For filmmakers and by filmmakers.
Slamdance Film Festival continues its twentieth year supporting the independent films at Park City, Utah, from January 17-23, 2014. The festival will feature nearly 100 films for shorts, narrative and documentary. It takes place at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main Street.
Tickets are still available online at www.slamdance.com.
Latino-Review had the opportunity to carry a phone conversation with Slamdance Film Festival President Peter Baxter.
We discussed the origins and history of the film festival, special celebrations of the 20th anniversary, special celebrity experience and the awards selection process.
For the interview, please read or listen to the interview below.
Latino-Review: For my readers here, could you tell us on what Slamdance is all about?
Peter Baxter: Slamdance is started off as a film festival. In January 2014 in Park City, we are going to be celebrating our twentieth edition. We coincide with Sundance. We started out, because we all didn’t get our film into Sundance. We all got rejected. We all failed as you can say, but failure can be a friend.
What we decided to do was to get together, as filmmakers, to support each other as a community in 1995. [We] showed off films side-by-side with the Sundance program. And it was very successful. A number of films shown in 1995 found distribution. We realized that there were going to be [more] filmmakers like us to get distribution and looking for exposure. They will want a similar showcase.
That’s why we decided to continue Slamdance. [It] would then showcase the emerging talent. Over the years, we showed, as filmmakers, coming together and that we’ve been successful. [We’ve] able to launch many, many filmmakers’ careers.
There were very well known filmmakers who came through Slamdance to first show their films. Christopher Nolan, for example with “Following,” premiered his film in 1999. The Russo brothers, who just made “Captain America,” we’ve showed their first film. Benh Zeitlin who made “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” we showed his first film. The list is endless. It’s actually a very long list now.
That’s why we started Slamdance and that’s why we will continue to do it. It is a festival. It’s also other things these days. It’s an organization that takes films out from abode. It takes the best around the states and internationally.
It also has a distribution business as well. We take Slamdance films and distribute them commercially. There is also a very popular screenplay competition. We stayed true to our roots throughout all of this. We are an organization like we like to say, “By filmmakers, for filmmakers.”
Filmmakers program the festival still. That’s what we’re about to see for the Slamdance Film Festival 2014, the twentieth edition. We have an exciting program forged by filmmakers who have taken part in Slamdance before.
Latino-Review: Are you going to do anything different for this twentieth anniversary of Slamdance?
Peter Baxter: Obviously, there’s going to be a celebration, which we’re really looking forward to. A lot of the well-known alumni are coming to the festival so I mentioned to you the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe. Their story is really interesting. In 1997, when they showed their film “Pieces,” they made this low budget film and didn’t have any distribution at the time. It was their world premiere. Steven Soderbergh came to [watch] their film. [Soderbergh] is also a Slamdance alumnus. And he liked on what they’ve done. He caught them and said, “I would like to help you make your next film. Would you like that?” Of course they did. It’s an example of how important the alumni are important to the organization.
Now the Russo brothers will be at the Slamdance this year. Now they will be helping out the other filmmakers at Slamdance themselves. Now they’re in the position where they can actually bring in filmmakers to open up opportunities and to support them. So it’s great to see Joe and Anthony Russo at Slamdance this year with several others as well.
We don’t normally see that many alumni to come out for our festival. They support us year around in other ways. They often don’t have the time to come out to each of the festivals. Because it’s our twentieth anniversary, many of them will be there.
I think what’s also important to say here is that every day we face the celebrity culture. This is a culture, which is for an independent filmmaker at the time will have a hard time to compete with. You want to have your film to stand out, stand apart from the entertainment industry. You got something to say. You want it to be seen. It’s very difficult to do that when you’re not well-known or with a well-known cast in your film. That’s one of the ways that Slamdance is able to help these filmmakers. Without brand. Without showcase. What we stand for to say is to be true to our roots. We’ve been able to help those filmmakers and stand out. It gives them a platform otherwise [they] would not have.
So there are things that don’t change. I don’t think it should change on because where we come from.
Latino-Review: This sounds like a great launching pad for future directors, but any films got a major distribution from Slamdance?
Peter Baxter: Oh, yeah. Many. The biggest, very biggest in the world you could ever think of. It’s “Paranormal Activity.” It became [one of] Paramount’s largest franchises in its history. Oren Peli and “Paranormal Activity” premiered at Slamdance. It was acquired out of the festival. As we all know now, it formed this huge juggernaut of a movie franchise for a studio. When we met Oren, he just made this $10,000 picture of “Paranormal Activity.” He was unknown. No knew him. He came to the festival. The film attracted a lot of attention.
We knew we were on to something with “Paranormal Activity.” One of the programmers came in and said, “I couldn’t watch this film last night. I had to watch it in daylight.” If a programmer is telling you that after watching so many films that is a standout film. And you know they say, “The rest is history.”
But there are many examples of films that get picked up at the festival. There was a documentary of “Mad Hot Ballroom.” That also became a profitable documentary for a studio. Each year now, films are being picked up for distribution. Last year, we found that majority of our films were picked up for distribution out of the competition, which is the first time that had happened. But, each year there will be a major acquisition out of Slamdance.
Latino-Review: And how many films will be featured this year?
Peter Baxter: Nearly 100. We have 93 films at the festival. They are from all around the world. We received over 5,000 submissions. Our programmers and filmmakers decide [the films], which no one person has a bigger vote than anyone else. We try to create a level playing field with all of our filmmakers watching the films at least twice and making sure that everything is carefully discussed with a lot of passion usually. All of those decisions are made towards the end of the programming period.
All of our films are selected from blind submissions. What we are trying to do here is simply give, whoever it may be around the world, their chance of making it into Slamdance. That’s another reason why we came about because we felt at the time that the system in place was skewed. It’s so difficult for a new filmmaker a chance to get noticed.
Christopher Nolan, for example. It’s amazing to think that even Christopher Nolan struggled to get his first film noticed, but he did. We provided him a platform or a showcase for his work. That’s what we’re about.
Latino-Review: Now that’s very impressive. How are the winners at the end of Slamdance selected? Is it with a panel of judges?
Peter Baxter: Yeah, we have a jury. We have a jury award or prize called “The Sparky.” Sparky is a dog statuette. We didn’t want something that is grand as an Oscar. We didn’t want something as flat as a plaque. So when I was doing a photographic job in southeast Turkey, I came across this mongrel plastic dog/wolf toy fallen down off its table in a muddy puddle. So I picked it up by forfeit. When I came back, I was going to give it to my godson as a present. In the end, I decided to cast it into an award for Slamdance filmmakers called the Sparky to be given out each year. There are jury prizes and there’s also an audience award as well.
Latino-Review: Is your film festival getting bigger and bigger each year?
Peter Baxter: When we first started, we got 48 submissions. For this year’s festival, we’ve received over 5,000 submissions. Since 2013, with our screenplay competition, we have received more than seven and half thousand submissions. That’s an indication on how popular it had become for independent filmmakers.
In terms of its attention, it does get bigger every year. It is important to us that the typical size is actually being kept relatively small. We’ve done that because it’s very important that we foster each year a filmmaking community. A real one. One that promotes everything together. We need those filmmakers to come back and help the film festival. [They can] give something back to the community that they should shape [and] regenerate on what we’re doing every year. That’s really important to us. That has a lot to do with the by filmmakers, for filmmakers.
If we grew our venue and we had more films with more filmmakers, it would start to lose that connection. The physical connection. I think that Slamdance would be worse off with that. A lot of its strengths comes from its community.
Latino-Review: If the size is actually getting bigger—aren’t you afraid Sundance’s Hollywood connections will eventually take over eventually?
Peter Baxter: No. Now that we got twenty years under our belt, I think the industry knows on who we are and stands for. They’ve seen that we haven’t waivered off of that. We found respect through that. As I was mentioning before, we are quite determined to be recognized on who we are [and] not to get involved with celebrity culture. That’s not Slamdance. That’s not who we are. I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with that. For use, we need to support these filmmakers—we need to stand up for something on what we believe in and not waiver from that. I am pretty certain that won’t change.
Filmmakers are in charge with that who also believes in that too. I think it will carry on.
Latino-Review: If the public wants to attend—where can they see these films and how much would it cost the public?
Peter Baxter: Yeah, thank you. So on our site right now at Slamdance.com, there’s a program schedule up there right now where you can actually buy tickets. You’ll go to Slamdance.com in the film festival section. You’ll be able to click on the films you wanted with the descriptions.
The secret of Slamdance, by the way, the best value is that if you are a student, [go] buy a student pass. We want students to see Slamdance films. We want to get them to get the experience. You will see every single Slamdance film for $125. Now there’s not many of those left, those are able to order online. That’s a great way to see Slamdance films.
Latino-Review: Do students get to interact with these aspiring directors too?
Peter Baxter: Yeah, that’s why we really encourage that, because they go to film school and learning about filmmaking. There’s nothing quite like being up close and personal to filmmakers and hearing about how they actually made their films. It’s a great learning experience.
Latino-Review: I can’t wait to check out your films. One more time, when and where Slamdance will take place?
Peter Baxter: Slamdance beings on January 17th and ends on January 23rd. The festival takes place in Park City, Utah on Main Street at the Treasure Mountain Inn.
Latino-Review: That’s perfect. I thank you and I appreciate this interview today.
Peter Baxter: For sure, I appreciate it too.
Latino-Review: And good luck with the festival.
Peter Baxter: Thank you.
Visit www.slamdance.com for more information on its films and ticket information.