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Meet the Slamdance Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words)

Meet the Slamdance Film Festival Programmers

We all know how Slamdance began when its founders’ projects were rejected from the 1995 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Some 18 years later, it’s received the offhand blessing from Sundance founder Robert Redford (who has said he “wishes them well”) and become an significant enterprise that, in addition to the Park City festival that still runs parallel to Sundance, includes screenplay and teleplay competitions as well as Slamdance Studios.

And while Sundance outguns Slamdance for media frenzy, the festival has become competitive in its own right. According to the festival’s website, this year Slamdance received 5,000 submissions for a total of 100 slots (30 features, 70 shorts).

The yearly lineup fall into eight categories:  Feature/Short Narrative Competition; Feature/Short Documentary Competition; Special Screenings; Animated Shorts; Gallery Shorts; Music Videos; Anarchy Shorts; $99 Special Shorts.

As with other installments in our “Meet the Festival Programmers” series, the eight programmers spotlighted here offer practical advice to filmmakers hoping to screen at the festival.

True to the festival’s motto “For filmmakers by filmmakers,” Slamdance recruits former participants to help program subsequent editions of the festival. Consequently, there are about 50 programmers this year. Indiewire asked the festival to pick a cross-section of its programmers, whose profiles and insights follow.

The 2012 Slamdance Film Festival takes place January 20 – 26. The festival will release its lineup this week.

Indiewire’s other Festival Programmer Profiles:

Sundance Film Festival
SXSW Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival
Los Angeles Film Festival
San Francisco International Film Festival
Woodstock Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival

Drea Clark (Co-Captain of Narrative Features Programming Committee)
One of my first memories is following my mother around the house, reciting the entire scene-by-scene breakdown of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory;” it was light out when I began, and the sun had certainly set by the time I got Charlie into his glass elevator. I have always found film to be an immersive activity, an interactive medium. The conversation it elicited was as important as what was screened, not that I let my mom get a word in edgewise.

As a kid, I felt like I was the only one I knew who had equal passion for Troma, John Hughes and Howard Hawks, though working in festivals for the past 13 years has proven that there’s a whole legion of us out there, and I finally had a community willing to discuss minutiae with the weight of importance.

I had my first touch of fame working in the art cinema at the University of Wisconsin. (“Aren’t you the girl who wouldn’t give me a refund to ‘Kids’?”) When I attended the University of Warwick in the UK, I was afforded the distinct pleasure of a daily apology in my Hollywood Cinemas course. As in, “apologies to Ms. Clark, but let us talk about the abhorrent view Hollywood takes of motherhood in action films.” Warwick is also where I first saw “Breaking the Waves,” which led to me following my flatmates around the house, reciting the entire scene-by-scene breakdown (this time in tears). I am nothing but consistent.

After moving to Los Angeles, I began interning at Slamdance in 1998, and the combination of familial vibe, bohemian energy and true commitment to the underdog kept me there in a variety of positions, including Executive Director from 2006-2009, though I’ve led the narrative feature programming team since 2003. I also served for seven years as the Executive Director of the Music Video Production Association, ran the Directors Cuts Film Festival showcasing short films by music video directors, continue to teach at USC’s Summer Program, produce for television and film, and have worked at the Los Angeles Film Festival as a programmer and filmmaker liaison since 2009.

Slamdance is a true launchpad of new voices and the success our films find on the festival circuit is surpassed only by the reception their second film is generally afforded by virtue of that initial Slamdance recognition. Every year I look through lineups of other festivals that I respect, noting their selections and award winners, and our films are heavily represented; we program our films with a full consideration that the opportunity we are giving filmmakers is so much greater than the two weeks they will spend with us in Park City.

Slamdance is a unique niche, for though we have had some noteworthy sales (“Paranormal Activity” or “The King of Kong” come to mind), we aren’t necessarily considered a marketplace festival. And because we don’t court or invite filmmakers, selecting our competition films entirely from blind submissions (an especially daunting task considering they must be by first-time directors for under $1 million), there is an onus on our programming teams to really dig deep for hidden gems.

Other festivals look to Slamdance when considering their own selections, and we take that seriously on behalf of our potential filmmakers, eschewing traditional dealbreakers like premiere status or connections in lieu of reaction to content, programming films that we think present something special and distinctive but also represent a burgeoning talent. Our filmmakers benefit from this both with their inaugural offerings, and also from subsequent films – it’s possible you didn’t see “We Go Way Back” or “Spooner” but you’ve most likely enjoyed the follow-up works by Lynn Shelton and Drake Doremus.

We embrace our more intimate scope, as our hands-on approach to taking care of our filmmakers both during the festival and throughout their festival run is a key facet of what makes Slamdance unique, though we are vigilant in adapting how to best serve the films we do select. Icertainly think it’s rare for a noted festival to pride itself on maintaining a comparatively small lineup of under 30 feature films, but we genuinely do. We are able to get to know our filmmakers as people and as artists, we are looking out for what they will be doing next, and we strive to keep them actively involved in the festival well after we’ve all left Park City. I think our scale is helping us as festivals in general shift in accordance to a changing distribution climate, where the push to premiere increasingly expected films is unrelenting.

Think about the story you want to tell as a first-time filmmaker, and then ask yourself if that’s a story you’ve heard before – and if it is, what are you doing differently to make it worth telling again? Filmmakers who are able to elicit incredible performances, give insight to a moment that is grounded in reality but made transcendent by art, genuinely connect with the world they have created – even if that world is totally ridiculous. That’s what really excites me.

On a broader level, I would advise new filmmakers to push themselves when building characters and worlds. There always seems to be a dearth of onscreen diversity, complex female protagonists, range of ages, community explored. It’s established that artists tend to “write what they know…” and if all you know are white men in their mid-20s, then use this as an opportunity to make some new friends.

We’re looking for films that are engaging, that are consistent in tone and ideally that tone is also something brand new. There is something so exciting about raw talent. We program flawed films every year, happily, because though there may be occasional holes, there are also those moments where a true voice sings through, and it’s so much more invigorating than a film going through the paces. In most instances, when we are pitching our finds to the programming team, it generally involves a variation of “it’s hard to describe, but this one is special.”

There’s something about feeling stranded on a mountain that really ties people together, like they’re really a part of something. I’ve been to, and worked at, a lot of other festivals but have to say that Park City naturally fosters a better sense of community than anywhere else. I also have a fondness for the almost pop-up festival vibe of Slamdance, as building out empty spaces into cinemas and social areas lends to the atmosphere of anything-can-happen. We are a short-term happening, an impromptu party under the moon, and that effect keeps filmmakers and audience members lively and passionate.

Favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films of recent years:
Slamdance: “Silver Tongues,” “Bhopali,” “Without,” “Down Terrace,” One Hundred Mornings,” “The Wild Hunt,” A Quiet Little Marriage,” “I Sell the Dead,” “Punching the Clown,” “Strongman”
Non-Slamdance: “Beginners,” “Drive,” “Tomboy,” “Attack the Block,” “I Saw the Devil,” “The Trip,” “Another Year,” “Monsters,” “Never Let Me Go,” “The Social Network”

Paul Rachman (Founding Member; Programmer on the Special Screenings Programming Committee)
I started my career as a filmmaker in the mid 1980s within the American Hardcore punk scene shooting bands on super 8 and making music videos of them. This got me to LA and a 10-year career as a music video director at Propaganda films. In 1995 I started making narrative short films and dove into the indie film festival circuit and helped start the Slamdance Film Festival after my first Sundance rejection. I made my feature debut with “Four Dogs Playing Poker” in 1999. I later got into Sundance in 2006 with the documentary “American Hardcore,” which was bought at the festival and released by Sony Pictures Classics. As an active film director and festival programmer, I am eternally committed to innovative, single-minded indie cinema from around the world and have been helping these filmmakers for almost 20 years.

Slamdance’s importance is that it is committed. We’ve been doing this for 18 years, so we are not going away. What’s important is to recognize very talented filmmakers who might pass under the radar at most fests or under the radar of the indie film industry. When filmmakers are uniquely minded as the filmmakers who come to Slamdance are making their first films, they are usually extremely isolated from the indie community at large. They have no connections, no way to be mentored or helped from within the indie biz. This is what Slamdance looks for and has found success with.

The festival hasn’t really changed that much from our initial vision and mandate. It works for us and our filmmakers. We are small, intimate and have a presence during the biggest most important week of American independent filmmaking every year. It’s not broken. There’s nothing to fix.

Make sure your film feels right — that it is what it should be. Do not submit too early, wait and improve your film. Slamdance and Sundance, while a great place to be, is not the be all end all for your film.

[We look for] small to modestly budgeted, very very independent films that show future promise for the directors of those films. Many, many Slamdance filmmakers actually break out with their second and third films.

I always tell the Slamdance filmmakers to go hang out at Sundance, meet people, see Sundance films. Over the years, the percentage of Slamdance alumni appearing at Sundance keeps rising. Indiewire should check the math on this, it is very strong. I think a filmmaker who comes to Slamdance with his first small film and then who gets into Sundance a few years later will have much more success because he’s been exposed to the Sundance circus.

Favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films:
Slamdance: “The Bible and Gun Club,” “Surrender Dorothy,” “Following,” “Gandu”
Non-Slamdance: “Pi,” “Blue Valentine,” “Social Network”… lots of films I can never remember when I get asked this question.

Summre Garber (Submissions and Programming Manager)
The moment in college when I realized I could major in film, which consists largely of watching movies, I knew I would have a long academic career. At San Francisco State University I was working on my M.A. in Film Theory when I was asked to produce a film, an experience that opened my eyes to filmmaking. I began to feel that academia is rather insular and that the best way to affect true change is by making films.

From there I worked for an internet video company in the Bay Area producing short form internet video. Wanting to work more directly in film or television, and finding a lack of opportunities in Northern California, I soon made the move to L.A. I began working at Slamdance in 2009 and immediately loved the sense of community that is fostered here. The programmers, friends of the festival, and filmmakers that are involved are inspiring, they are truly what keeps me going. It’s really the best of both worlds, I still get to watch and discuss tons of films while interacting with filmmakers who are making new and innovative films.

The fact that we focus on first-time directors in our feature lineup and low-budget films helps differentiate us from the films that other festivals seem to highlight. I think that filmmakers who may not find a platform elsewhere can find one with Slamdance. We don’t care about high production values, big-name stars or a glossy look, although it doesn’t count against a film necessarily, either. This helps make the playing field more level. It doesn’t take a million dollars to make a really good movie. We are looking for a unique voice that hasn’t really been heard before and I think that is what some of the best festivals hope to profile.

Although we were indeed born out of rejection, I think that we no longer define ourselves in opposition to any other festival. I think that Slamdance, in its 18th year, stands on its own two feet as one of the premiere independent film festivals in the U.S. When asked about Slamdance, Robert Redford told the press in Park City last year, “The more the merrier.” I love that, there is plenty of room in Park City, and in the festival world more generally, for as many fests that are able to find and foster emerging filmmaking talent. At this time it is extremely difficult to get paying sponsors so the more we as festivals can work together the better it will serve us, filmmakers, and the audiences that look forward to seeing our lineups every year.

A lot of entrants will ask me, “Why should I even submit? No festivals ever program blind submissions – you have to know someone who programs or be invited personally to play. What’s the point in paying the submission fee if my film is just going to sit in a pile, and never be seen?” A large part of my job is assuring people like this that we are programmed 100% from blind submissions. I’m devoted to making sure that every film we receive (nearly 5,000 this year) is watched by a minimum of two different programmers and sometimes more.

It gets crazy around the final deadline, but we are committed to making sure this happens for every film. I always ask myself, “What if the next ‘King of Kong’ is in that stack of films?” We treat every entry like the director might be the next Steven Soderbergh, because who knows unless we watch it? So, don’t feel like your submission fee is in vain, we give EVERY entry equal consideration. We know how tight money is and we owe it to our entrants to make sure they get what they pay for, a fighting chance.

I tell the programmers every year that we prefer films that some people hate and others love over films that everyone “kinda likes” and no one feels passionately about. We are looking for films that spur discussion and, hopefully, intense feeling in the audience. Everyone enjoys seeing a film that they love. Perhaps second best to that is seeing a film that you don’t love but can’t quite figure out why, and then elucidating what exactly you don’t like about it.

Park City during festival week is a great place to be. I can’t think of a better time and place for networking and getting inspiration for future projects. Even if you don’t have a film there, the abundance of ideas and dialogue is inspiring. I met someone once who went every year to mingle a bit at Slamdance and Sundance, watch films, and then would go back to their condo and write, it can be a great cure for writer’s block. Being exposed to the films and filmmakers in Park City gives one a sense of what is getting out there and can help your future projects be in tune with what audiences in the independent world are paying to see.

Favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films:
Slamdance: “Shunka,” “Pete Smalls is Dead,” “Gayby,” “Drones,” “Blood From a Stone
Non-Slamdance: “Tree of Life,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Another Year,” “Summer Hours,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans”

Todd Berger (Programmer on the Narrative Feature Programming Committee)
I grew up in New Orleans wanting to be a filmmaker since I could remember and would shoot movies on my dad’s VHS camera while other kids were off socializing. I studied film at the University of Texas and moved to Los Angeles in the early [2000s] working as a screenwriter ever since. On the side I’ve been making shorts and documentaries and my first narrative feature “The Scenesters” played at Slamdance in 2010. I just finished shooting my second narrative feature “It’s A Disaster.”

It’s truly “by filmmakers, for filmmakers.” The two main requirements of the narrative feature competition (the section I help program) is that the film must be the director’s first feature and the budget must be less than a million dollars. This results in truly fresh, independent voices being discovered. On top of that, the films are all chosen by a group of previous filmmakers – which results in Slamdance thinking outside the box more than most fests.

I’ve always seen festivals as being like any organization, whether it be a business or a nonprofit — if the people running it know the mission statement and keep to it, the spirit of the organization will maintain. Slamdance has strived hard to keep the anarchist spirit it evolved from 18 years ago. They actively discourage favoritism or nepotism (if you know someone involved with a film that’s submitted, for instance, you’re not allowed in the conversation about the film’s potential programming.) It’s maybe the only festival where knowing someone who programs there might not help you at all. An aspect I love about programming is that the festival celebrates polarization. If some of the programmers LOVE a film and others HATE it, it’s way more likely to get in than if everyone just thinks it’s okay.

As for festivals in general, unfortunately in the past few years the economic climate has affected sponsorship of festivals, which is crucial to some out there for survival. I’ve seen several festivals have had to shorten their runs or go away all together because of a lack of funds. There’s also been a slight pressure on some fests to get “butts in seats” by playing more audience-friendly fare. On a more positive note and at the other end of the spectrum, because of the low cost of cameras these days you’re seeing a lot more SUPER low budget fare playing at even the biggest of festivals. It’s refreshing to see some bigger fests even starting low-budget sidebars to make sure outer edge voices are heard.

If your film is done and it’s time to submit, my biggest piece of advice is to have a good official website. Programmers look at that, I guarantee, because they want to know more about the people who made the film. What’s the filmmaker’s story? Where and how was the movie made? Were there struggles? This information all helps paint a picture because at Slamdance it’s about the film of course, first and foremost. But it’s also about the potential of the filmmaker. Slamdance sees itself as a launchpad for new voices, so the people behind the film are just as important.

Something, anything different. I think the biggest misstep a lot of filmmakers make is to see what indie was popular the year before and just try and copy it, thinking that’s what programmers or festival crowds are looking for. After “Clerks,” there was a glut of slacker guys talking about getting laid. After “Pulp Fiction,” there was a glut of non-linear, pop-culture heavy narratives. I can’t tell you how many “Paranormal Activity” variations I’ve seen in the past year. What makes you stand out is that your film is so outside the box of anything we’ve seen before.

I had never been to Park City until a few years ago, and my mind was blown as to how the town becomes a sort of independent film convention for a week. Whoever you are back in your normal life, whether you’re a waiter or an editor or whatever, in Park City you’re a filmmaker. Yes, Sundance is happening and yes, Slamdance is happening — where you can seem movies and panels and what not, but EVERYWHERE you go — parties, bars, restaurants, boot stores – there are people there just like you in town to have fun. I met so many interesting people from all over the world just waiting in line for a bus or sitting at a bar.

Favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films
Slamdance: Simon Arthur’s “Silver Tongues,” David Bonawits’ “Pleasant People,” and Damon Russell’s “Snow On Tha Bluff.”
Non-Slamdance films: “InThe Loop,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Final Flesh.”

Saskia Wilson-Brown: (Programmer, Documentary Programming Committee)
Best told in third person. Ahem:  “Former co-director of Los Angeles’ Silver Lake Film Festival, programmer and juror for organizations ranging from Slamdance to Gen Art, Saskia also headed up the international filmmaker outreach and development arm of Al Gore’s Current TV. Today she curates, produces or lends her support to initiatives around new models in filmmaking or the arts—including the OVA/Workbook Projec Filmmaker Summit at Slamdance, the TEDActive Innovation Lab, WorkBook Project’s DIY Days, and special independent film programs such as the biennial ‘Ultra Fabulous: Beyond Drag’.

In 2009 she started Cinema Speakeasy, a not-for-profit screening series which she runs from Los Angeles with her colleague Georgi Goldman, and which has since expanded to San Francisco (in collaboration with Fhay Arceo, Kate Sullivan and Allison Davis) and Palm Springs (in collaboration with ACE Hotel).

She also writes on the topic of transmedia, marketing and distribution for places ranging from WorkBook Project to Filmmaker Magazine, and is currently producing the social campaign for Stephen Gyllenhaal’s new movie “Grassroots.” Her newest pet project is producing a series of documentary shorts called “The Story Project” with her partner Micah Hahn, and producing a feature length doc.”

The thing that has always differentiated Slamdance, for me, has been its irreverence, its commitment and its consistency. By that, I mean simply that Slamdance has been consistently irreverent, and remains totally committed to its filmmakers. It has a strong role in shedding light on very good, truly independent, sometimes deeply f*cked up and elegant movies. I think that its place, then, is to discover the best of the underground, and it has done so to an impressive degree. It also has a unique approach of being non-competitive with other organizations and festivals, which is different, and helpful for the filmmakers it supports.

As a festival strongly committed to its family of filmmakers, Slamdance’s evolution, I imagine, will ape the evolving needs of the people it serves. Right now, issues for independent filmmakers center around discovery, distribution and sheer survival. As such, Slamdance has been focussing on creating solutions for its filmmakers through non-traditional distribution routes. But I also believe that Slamdance will continue its focus on the very thing in which its core strength lies: Curation.

The debate around the role of festivals is one that I’ve been interested in. My conclusion is that the more content we have, the more we need curators, caretakes, and — dare I say — advocates. Festivals have served this role quite nicely, and I imagine will carry on doing this. They will also carry on connecting filmmakers with people who can help (whether acquisitions folks or new platforms). In a perfect world they will increasingly take on a more educational role, helping filmmakers make sense of new technologies and techniques. Slamdance has been especially good at this – and in many ways has moved from being a place where financial transactions take place to a place of education and discovery.

So, in many ways and all the debate about their significance notwithstanding, festivals are still retaining their traditional purposes. It’s just the people on the acquisition and distribution end who have changed.

Be authentic, pay attention to your sound design, put your film through a second and a third edit, and be generous to your audience. Don’t forget to communicate with the humans that are watching your films. Try to give access points to the story that are somewhat universal. What is it about your topic that other people might be able to relate to?

Also: Watch other people’s independent films. If possible, volunteer to program for your local festival, or at least organize a film night. Watch as many independent films as you can. There’s no better way to get a sense of what’s out there, and you can learn from other people’s mistakes.

And listen to your editors.

I can only speak for myself, on this. I like to see some degree of originality in the topic. Although every story has the potential to kick ass, thereare some narrative tropes that I’ve seen a lot of. These films are thus held to higher standards, simply because they’ve been done in every possible way.

Put it this way: if you are making a doc about a band criss-crossing the world on a tour, you better make it different from the 2,000 other docs about bands criss-crossing the world on a tour. Pretty much every single possible hijink has been seen by a programmer, at some point. What’s the REAL story? What makes this particular iteration of the story DIFFERENT? (hint: it’s not how hard they rock).

I’ve also recently come to realize the full significance of ‘reportage’ versus ‘documentary.’ Some people approach a non-narrative movie as a way to expose a new thing (reportage), and some people approach it as a way to tell a story, with a stronger attention to the cinematic aspects of the movie. I love the former on TV, and I love the latter in a theatre. Sometimes it helps to make the distinction, in any case. So, in short, originality, an engaging story, or barring that, REALLY good execution. If there’s no story, make it sheer visual poetry.

‘Everyone’ is in Park City during the festival, so your film will be seen by people who wouldn’t necessarily make it to another smaller festival.

That’s also a double-edged sword, ’cause, well… Park City is a circus, and can be a lonely and depressing place. Everyone feels left out of everything, there, and there’s no way around that. Also: There’s a lot of competition from other films, and the mass mania that is ‘buzz’ changes at the will of a whisp. Compounding this is the fact that most people are there with a specific agenda that may or may not include giving a toss about your film. But, since there are nonetheless opportunities to network that you wouldn’t have elsewhere, Park City augments the experience through sheer access.

The best way to navigate it is to plan what you want out of the experience. (e.g. “I will connect with five distributors who deal with the European market. I will attend four panels on story development. I will not feel like chopped liver if my film doesn’t get picked up.”) Focus on getting to that goal, don’t sweat the fact that you won’t be able to get into the gifting suites, know that the “hottest” parties are usually painfully boring, and that the people who can REALLY help you are probably asleep in their hotel rooms, anyways (and always accesible via email after the event).

A doc we programmed last year, “Shunka,” was one of the most lovely pieces of film I had ever laid eyes on. Third nature doc, third ghost story, third community profile. Similar in tone, another Slamdance doc called “General Orders No. 9.” Then, unrelated to Slamdance: A film called “Littlerock” by a fellow called Mike Ott and a short called “Dos, Por Favor” by Fabian Euresti. There are more, of course, but these four have stuck with me.

Nicole Arbusto (Co-Captain of Narrative Features Programming Committee)
I grew up in New York City, went to Smith College and moved to LA a few years after that. I started working here in LA in casting, initially for casting director Wally Nicita. In the years since I’ve cast mostly independent films (“Terri,” “Easier with Practice,” “The Tao of Steve”), as well as theater and TV.

Slamdance is an important launching ground for first-time directors. More and more you’re seeing films that premiered at Slamdance crop up at bigger festivals and appear in the Gotham Awards (“Without”), or seeing directors who started at Slamdance go on to make larger films (Drake Doremus, Todd Rohal most recently), or seeing our alums mentioned in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film (in 2011 Mark Jackson, Damon Russell).

There’s just so much more access on all levels. Audiences all over have more access to smaller films, and in turn filmmakers have easier cheaper access to the tools of filmmaking. So filmmakers who might not live in large cities can see “Attack the Block” or “Bellflower.” At Slamdance we’re definitely seeing more submissions from every corner of the world. And certainly it often feels that there are less traditional screens for films, but at the same time how audiences watch films is changing. And there’s just more awareness in the public of film festivals – I think the audiences have become much more diverse at the festivals.

Check out some of the films that have screened at the festival, but don’t second guess – I think we’ve covered a bit of everything over the years. [We look for] original voices and distinctive points of view or a filmmaker with a second film we’re also excited to see. And I think we’re always looking for people who might slip through the cracks at a larger festival maybe because they don’t have access or their film is a little offbeat.

I think people who love seeing films, love being around other people excited to talk or argue about film. It’s great to hear what people are talking about as the festivals go on. And of course it’s great to be in an area where you have an opportunity to meet the filmmakers.

Favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films:
“Without,” “One Hundred Mornings,” “Murder Party,” “Littlerock,” “Michael,” “Dish & the Spoon,” “The Woods,” “Frozen River,” “Fish Tank”

Randall Good (Co-Captain of the Shorts Programming Committee)
I’m a writer-director by calling, location sound mixer by trade, and co-captain of the Slamdance short film committee (we program the non-documentary shorts). Slamdance screened one of my short films in 2009, and I jumped at the chance to volunteer once I heard that programming is done largely by festival alumni. I’ve gotten even more involved since then. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and eventually moved to Los Angeles by way of New York. I love living in a city where you can go see film prints of old movies any night of the week.

To discover outsider talent and to be a cinematic tastemaker. That’s probably the goal of most well-known film festivals, but our method is to select our competition films entirely from blind submissions, with no invitations granted or films programmed because of connections. We feel that this method of programming is the fairest to filmmakers, and we’ve been fortunate enough to attract thousands of entries from talented people all over the world. We are a “what you made,” rather than a “who you know” festival.

Filmmakers are probably sick of hearing this, but almost every short film we receive is probably too long, even the ones we program. We die a little every year because we don’t have room for all 20+-minute films we love, and a lot of them would be stronger films if they were five or 10 minutes shorter. If a film is under 10 minutes, it’s even easier to find a place for it. So do yourself a favor and either cut that long short down or expand it into a feature.

Also, if you ever find yourself with an opportunity to volunteer to screen submissions for a film festival near you, I highly recommend it. It’s easy to have a skewed sense of the state of independent film because most of us only see what gets programmed at festivals, which is a very small fraction of what’s out there. It’s really eye-opening to see what is being made, and the experience of passing judgment on others’ films will make you demand more of yourself in your own work.

My feeling is that because short films allow a greater degree of creative freedom and autonomy, we should shine a spotlight on filmmakers who make the most of it by working to advance the form of narrative and non-narrative cinema. I’m more interested in raw talent rather than technical prowess, and in creative risk-takers rather than those who fall back on convention. I tend to be an outlier in my taste, and I love it most when Slamdance encourages moviegoers to engage with an unusual film that they would otherwise ignore.

When I first came to Park City, it was as a Slamdance short film director and a crew member on a Sundance feature. After reading so many Indiewire dispatches from Park City, finally I was smack in the middle of this electric madhouse scene. Sundance is amazing and we wouldn’t be in Park City if not for them, but as a filmmaker I was so grateful to be able to escape the intensity of it all and be welcomed by the warm Slamdance family into their little corner of the town at Treasure Mountain Inn. That welcoming inclusion has persisted since then. The locals seem to like us, and the elevation is great because it cancels out the lower alcohol content in Utah beer. What are some of your favorite Slamdance and non-Slamdance films of the past couple of years?

Picking a favorite Slamdance short would feel like picking a favorite child. I am forever in love with the bizarre and joyful narrative feature “The Beast Pageant” and the mesmerizing documentary feature “Shunka,” both of which premiered at Slamdance 2011.

As far as films from the rest of the festival scene that have stuck with me, I continue to be blown away by Ronald Bronstein’s incredibly singular and confounding “Frownland,” Andrew Bujalski’s moving humanism in “Beeswax,” and a devastating Hungarian short that has hardly screened in the USA called “The Counterpart.”

Peter Baxter (President/Co-founder/Documentary Programmer)
[I was] brought up in country ditches, socialism (Middlesex Uni), art history (Oxford Uni) and London Street culture. Started working in photography after college. Hitchcock’s unfinished documentary about the rich and poor who religiously attend a famous horse race inspired first short film called “Derby Day.” Moved to USA and produced low-budget feature “Loser.” Sundance rejected it, which was good because it helped start something I love.

In 1995, I co-founded Slamdance as an independent alternative to Sundance. Since its inception, I have been responsible for developing and maintaining all areas of Slamdance. Have helped build an independent organization synonymous with the discovery of emerging talent…by filmmakers for filmmakers. Current film work includes the documentary feature “Wild In The Streets” and next week I will produce the winning Slamdance screenplay short “Harold’s Bad Day.”

When Indiewire asked us to do this, they wanted to know how many key programmers we have. “Over 50,” I said. “That’s too many,” came the response. Got it for this article, but the lifeblood of Slamdance comes from every one of our programmers. Filmmakers themselves, they will decide if a film is in competition or not. No other power will. We do it altogether. Our entire competition program is derived solely from our submissions. No film is invited until all of them have been viewed and decided upon by our programmers.

We believe this direction offers a level playing field for the entrant. Certainly it’s subjective but it’s the fairest one we’ve come up with for the independent artist coming out of nowhere. This way of programming has allowed us to showcase what we believe is a truer representation of independent filmmaking. I think that’s important.

When Slamdance first started, its filmmakers banded together to support one another. We found collective strength in doing that, and success. This type of collaboration is part of what indie film is all about. As we became a bit more organized, our community grew stronger to include committed staff and programmers. It’s for these reasons we have not expanded our competition programs because if we did I think we’d lose some strength in supporting our filmmakers.

Aside from submission numbers, the festival has remained relatively unchanged. Slamdance’s year-round organization, however, is changing. We’ve found audiences want to see our film programs outside of Park City and they like the Slamdance brand. Slamdance Studios began distributing film year-round on VOD platforms in 2010. More platforms are being launched in 2012. We also expanded our On The Road theatrical program this year.

Too many festivals I think operate independently of one another, fearful it seems of losing premiere quotas and overly competitive in nature. I’d like to see festivals be more progressive and work more closely together so they can improve filmmaker support. That’s a change I’d like to see.

First, finish your film. Second, look at what we can and can’t do for you before you spend your submission fee. Strong storytelling and independent filmmaking nous.

Park City provides a lot of love at this time of year and hosting Sundance and Slamdance makes for a grand American film experience. It’s a place where audiences are as passionate about film as the filmmakers. Anything can happen and frequently does. All kinds of relationships are born here. You’ll meet people that you’ll likely end up working with for a good part of your life. Business wise, though we are mostly known for our director’s, the place attracts film buyers who have done well by us. We must thank Sundance for helping make that happen.

What many don’t know is our logo is made of black atoms called Slamdance films. Every year its color becomes more intense and beautiful.

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