Filmmaker Peter Hartsock ’19, founder of Fantasma House Films

man in the snowy fields of upstate

Have you ever watched a movie so unique that it became an unforgettable experience? Peter Hartsock ’19 produces these films. His production company, Fantasma House Films, is already gaining acclaim and festival awards as a genre house producing original and boundary breaking content.  He has garnered multiple awards as a student filmmaker and grown the audience for his work through festivals he has been featured in, including: Sydney Australia Underground Film Festival, Syracuse International Film Festival, Binghamton SEFF Experimental Film Festival, Upstate New York Horror Film Festival (Best Student Film, three years in a row), IndieX Film Festival, Los Angeles (Best Student Film and Best Student Director), Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Horror Haus, San Diego and Vancouver Horror Show, Chattannooga Film Festival, Hollywood Horror Fest, and more.

A rising bi-coastal filmmaker in the Los Angeles and Syracuse communities, Peter is an artist with a creative mind beyond words. 

More than a VPA student and filmmaker, Peter is also an entrepreneur. Hardworking, ambitious and inventive, he combined his entrepreneurial and film making skills to create a film company that produces and distributes micro-budgets films, and also does commercial work. 

Seeded in a scenic region of Upstate NY that is becoming a film hub, where the Finger Lakes meets the Thousand Islands and Adirondack Mountains, Fantasma House Films is a bi-coastal company, with a second base of operations in Los Angeles.  His goal is to makes high-quality niche genre films in the growing independent film industry.

For Peter, his mission goes beyond making movies. He aspires to be a new creative voice in the world of independent film making.

Entrepreneurship has always been part of his life, especially because of the environment he was raised in. He grew up in a family and community where innovation was valued as a way to bring ideas and aspirations to life.  He started his first film company when he was only 11 years old in the Syracuse University Student Sandbox at the Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse.  He drew his inspiration from early Syracuse student innovators and startups like BrandYourself, and produced videos for entrepreneurs.  In high school, he apprenticed to talented area filmmakers like James Domroe, founder of 325 Productions, and also worked on videos with artists for projects in Syracuse.  He worked with Syracuse University VPA faculty and Imagining America Scholars on public art video projects in downtown Syracuse. 

With high school friends, he made distinctive experimental art videos which went to film festivals and captured the attention of experienced filmmakers. He taught himself lighting technique and sophisticated film editing software. He soon began making films that came to embody his trademark style, combining anti-humor with suspenseful, existential exploration of the human psyche.

When it came time for college, Syracuse’s renowned film program was his clear choice.  It was a decision that changed his life.  While at SU, he has worked on or created 30 films, and became a master of all aspects of film making, from concept, to production and post-production.  In creating his business, and pitching in the campus iPrize and Panasci business plan competitions, he also came to better understand the industry, how it is changing, and where opportunity exists for young independent filmmakers. 

Peter is not afraid of stepping up to confront hard questions related to his beloved art.  He also says that creating a business centered around his dreams is a very rewarding experience. He is blazing his own trail while following in some big footsteps.

Always looking up to the grandiose filmmakers of the industry, he admires Stanley Kubrick, a studio filmmaker, but an artist nonetheless, capable of everything from producing and marketing a film, to micromanaging every camera shot. Understanding each single component of the film production process is essential for Peter who comprehends the indispensable need to collaborate across every aspect of the film production process.

His early works have been inspired by the Giallo film movement and filmmakers like Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, best known for Suspiria, Deep Red and Phenomena. Giallo refers to an Italian genre that has elements of ambiguity of memory and perception that can escalate to delusional hullucination, delirious paranoia, horror, psychological terror, existentialism and sometimes supernatural elements.  

He particularly admires the work of indie film house SpectreVision, a genre-driven company that produces stylized horror films, and which is led by a Syracuse University graduate Lisa Wolk Whalen, working with SpectreVision creative director Elijah Wood.

Peter cherishes the idea of being part of a creative community, which plays an important role in how he views film production. It allows him to build relationships with people working in related creative sectors, including writers, actors, composers, sound and lighting artists and more. “Collaboration is the bedrock of my creative medium,” says Peter. 

He has been organizing communities since he was young, and his house was always the gathering place for creative endeavors — going back to making films with longtime childhood friends in the basement and “spooky” spaces of his historic 200 year-old “haunted” childhood home, and telling ghost stories around his backyard fire pit under tall pine trees. He premiered his first “ghost story” film to a packed house at the Center for Arts of Homer, an 1893 Romanesque “haunted” theater when he was just in middle school. Peter started a free film screening program at the Center while in middle school, and also ran midnight horror film festivals there as he was just starting to experiment making his own films. At his own film debut, a bat emerged at the closing scene, swooped the audience and then disappeared. It was other-wordly, especially in a place reputed to have its own ghosts. The bat was never seen before or after Peter’s film screening, which told the story of ghosts of Homer where he grew up.

He recreated the community he built in his hometown as a member of the Syracuse University film community.  His dorm apartment was packed with film equipment, props, and other student filmmakers watching movies they all admired. When they weren’t in class, shooting films, or locked in the basement of Shafer Hall for hundreds of hours doing post-production to get it just perfect, Peter’s filmmaking tribe were writing screenplays, working out complicated pre-production schedules, scouting talent, assembling crews, and generally breaking genre boundaries. His group quickly gained its own brand on campus — a collective of passionate, driven, crazy-hard-working professionals who could knock out awarding films that left the audience … well, sometimes a little unsettled.  Their goal was to produce complex stories that got into the psyche. 

When they were challenged as how they would turn their idea into a real business, they dove in and wrote a detailed 30 page business plan that showed they understood every aspect of the indie movie business, end-to-end. As film students, they made it to the final stages of the prestigious Panasci Business Plan Competition sponsored by the Whitman School of Management — a feat that was truly unique for a team of film students.

From there, they went on to produce their work at the state of the art Syracuse Soundstage, and crewed for professional movie companies shooting studio films in Syracuse. They cast and produced films by some other students, as well as SU film faculty. They earned the respect and admiration of SAG actors and technicians who worked for them.

As a student filmmaker and entrepreneur, Peter’s key advice to any creative innovator is to know your own assets and leverage resources and networks around you as efficiently as you can.

“The film industry at this point in time is losing its originality, and creativity in film making is dissipating,” he says. This trend goes against Peter’s philosophy of movie making which is to create powerful and unique films that break ideals and social norms, and to transform how film making is perceived. 

Watching one of his movies is indeed a strange and amazing experience. His movies are an exploration of the human consciousness, and he aims to trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions.  This is what Peter adores: making the audience feel and emote. Watching one of his movies once will make you remember it forever. It is the ultimate movie experience that elegantly embraces the creative thinking of film lovers, while leaving the viewer both contemplative and slightly disquieted.

In order to pursue his work, Peter has built a catalog of productions for distribution platforms and submission to juried film festivals. and continued to build his repertoire of skills, and to network with professionals. He is building an impressive resume because his films have won honors in top 100 festivals, including best student film in New York State.

He’s come a long way from that 11 year old who made videos for student startups in the Student Sandbox in the Tech Garden.  Now he is their peer — his own startup.  A video he made for SU startup SparkCharge opened Techstars Demo Day in Boston in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 people. His content creation work and videos also helped propel SparkCharge to the main stage of SharkTank. He’s also made a variety of other commercial films and content for SparkCharge and other high profile clients like Techstars LA venture CLLCTVE. He is supplementing his film production with commercial work to create a balanced portfolio of work and is a very in-demand content creator and producer of music videos. He is also an influencer in the space with a devoted following on his Fantasma House Films Instagram account.

Peter mentors other students while continuing his own film making. He would love to one day teach film making at a university as a visiting film professional or faculty member, while continuing his independent film production business.  

As he looks to become a bi-coastal filmmaker, Peter does not want to lose his roots. “I am incredibly passionate about making films in this region’s rural landscape of farm country and rolling hills, a place of timeless beauty that keeps secrets about its myths and mysteries, and the cryptic characters that dwell within them. I loved growing up here and it influenced my path to building a production company that falls into its own unique narrative space. Folklore and myth are tied to mystical places, and Upstate NY is one of those places where the imagination can truly run wild.”

One of Peter’s favorite quotes is that “Monsters are real, ghosts are too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win,” inspired by iconic writer Stephen King. “I am keen to explore the disquieting and conflicting emotions of this genre. Arthouse horror is taking the prestige festival world by storm, as well as mainstream media which is seeing commercial success as this genre gains acceptance and acclaim by critics and audiences alike. Fantasma House Films looks forward to being part of that boundary-breaking movement.”

Story by Blackstone LaunchPad Global Fellow Quentin Rosso ’18