Despite local grumbles, Slamdance jams

Alt indie fest goes global but irks some

For the sixth consecutive year, the Slamdance Film Festival returns to Park City trumping the mandate with which it started: to provide a supportive, intimate environment where first-time filmmakers working with limited budgets can show their films.

But, this year, the Slamdance folk fought an uphill battle to get there.

“You need to watch your back in Park City,” a local official told Slamdance’s executive director and co-founder Peter Baxter, who had to do far more lobbying than in years past. “Your days are numbered.”

Why all the hostility?

Slamdance submissions have reached a record 2,050. Sponsorship is up. And many local and worldwide filmgoers identify with the fest’s alternative vibe.

Moreover, Slamdance has successfully gone on the road with special screenings in such cities as Cannes, Stockholm, Santiago, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. And a growing list of films — such as “The Daytrippers,” “20 Dates,” “Man of the Century,” “Six String Samurai” and “The Girl Next Door” — have found distribution.

Whatever their precise motivation, it’s clear that from certain officials’ points of view, Park City is not big enough to be home to two major festivals.

Park City’s population is roughly 12,000; the city estimates that the fests draw in more than three times that.

Barb Clark, special events coordinator for Park City’s Chamber Bureau — and a consistent Slamdance supporter — says: “From the Chamber Bureau’s side, we like to see people here enjoy all that Park City has to offer. But Slamdance came in on Sundance’s coattails and it piggy-backs on the services Sundance pays for, and some people don’t think that’s fair.”

Another city official says: “Sundance’s concern is that they still have the same resources that they need to run the festival. Slamdance does make it harder for Sundance to operate. There is no question. At some point the City Council will have to step in and say this or that.”

For their part, Baxter and co-founder-at-large, Dan Mirvish, are thrilled to be back with an eclectic slate of films and events.

The fest will present 12 competition features and 16 competition shorts, while adding a second screening venue in the filmmakers’ lounge. Also new are an additional 21 shorts that will screen in a Web-based, screaming video section of the fest called “OE Anarchy.”

Baxter is especially proud that this year’s slate includes pics from such countries as Argentina and Ecuador. (In past years, the fest selected primarily American films.)

Among the competition films are: “Blink of an Eye,” directed by Van Fischer; “Good Housekeeping,” directed by Frank Novak; “Double Parked,” helmed by Stephen Kinsella; “We Married Margo,” a comedy directed by J.D. Shapiro; and Kevin McKiernan’s “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.”

From Germany comes the experimental “Tuvalu” directed by Veit Helmer, whose short “Surprise” played at Sundance in 1996. Eager to have his pic understood in every country — sans dubbing — Helmer employs what he calls an “international dialogue” that features words common to all languages.

“We had actors from Russia, from France, from Bulgaria,” says Helmer. “The language they use in the film is basic English, basic French, basic German. I tried to do something visionary; something that is completely new.”

About being accepted to Slamdance, Helmer says: “The real indie spirit I was looking for was at Slamdance. Mine is a small film that needs some special care. In Slamdance, international films can compete with the American films.”

“The Strange Case of Senor Computer,” a competition docu by Tom Sawyer, is an American pic with a unique premise: a comedy about a computer more interested in sadomasochistic phone sex than questions of survival. Such companies as Fox Searchlight, New Line, Miramax and even a Japanese distributor looking for Asian rights have already expressed interest.

“Senor Computer” evolved from a short story Sawyer wrote. It was shot on 16mm black & white and inspired by 1950s sci-fi pics.

“A lot of independent filmmakers won’t even consider Sundance,” Sawyer says. “There’s a very negative attitude about what goes on over there, spread mostly on the Web. It’s too Hollywood.”

J.D. Shapiro’s “We Married Margo” has also generated considerable pre-fest buzz. Part fact, part fiction, the film tells the story of two men and the one woman they married. The pic combines docu-style talking heads, dramatic scenes, and cartoonish, stream-of-consciousness images that come from within the mind of the central character.

“I grew up watching far too many cartoons,” says Shapiro. “I love the idea that anything can happen at anytime. I felt using different styles would pull the audience into the movie more than one single, typical linear form.”

Playing in the Special Screening section is “Amargosa,” a docu by Todd Robinson pre-selected onto a short list of possible Academy Award noms. Robinson’s earlier docu, “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick,” played at Sundance in 1996.

“Amargosa” chronicles the life of a reclusive artist and dancer, Marta Becket, who lives in the remote ghost town of Death Valley Junction, Calif.

Co-producer Sidney Sherman predicts “Amargosa” will inspire audiences to follow their dreams. “Our documentary is the spirit of what the Slamdance people do,” Sherman says. “I couldn’t be happier that we are at Slamdance. It’s a group of people who are happy to be making movies.”

As with the other fests in Park City, short films will this year find increased attention up at the Treasure Mountain Inn as they are now marketable on the Web.

Henry Turner, who coordinates the shorts program, hopes that distributors and exhibitors will one day program shorts prior to theatrical features in the nation’s theaters — a practice long abandoned.

Still, Turner is thrilled that the Internet has created a market for shorts. “It will give more visibility to the short film and increase its use as an art form,” says Turner, who, with fest programmers, viewed roughly 1,300 shorts before selecting some 40 films to screen. “Overall, the competition for shorts is even greater than for features.”

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