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‘Hot’ energy pumps Slamdance

Can fest capitalize on 2005's momentum while staying true to outsiders?

After its first major acquisitions breakthrough last year with docu “Mad Hot Ballroom,” Sundance’s more-indie alter ego Slamdance is looking to capitalize on the coup.

But with some changes in its exec roster since last year, can the restless stepchild come through again?

Back in 2005, when filmmakers Amy Sewell and Marilyn Agrelo told their sales agents at Cinetic that they wanted “Mad Hot” — their doc about New York-area kids prepping for a ballroom dancing competition — to unspool at Slamdance and not that higher-profile fest next door, their reps were less than enthusiastic.

Buyers were talking about “Mad Hot” as an acquisitions target, but would they stray off the beaten path to go and see the pic?

At a screening that will go down in Slamdance’s mythos, most distribs had sent their lower-level execs to scope out the film. When the pic, which opened Slamdance, went down well, the neophytes urged their bosses to head to Slamdance to make offers. (Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon ended up winning the pic, which became one of the year’s indie highlights when it grossed $8 million.)

“For us it was a huge coup,” says Drea Clark, an eight-year Slamdance vet who is now the fest’s exec producer and chairs its feature competish slate. “Having a sale like that helps bring attention to our filmmakers that we have continued to believe in, so it’s a nice redemption.”

While it would be tempting for Slamdance to lure away another Sundance entry this year by giving it a prominent slot, Clark says that would go against the fest’s core philosophy, which is all about cutting out the politics.

“Our programming standards don’t change from year to year,” she declares. “We did not change how we get our films, and that wouldn’t be fair to the process. Slamdance is really a hotbed of future talent — that’s the whole reason it started. A bunch of filmmakers without connections decided to start their own thing.”

Indeed, the myth of Sundance — as with so many other fests around the world — is that the majority of films are “discovered” from submissions flying over the transom with an application fee and a dream.

Industry pros know that, while some pics do make it in purely on merit, many are ushered to festival programmers through established channels.

That said, this year Slamdance opens its 12th edition with “Kids” helmer Larry Clark’s “Wassup Rockers.” Pic already has a distributor in First Look Studios.

And even one-time skeptical Cinetic is back at Slamdance with Trigger Street Independent and “Napoleon Dynamite” producer Jeremy Coon’s off-kilter comedy “The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang.”

One question mark is the absence of last year’s newly installed fest director Kathleen McInnis (formerly of the Seattle Film Fest), who got much of the credit for landing “Mad Hot” in the lineup and promptly exited just a year later.

Now Slamdance is in the position of trying to capitalize on the momentum it gained while remaining true to its school of outsiders.

Buzzed-about docus include the Jane Campion-produced “Abduction” and Heather Courtney’s “Letters From the Other Side,” which interweaves the lives of people left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico.

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