Slamdance: stepchild that won't go away

Ask participants in the 1996 version of the Slamdance Intl. Film Festival what they remember most, and they’re likely to recall images of trudging knee-deep through snow from Park City’s Main Street, the heart of the Sundance Film Festival, where the big action is, up a hill a mile to Slamdance Central, the Yarrow Hotel.

Or, they might recall the clunky film projector, one per screening, and the painful, nervous waits between reel changes.

Those kinds of adventures Slamdance co-directors Jon Fitzgerald and Peter Baxter don’t need, and the pair have ensured that they won’t be repeated for Slamdance ’97.

For the first time, the renegade, ragamuffin, ultra-indie festival, originally formed by Fitzgerald and fellow filmmakers Dan Mirvish and Shane Kuhn after their films were rejected by Sundance in 1995, opens Jan. 17 on Main Street at the Treasure Mountain Inn, in the heart of the Sundance buzz.

And, based on a deepening alliance with filmmaker and former Sundance darling Steven Soderbergh (whose “Schizopolis” is screening in the out-of-competition section), as well as a doubling of last year’s budget (from $60,000 to roughly $125,000), a whole set of freshly scrubbed projectors will be whirring away. “Steven urged us to get the equipment and a technician from Boston Light and Sound,” says Baxter. “It means enough to us that while we only spent $2,000 on the projection side last year, we’re spending $13,000 this time.”

While that may be the equal of some Sundance-goers’ dining budgets, it marks a significant rise in quality for this formerly poverty-stricken festival, which now boasts sponsorships (in either cash or equipment) from Dolby, Ilford Camera, Thrifty Car Rental, 4 Media, Film Finders, the Internet-based First TV and sponsors that also support Sundance, Panavision, Kinoflow and Fotokem.

Stemming from the expanded sponsorship support is the creation of a Web site (www.slamdance.com), which includes everything from a virtual marketplace for Slamdance paraphernalia to archives of clips from submitted and competing films. “We’re designing the Web site as a tool for year-round support for the low-budget filmmaker,” says Baxter.

Fitzgerald and Baxter had wished to return to the Yarrow as the ’97 venue, only to learn that it had been booked by Sundance. “We had to run around like crazy, and scouted this past spring,” says Fitzgerald, “and found that the Treasure Mountain Inn was available because Sundance had passed on it.”

One catch, though: The new venue has only one screening room, seating 120, forcing the festival to reduce the competition slate from last year’s dozen films to 10. They include such world premieres as Stefani Ames’ “A Gun, A Car, A Blonde,” starring Billy Bob Thornton; Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Pieces”; Joelle Bentolila’s “The Maze”; Alexander Kane’s “The Gauguin Museum” and Fritzi Horstman’s “Take a Number.” Others in competition are Cinque Lee’s “Nowhere Fast”; Kari Skogland’s “The Size of Watermelons”; Michael Davis’ “Eight Days a Week”; Daniel J. Harris’ “The Bible and Gun Club” and Michael Paradies Shoob’s “Driven.” Along with “Schizopolis” will be special screenings of Eric Schaeffer’s “Fall” and Aleks Horvat’s “Sweethearts,” starring Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo.

With over 1,000 submissions, Fitzgerald and Baxter found themselves in the same soup that triggered Slamdance in the first place, having to reject low-budget filmmakers’ work. “We remain open to additions to our schedule,” says Baxter, “so if a new artist comes along with a really compelling work, we’ll do everything to include it.”

Writer-director Michael Hacker, whose “The Destiny of Marty Fine” competed at Slamdance ’96, says, “Out of 1,000 films submitted, they’ve got to have at least 10 really good films this year. The only problem I found last year, but it’s a big one, is that distributors’ presence was really thin at Slamdance, or their general attitude was, ‘Send me a tape.’

“It was frustrating, but exhilarating at the same time,” Hacker says. “What Slamdance does is so refreshing. They say, ‘We like your film, let’s show it.’ And boom, it’s on the screen for an audience. And now, in the indie community around the country, people’s awareness of Slamdance is amazingly high.”

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