Slamdance ’06 has a mad hot glow
Check your furry boots and hang your delusions of grandeur at the door before entering a Slamdance Film Festival screening at the Treasure Mountain Inn.
A dozen years ago, Sundance Film Festival rejection slips begat the Slamdance Film Festival, a new competition for first-time filmmakers. The concept was a kind of filmeritocracy of sorts: a festival run, judged and promoted by working filmmakers.
As Slamdance Executive Producer Drea Clark explains, "we make our own rules, we throw insane parties, we stick by what we believe in even if it isn’t the popular thing to do; we see what works for us and we’ll scrap it if it doesn’t and we don’t believe that ass-kissing is the best way to prove yourself." That said, however, there is no doubt that Slamdance owes a lot to the Sundance Film Festival’s legacy. Slamdance appreciates its rebel niche amongst the glitz and glamour of Sundancers. It likes, and needs the company of high-profile industry members. "We wouldn’t be in Park City if it weren’t for Sundance: they created this entire arena of films and events and acquisitions this time of year in this particular place," confirms Slamdance Executive Producer Drea Clark. "We grew to fill a void of sorts, and the fact that we’ve been around as long as we have shows that our goals and philosophies do fit with the overall dynamic."
Slamdance has evolved from its 48-submission start 12 years ago, to drawing over 3,000 entries this year for under 100 slots. Furthermore some of the recent Slamdance entries have gone on to garner wide acclaim Last year’s festival opener "Mad Hot Ballroom," a documentary that follows a New York public school ballroom dance program that features competition in merengue, rumba and tango, was picked up by Paramount Classics, and became quite a success at theaters across the country. Slamdance President and co-founder Peter Baxter attributes this year’s "biggest documentary competition ever" to the attention "Mad Hot Ballroom" received after last year’s festival. Since then the film has earned $8 million and counting at the box office before DVD sales. Slamdance has never received as much interest from industry members as it has this year, he says. "It seems so obvious to us what Slamdance films have to offer, but to industry members and others, it’s not so easy to really see when you’re constantly reminded of the big-budget Hollywood films and all the media that goes along with them," he said. "With a film like "Mad Hot Ballroom," it’s been really great for everybody concerned. When you have a film made for around a quarter of a million dollars that became successful without distribution."
Baxter, though, downplays launching major blockbusters: it’s not just about one film, but about all of the filmmakers Slamdance embraces. "What ‘Mad Hot Ballroom’ has really shown us is how a Slamdance film can be valued across the board," he says.
Jeremy Coon, producer of the 2004 Sundance and surprise mainstream hit film "Napoleon Dynamite" (based on a 2003 Slamdance short), was a programmer for last year’s Slamdance competition. He will return this year, alongside the same Brigham Young University crew that produced "Napoleon," to show their new film, "The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang," set in the 1970s about kids who create Bigfoot tracks to distract police officers who are trying to hunt them down for an unpaid bill at a local burger restaurant.
Coon says the group considered Sundance, but ultimately decided their new film belonged at Slamdance.
Filmed in Oregon, "The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang" was written and directed by Napoleon’s assistant director, Tim Skousen. "Napoleon" fans will recognize some of the comedy Coon says, but the cast is new.
"[Sasquatch] is more of a straight-up kids’ film Goonies, but told in a non-linear style that I don’t think a lot of kids’ films are told. That’s how the comedy breaks through you see events through different perspectives," he explained. "This year it sounds like Sundance has chosen to pick a darker slate of films that are more edgy and back to their roots, and our film doesn’t really mesh."
The BYU crew likes to make independent films because they enjoy the freedom, and given the films they make, Slamdance is likely the best way to get the word out, Coon explained. Though the triumph of "Napoleon," did give him choices, he says, "we just don’t like dealing with the studio system yet."
Coon explains that whether Slamdance admits it or not, it will always be in Sundance’s shadow, but he considers that maybe Slamdancers don’t mind being the younger brother.
"Sundance has become a victim of some success, but Slamdance is a lot smaller, and you get a lot more attention. At Sundance there’s no way you’re going to meet all the other filmmakers. Slamdance it’s possible. It’s a lot smaller, with a more family-like atmosphere, which is definitely cool," he said.
And if Baxter has his way, the festival will remain true to its community of sub-million-dollar-budget filmmakers, for as long as it continues to return to Park City each January.
"I think in many ways, Slamdance has remained the same in terms of its original mission statement," he says. "The organization has grown, but at the same time, its mission statement supporting emerging filmmaking talent has remained the same and we’ve been able to do more with that as each year goes by in terms of what we are able to offer to help filmmakers to get to the first level of their career."
In addition to screening 26 feature-length films and 57 shorts, Slamdance will present a variety of competitions, featuring $99 Specials, a competition that gives $99 to filmmakers who 99 days later return with a five-minute (or under) short film, a screenplay competition; A Teleplay Competition, sponsored by fox21 to discover television writers. Also for the second year, the festival will host a Guerilla Gamemaker competition, to help aspiring game developers showcase their work.
Including video and computer game creators is unique to the world of film festivals, but, according to Baxter "a lot of people have not quite grasped how closely linked [gamemakers and filmmakers] are."
Like filmmakers, low-budget, independent gamemakers have a hard time getting distribution. Many are overwhelmed by marketing and games underwritten by corporations. During Slamdance, therefore, a portion of Treasure Mountain Inn’s lobby will be dedicated to game-testing stations for players looking for some new cutting edge games.
Baxter says there’s still more work that can be done when it comes to helping out the under-funded, passionate artists hungry for exposure. He added that Slamdance is already working on new initiatives this year to embrace more of those who didn’t make the final cut.
Amid the hype and the success of recent Slamdance’s films , Baxter believes in adhering to his humble beginnings and staying "rooted in the alternative." What inspires and drives him about the low-budget films he promotes, is the promise of "something coming up, underground, and something that hasn’t been seen before."
"We want to offer people a good time without bringing formality, stiffness or elitism to it," he says. "We all grow up and become bigger and better. It’s challenging, but we don’t want to lose sight of where we came from Let’s not forget: Slamdance is all about coming back down to earth."
The 2006 Slamdance Film Festival will run from Thursday, January 19 through Friday, January 27. The festival headquarters, ticket outlet and two screening rooms will return to the Treasure Mountain Inn at 255 Main Street in Park City. Screenings will also be at Sugarhouse, in Salt Lake. For details, log on to http://www.slamdance.com.
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