Slamdance celebrates 25 years of independent filmmaking
Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter has been thinking a lot about the film festival’s past in light of it 25th anniversary this year.
His first thought, he said, was: “Wow.” second thought returns to the festival’s inaugural year, 1995.
“Instead of walking away into the sunset when we didn’t get our films into Sundance, our wild bunch of filmmakers got together to do something different,” Baxter said. “Who would have thought we would have gotten this far. We didn’t know our guerilla upstart would even make it through the first year.”
Still, Baxter and his cohorts – Dan Mirvish, John Fitzgerald and Paul Rachman – knew all they wanted was a showcase for new filmmakers like themselves.
The festival, which runs from Jan. 25-31, at Treasure Mountain Inn, hasn’t wavered from the goal of championing emerging artists, according to Baxter.
“In addition, it has helped launched the careers of many filmmakers who have gone on to change the film industry,” he said.
Those filmmakers include Joe and Anthony Russo, Christopher Nolan, Oren Peli and Rian Johnson, to name a few. They’re part of the Slamdance alumni who have generated around $17 billion at the box office, according to Baxter.
“But what’s more valuable than discovering dollars is the artist community we have created over time,” he said. “We help each other build sustainable careers.”
Baxter said Slamdance has done that on its own terms.
“We didn’t want to be another elite institution that shuts people out,” he said.
Slamdance aims to support emerging filmmakers by working with high profile alumni, such as Joe and Anthony Russo, who are set to premiere their new blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame” this summer. Last year, the Russos and Slamdance debuted the Russo Brothers Fellowship, which includes a $25,000 grant and hands-on support and mentorship from the brothers, Baxter said.
“If you look at Anthony and Joe as examples of filmmakers, programmers and mentors, and as Award givers, they show how our community works,” he said. “While they have amazing careers themselves and, now run a studio in Los Angeles, they have never forgotten their roots at Slamdance.”
The fellowship’s first recipient was filmmaker Yassmina Karajah.
“She is currently receiving Anthony and Joe’s mentorship of her next project, which is being developed out of her short film, ‘Rupture,’ that was at Slamdance last year,” Baxter said. “We will continue awarding the fellowship to other emerging filmmakers who will come through the festival.”
The fellowship is crucial to new filmmakers, Baxter said.
“Oftentimes the film industry doesn’t invest in developing talent over long periods of time, because it likes to see instant success,” he said. “This will be very important in our next 25 years because we want to develop mentorships and programs year round.”
Slamdance also cultivates relationships with veteran filmmakers through its Founders Award.
“The Founders Award is given to a Slamdance alum who has represented our organization and has supported our filmmakers well into their careers,” Baxter said.
This year’s award will be given to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, known for “Oceans Eleven” and its two sequels, as well as “Erin Brockovich.”. He is the third recipient after Christopher Nolan and Anthony and Joe Russo.
“Why Steven?” Baxter asked. “Well, he told us when we were getting Slamdance started to never ask for permission to do anything, and that impressed us. Here was the director of what Roger Ebert called the ‘poster boy of the Sundance Generation’ offering us his support.”
In addition, throughout his career, Soderbergh hasn’t lost the indie spirit, Baxter said.
“For every ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ he made a ‘Schitzopolis,’” Baxter said. “He remains a committed DIYer, long after other major directors would have holed themselves up in their studios with an array of assistants around them.”
Throughout the past 25 years, Soderbergh has been part of many important Slamdance milestones.
“The year he made ‘Schitzopolis’ (1996), was the year Soderbergh saw the Russo Brothers’ debut ‘Pieces,’” Baxter said. “Steven approached Anthony and Joe and offered to produce their next film, which became ‘Welcome to Collinwood.’”
Soderbergh also produced Greg Mottola’s 1996 comedy, “Day Trippers.”
“That was Slamdance’s first acquisition, and represented an acquisition that was on par with any deal that was made a Sundance at the time,” Baxter said.
In 2010, Soderbergh premiered “Everything Is Going Fine,” his first documentary, and this year, he will introduce “High Flying Bird” at Slamdance, a comedy that was filmed entirely on an iPhone 7, according to Baxter.
“Steven’s presence at Slamdance has been ongoing, and we thank him for that,” Baxter said. “We’re honored to present him with the Founders Award.”
Baxter said he doesn’t know what the next 25 years will bring, but he knows Slamdance is dedicated to its mission to seek out and support new filmmakers.
“We want our filmmakers to have a sustainable career,” he said.
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Park City Film’s in-person screenings will include a string of Academy Award-nominated films.