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How the Slamdance Film Festival Survived 20 Years of Counterprogramming Mayhem

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 15, 2014 at 10:0AM

When the Slamdance Film Festival first launched in Park City as an underground alternative to Sundance two decades ago, nobody expected it to last. The early years were rough. The festival, organized on the fly by filmmakers rejected by the larger Utah gathering, essentially served as their catharsis.
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Slamdance was initially a form of protest to the other Park City event. No longer.

When the Slamdance Film Festival launched in Park City as an underground alternative to Sundance in 1995, nobody expected it to last. 

"We were, in many ways, an anti-festival," co-founder Peter Baxter (who started the festival with Dan Mirvish) told Indiewire ahead of Slamdance’s 20th year, which begins Friday. "As many of us had never been to a festival before, the truth was we had no experience organizing one."

A scene from Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity."

Over the years, however, Slamdance developed the credibility that made it a legitimate member of the festival circuit — not only for audiences that happened to be in Park City at Sundance, but for the broader independent film marketplace. Slamdance titles ranging from the arcade competition documentary "King of Kong" to the found-footage thriller "Paranormal Activity" landed lucrative distribution deals after their festival premieres. Filmmakers whose debut features premiered at Slamdance before they made bigger projects include Christopher Nolan and Lynn Shelton.

Short films have also done well at Slamdance: David Greenspan's "Bean Cake" premiered at the festival before it was invited to Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or, while Ray McKinnon’s "The Accountant" eventually won an Academy Award. "When we wanted to be this renegade, on-the-side festival. We didn’t expect to be discovering new talent like that," recalled Drea Clark, a member of the programming team since 1999. "That’s the inadvertent brand we made for ourselves.”

By 1997, submissions began to rise. It was around that time that Slamdance's founders realized they could extend beyond their counterprogramming roots and develop their own crowd. 

“How do you grow a community that wants to program quality work with new and exciting voices? From the filmmakers who give Slamdance life in the first place," Baxter said. "They felt passionate about their Slamdance experiences, so we invited them to come back and program the festival."

That tradition continues: The programming team is almost exclusively comprised of alumni. "Some do it for a few years in a row and some just between projects," Clark explained. The approach led to their "by filmmakers, for filmmakers" mantra. Additionally, the festival's approach for programming places greater emphasis on discovery than anything else, since all selected films placed in competition are blind submissions budgeted under $1 million without U.S. distribution. "This basic act has given Slamdance its life and soul," Baxter said.

Of course, the majority of first-time filmmakers still dream of a Sundance premiere, given the scale and exposure afforded by the larger festival. Slamdance’s team doesn’t deny that. 

“At the end of the day, we want what’s best for filmmakers, and most of them see Sundance as the best opportunity for themselves,” Clark said. “We always let them have the chance to find out if they’ve been accepted by Sundance. We don’t think of ourselves as a fallback festival — we’re a festival support system."

Over the years, Clark said, Sundance has adapted to the needs of first-time filmmakers better than it did when Slamdance’s organizers felt the need to protest. She expressed admiration for Sundance’s NEXT section, which singles out new voices and fresh approaches, but nevertheless argued that it "still doesn’t emphasize first-time filmmakers like we do. I think we still fit in really nicely."

As Slamdance’s profile has expanded, some members of the industry have suggested it no longer needs to take place in the middle of Sundance or even in Park City. Baxter isn’t convinced. “If we were to spread out and have more films, we would lose touch, lessen our support for one another and therefore weaken our community,” he said. Clark added, “There’s a reason we’re there taking advantage of all these people brought to town for something else."

The latest edition, which includes 11 world premieres — a decidedly more palatable number than the nearly 100 new titles at Sundance — suggests another typical Slamdance program filled with intriguing question marks. Clark singled out the comic thriller “Goldberg and Eisenberg," which she described as "the Israeli answer to the Coen brothers," as well as the adventure film "Copenhagen" from newcomer Mark Raso. She also praised "The Sublime and Beautiful," a grim drama starring Blake Robbins.

No matter which films from this year’s Slamdance wind up gathering buzz, Baxter feels confident that the festival will churn ahead through another decade and beyond. 

"When I began working in independent film, I thought it was a mess," he said. "I learned there is a bigger picture going on within its chaos that enables beautiful work to be made."

This article is related to: Festivals, News, Slamdance Film Festival, Sundance 2014