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Seattle's True Independent Film Festival: How to Start a Slamdance Film Festival in Your Hometown

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 10, 2011 at 6:51AM

The Slamdance Film Festival has become famous as a feisty, grassroots alternative to Sundance, as well as an accommodating venue for some promising work that couldn't find its way into the larger festival. But Slamdance is only one festival in one city, and these days, every city has a film festival.
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The Slamdance Film Festival has become famous as a feisty, grassroots alternative to Sundance, as well as an accommodating venue for some promising work that couldn't find its way into the larger festival. But Slamdance is only one festival in one city, and these days, every city has a film festival.

That's why, six years ago, a trio of Seattle-based filmmakers decided to take the Slamdance model to their home town. The result was Seattle's True Independent Film Festival (STIFF), a lo-fi alternative to the city's month-long Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). The model and history of Slamdance and STIFF is essentially the same: Like Slamdance, it was started by a couple of filmmakers whose movie was rejected by a bigger festival. Just as Slamdance intentionally brushes shoulders with Sundance, STIFF has always taken place during SIFF and played several movies that SIFF rejected.

Additionally, STIFF continues to grow: Three years ago, it transitioned from a weekend festival to a ten day affair. Submissions have climbed to well over 500, and the festival utilizes three different venues, including the Northwest Film Forum. The current program contains 160 films. That substantial volume of work makes STIFF more than a simple affront to the establishment and proves it has solidified a more complicated identity.

"We really think of ourselves as a niche festival," programming director Tim Vernor told indieWIRE earlier in the week. "We're trying to make it really relevant to local filmmakers." He compared it with the glare of the spotlight at SIFF. "They have a lot of really great parties," he said. "The filmmakers feel like celebrities, but it's very exclusive. We throw great parties and involve the local community." At STIFF, attendees can buy an all-access pass, but Vernor says the festival gives out "hundreds of badges" to the local film community.

Another perk for Seattle filmmakers: Submission fees for the festival, which uses the submission platform Withoutabox, are waived for Washington-based productions. However, Vernor estimates that only 25% of the program is made up of features produced in Seattle, which points to a larger intent. STIFF's co-founder, filmmaker Clint Berquist, made a feature called "Swamper" that didn't make the cut at SIFF in 2005. Discussing the situation with his colleagues, "they realized that their kind of film wasn't really being represented by festivals," Vernor explains. Now, STIFF provides a home for micro-budgeted features that, for one reason or another, simply missed out on the SIFF experience. This year's line-up includes the hit Slamdance documentary "Superhero" and the irreverent slacker comedy "The Beekeepers." A project shot in neighboring Tacoma, "A Perfect Life," recently played to a packed house at Northwest Film Forum.

Like the films they show, STIFF is a tiny operation with an entirely volunteer-based staff. (Vernor, a filmmaker himself, makes a living selling items he buys at garage sales.) That makes it virtually impossible for STIFF to truly overshadow SIFF, so the smaller festival doesn't even try. "We don't compete for audiences as much as we compete for films," Vernor says, but even that has changed somewhat: STIFF recently moved from the first ten days of SIFF to its last ten days, and if SIFF accepts a film that's already a part of the STIFF lineup, STIFF will remove it from its program to allow for SIFF's requisite premiere status. "We have no problem dropping a film," Vernor says. "It happens all the time. A lot of filmmakers wouldn't submit to us because of the guidelines. Now they can submit to both."

This hasn't quite removed STIFF's appearance as a challenge to SIFF, but something has evidently shifted in the relationship. Asked about the communication between the festivals, Vernor says, "We've started talking a bit more."

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch