Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

Only six hours in, sleep-deprived, pajama-clad audience members have already seen the comedy “The Little Hours,” the horror flick “Devil’s Candy” and the action drama “Free Fire.” They wait in anticipation as another title sequence materializes on the screen, six hours still to go.

The Del Mar held its 12th Annual Secret Film Festival on April 15 from midnight until noon the following day to premiere seven movies — many of them films that won’t be released for months. The festival does not reveal any of the film titles until the viewers enter the theater and the movies start rolling.

“It’s a unique and kind of painful experience,” said second-year student Dan Jeffrey. “By the end of it, you’re not sure how you made it but now you’ve seen six or seven films you might never have checked out yourself. It’s pretty transformative and a weird and wild experience.”

The festival was conceived after the Del Mar showed “Donnie Darko” and had a difficult time trying to draw an audience to see it before it became the cult hit it is today. The main purpose now is to give people the opportunity to see movies they wouldn’t ordinarily see and are usually in limited release.

“If you show these movies to people without them knowing what they are and they go into it with a fresh mind, then they are a lot more open to what they are seeing,” said festival organizer Scott Griffin. “There is a sense of adventure in seeing something at three in the morning or even six in the morning.”

Since festivalgoers will be there late into the night, they are encouraged to bring pillows, blankets and to wear their pajamas to make the night feel more like a big sleepover. Although it seems long, 220 out of the 280 attendees made it through the whole festival. To keep the crowds primed for the long haul, snacks and drinks were sold all night long.

The sold-out event featured seven films in a diverse range of genres including short films like “Pickle,” animated films like “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea” and some larger budget movies like “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”

Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

“The films are a combination of what hasn’t been released in Santa Cruz [and] what’s coming up,” Griffin said. “We try to avoid playing big movies at the festival because there is no sense of discovery if everyone’s already going to see it anyway.”

One of the hardest parts about organizing the festival is getting film distributors who haven’t worked with the Del Mar to agree to be a part of the event. Mainstream movies have a more difficult time going along with the non-traditional film festival.

“You aren’t advertising the film that you are playing [here],” Griffin said. “It’s a hard idea to get through to the marketing people.”

GKids, an international animated movie distributor, has worked with the Del Mar for 10 years, most recently bringing “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea” to the festival last Saturday.

“It’s always an uphill battle to get press and marketing attention for independent films when you don’t have thousands of theaters, billboards or ads on TV,” said GKids President David Jesteadt. “Another big challenge is just the number of movies released these days. You have dozens of new movies released every week, since it’s cheaper and easier to make a movie than ever before, which is both a good and bad thing.”

The animated comedy “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea” will open at the Del Mar in May, having already created intrigue through its festival showing.

“Santa Cruz is actually one of the best cities for our films, where we see ticket sales equivalent to cities and theaters that are much larger,” Jesteadt said. “I think the local audience is just particularly great and attuned to what makes our films special and is interested in trying something new, even if it’s animation, which is so often unfairly pigeonholed as being just for kids.”

With popular events like the festival and midnight movies, Santa Cruz continues to express enthusiasm for film. Second-year student Dan Jeffrey attended the festival the previous year as it is a tradition between his friends, who have been participating for even longer. Because the audience doesn’t know what’s being played beforehand, they get to experience each movie together for the first time.

“The good films are a good part, but the most fun is when there’s a really terrible or just weird film and the entertainment instead becomes the audience’s running commentary,” Jeffrey said. “The bad films can be the most memorable because you get to share the horrendous experience with a room full of sleep-deprived strangers.”