicks, but 1982 was a great year for films of all kinds.
DT: I don't think it's a coincidence that the start of that whole blockbuster era with Jaws and Star Wars coincided with the first video shops in 1978/79' in LA. So when it began kicking off in the UK, which was around 81’/82' those movies were the kinds of thing getting produced - stuff like Blade Runner and The Thing… just these highly crafted brilliant genre movies. I just can't separate that time from the birth of video shops.
TS: But there were also films that came through video shops then that didn't get the big theatrical releases.
Was that the rationale for some of the choices you made?
TS: We wanted to show the less know stuff but also include some of the classics to attract your everyday punter.
DT: Yeah, because I was renting things like Clash of The Titans or Time Bandits when I went to a video shop as a kid. You wouldn't find people had seen these films at the cinema, but they were the people who'd watch them 50 times on video. And so this deep familiarity with a film, of knowing all the lines, having this reference between friendship groups – that's not from watching a film once or twice in a cinema, that's from watching it, repeat times on video.
©1982 Lusty Electric Industries
So there's then the desire to see these films on the big screen because you were perhaps limited to what you could see at the cinema if you were too young?
DT: Yeah exactly, the idea of being able to actually experience these in a cinema is pretty unique. I mean, one of the films we’re showing Thrilling Bloody Sword, I can't imagine anyone's seen that at the cinema!
TS: When selecting the films it was a mixture of weird stuff that you would only find in a video shop like Thrilling Bloody Sword or Basket Case and then including some of the big hitters like Blade Runner because we know people will turn out for a film like that especially on an IMAX sceen. But at the same time we don't want to do stuff that is constantly shown in cinemas, so that's why there was a real to-and-fro when deciding on our final list.
I guess like you say Blade Runner at an IMAX is more of a special event even though it is screened quite often.
DT: Yeah. That was the push for me.
TS: When we started I was like, here's what we're not going to do. We're not going to do fucking Blade Runner because people always do Blade Runner and we're not going to do E.T. because I'm sure that'll be locked down with live orchestra screenings, but then Dave was like, you know what, if we don't do Blade Runner it's just weird.
©1982 The Ladd Company / Warner Bros.
We were also looking at all the ropey fantasy films like Beastmaster but I thought if we go that way then we should just do Conan the Barbarian, but again there was a big celebration for Arnie’s 70th birthday where it was screened…
The choice of having some oddities is quite appealing too because they won’t be films that people would have necessarily seen or be included as part of an IMDB top 10 of 1982?
TS: Yeah, and unlike most other film festivals, we don't have anything new to show as we're not doing any premieres. So it's either you see stuff that you've seen hundreds of times or we show you something you've never seen before, like Thrilling Bloody Sword or The Challenge. And then it's just trying to work out the balance.
The only film which breaks away from the 1982 program is Dracula A.D. 1972 which, funnily enough, was released in 1972.
TS: Well we don't want to stick too rigidly to the year theme because we've got another idea for next year, but we justify the film being included as it’s the 100 year anniversary of Christopher Lee’s birth and there’s probably no greater genre cinema icon than Sir Christopher Lee. That man did everything!
©1972 Hammer Films
'Unlike most other film festivals, we don't have anything new to show as we're not doing any premieres. So it's either you see stuff that you've seen hundreds of times or we show you something you've never seen before, like Thrilling Bloody Sword or The Challenge.'
So why should people come to the Forbidden Worlds Festival?
TS: If you're programming a film festival, you've got to bear in mind that you're competing with streaming services and someone's sofa, so we've got to give them a reason to come out. The IMAX screen is one, supporting 20th Century Flicks is another and showing films that you can't easily access at home. Sure, you could download Basketcase, or you could come see it with 100 people on the biggest screen in Bristol.
As the festival coincides with the 40th anniversary of 20th Century Flicks, I wanted to ask you Dave about the relevance of your video store in a streaming world?
DT: It's difficult to know what it means... I can understand why, selfishly, I work here. I like the autonomy of essentially just being my own boss, being surrounded by movies and getting to talk to people about movies. I think there's a comfort to people knowing it's here. The actual role of the video shop as a community space though, I think is massively diminished from what it was when there were lots of people working here, and lots of people coming in. As much as I like to think that there are lots of movies here that you can't get anywhere else, there are plenty you can get. For a normal person Netflix is probably enough, Amazon certainly enough and Disney+ too. They're quite expensive I guess, so we do provide a role for people who might have a couple of quid in cash, who want to watch a movie but don't want to pay 10 quid a month with a bank account they don't have, so I don't undervalue that role, but it's such a niche. For a city like Bristol it's come to symbolize something, rather than perhaps having a practical role in people's day to day life, which it definitely used to do.
Dave Taylor co-owner of 20th Century Flicks (photograph by Paul Gillis for Bristol Live)
TS: I agree with Dave, except growing up, my local video shop was on Cotham Hill, close to where my dad had a pharmacy - so we would always go to the video rental shop there.
DT: They actually had a really good Bollywood section there. People used to say, ‘Oh, you haven't got any Hindi movies or Bollywood movies’ and we'd just send them to Cotham Hill.
TS: Yeah they used to have all the new releases, and you'd go in there and they would have a wall of Flintstones VHS's if that film had just come out and then everything else. I also don't think you can underestimate how important video art is – just seeing a cool VHS cover and going 'what the fuck is that, it looks awesome?!', renting it and then the film is nowhere near as good as the cover art!. Despite having Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, I've still got a lot of my physical media because I can't find any of my classic Hong Kong martial arts films on any streaming services. You are also at the mercy of studios just pulling their stuff from any streaming platform at any time because each of the studios are creating their own platforms now, so thank God I still have my own collection!
DT: Try searching the foreign language film sections of most of the main platforms and it's often a joke. We're always actively trying to get films from everywhere in the world, so if we haven't had a movie from Chile in the last year we try to find out what the best movie in Chile was. So just really trying to bring world cinema to Bristol.
I can understand why people our age, maybe a little bit older, would love a place like 20th Century Flicks because we've lived through both analogue and digital but I'm always quite interested about why the younger generation are drawn to it?
DT: It's interesting, I always think they'll feel like it's an alien place, but they adapt pretty quickly. The weird thing for them is the whole rental thing. It's like, 'oh, no, you have to bring it back?'. People also like cool little places and that's why the cinema is so crucial for us. They might wish us well and they want us to thrive, but they don't necessarily want to spend three quid on a movie that they have to bring back, so the cinema is brilliant. They spend £100 or £80, bring a bunch of friends and some booze, watch whatever they like and the video shop does well. We used to work so hard for 100 quid; we'd be renting 50 movies for two quid a pop over nine hours, thinking why are we doing it? And then we just realised we can rent the cinema out for £100 and people are really happy with that; they have a nice time and it's really easy for us. So that's why it's become a bit more totemic for us in that we have this huge collection of nearly 21,000 films that we give a lot of space to but it doesn't really earn it's keep in a financial sense. Existentially it's 99% of it, but financially, it's probably 5%. I don't know if there's many businesses that operate like that. All of my time is spent making sure things are in place and catalogued, so I'm a bit like Wall-e; just doing this thing which i'm programmed to do, and there's no real purpose apart from maintaining this archive that may or may not one day be useful, like in event of a global apocalypse. Touch wood that doesn't happen!
TS: I think it is important, this idea of providing something that people can't see at home. And that's another reason why we didn't choose to show a film like Conan The Barbarian which you can watch on Disney+ now. I'm always intrigued when I see other film festivals showing stuff that’s readily available. Why am I going to fork out X amount for a ticket to watch something when I could be at home watching it?
Book cover illustrations by Ben Turner
Going back to your 'Born to Be Bad' books Ti which include interviews with great movie bad guys and seems in keeping with the whole genre theme of the festival, where did the idea for those books come from?
TS: I think that came from a group of us, when the cube did a 35 mm screening of Robocop and the film broke, but it was completely packed out so everyone was drinking and having a good time. For some reason during the film, I just focused on how much fun it looked like the people that play the bad guys were having. There were stories about Peter Weller being miserable in the Robocop suit while people like Kurtwood Smith, Paul McCrane and Ronny Cox seemed to be having a whale of a time. So I was drunkenly cycling home and thought, ‘Ooh I should interview bad guys’ as I bet they're much easier to get hold of then people like Stallone and Bruce Willis, and they've probably got some great stories about Stallone and Bruce Willis. So I got home and wrote down a drunken list of actors as a start and Vernon Wells was number one with a bullet.
A classic bad guy!
TS: He was was actually the first person I reached out to and the first person that said yes. When I then reached out to everyone else and I already had Vernon Wells Star of Mad Max 2, Commando and Inner Space under my belt, everyone was - for the most part - like, ok then. I think with people like Vernon Wells and Rutger Hauer, they have more freedom to try new things and they can be as over the top as they want. They can be more flamboyant whereas the good guy for the most part is pretty boring unless you're like Indiana Jones or James Bond, where there's a bit of a swagger to them. Sure John McClane in Die Hard is vulnerable and has some great action scenes but compared to Hans Gruber, you know which one you kind of want to be spending more time with on your screen.
And you usually know who’s gonna get the better lines.
TS: Yeah, it's always gonna be the villains. So I thought this seemed like a good idea but I bet someone's done this multiple times. I did a Google search and and Amazon search. No one had, so I did it.
Was there anything unexpected that came out of it through the people you spoke to?
TS: No one's story was the same. So you know, it's a mixture of body builders, British stage thespians, stunt men and a couple of ballet dancers. No one's story was the same, except for one aspect and that is if they worked with Steven Seagal no-one had a good word to say about him.
And the fact that the first book was a success has led you to do a second volume.
TS: Well it was a modest success but what was better is that it got me a producer job on a documentary called In Search of the Last Action Hero, which is how I ended up out in LA in uber action producer Mario Kasar's house admiring all of his Rambo knives! But the reason for me to do the second book was due to people coming up to me going, Why didn't you interview this person or that person? My answer was always well, I tried but they said no or their management said no. Once I had one book under my belt and could link to it on Amazon, then suddenly, I had a little bit more cred. So a lot of the people that said no the first time around, they were like, Yeah, sure, you can speak to Robert Patrick. He was great, because at first I could sense that he was like, another person that just wants to talk about the T-1000 but I quickly pivoted to 'did you ever think that role was just an albatross around your neck, especially when you're reprising it in Wayne's World and Last Action Hero?’ and he was like, 'yeah'. We then talked about his wilderness years and about Double Dragon and Cop Land. I actually met him at a convention just before Christmas because I wanted to give him a signed copy. Everyone's there with Terminator stuff and even though he gets asked T-1000 questions for the billionth time he doesn't show any frustration. He is just a very, very gracious man.