Filmmaker-backed fest continues to flourish

If a visitor to the 1995 Sundance Film Festival happened to wander past a sign at the Prospector Square Hotel reading: “Slamdance ’95: Anarchy in Utah — The First Annual Guerrilla Intl. Film Festival” and let out a snicker, the person likely would have been forgiven the rudeness. After all, what kind of a person would dare challenge Sundance in its own backyard?

Filmmakers Jon Fitzgerald, Shane Kuhn and Dan Mirvish did. They were slightly put out after being rejected from Sundance the previous November. The group, along with Mirvish’s producer Dana Altman, had bonded at the 1994 Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM, the predecessor to the IFP’s Independent Film Week) and had discussed various “pie in the sky” ideas about the future of indie filmmaking.

When they discovered that Sundance had not taken a single completed feature (out of 95) from that year’s IFFM — hopes were high after “Clerks” had been chosen from the market the year before — they decided that the deck was stacked against them and that they were going to combine Altman’s idea of a grass roots co-op for independent filmmakers with Kuhn’s idea of a guerilla screening series in Park City. Kuhn’s producer Brendan Cowles came up with the name Slamdance and, like a Busby Berkeley musical, a festival was born!

Slamdance president and co-founder Peter Baxter, who came on board in 1996, still marvels at the fest’s longevity: “Who’d a thunk it?” But, looking back, it’s not so surprising. IndieWIRE co-founder Eugene Hernandez, who was in Park City in ’95, is not surprised Slamdance survived. “They filled a niche,” he says, adding, “I don’t think anybody really thought too far in advance, but they survived the first few years and developed a name for themselves.”

The rebel fest’s early days were indeed a tough go, with opposition from all quarters. Baxter notes, “Seeing the Park City Chief of Police retire was a very good thing for us. (In 1995,) he literally told us that our days were numbered.” But Baxter adds, “I think we’ve won over the people in Park City who were doubtful about us in the beginning.”

Slamdance’s founding philosophy was that the festival selections would be programmed largely by filmmakers and always by committee. In the beginning, according to Baxter, the programmers were “four white guys,” so the group decided that they’d reinforce the integrity of the programming selection by using alumni.

“All of us had been in the situation where if that one (gatekeeper programmer) doesn’t like your film or doesn’t like you, then you don’t get anywhere,” says Mirvish. “It was important for us to have a more consensus-based approach to programming, where there is no one person at the top.”

The “By Filmmakers, for Filmmakers” motto also resonated with director Greg Mottola, who won Slamdance’s Grand Jury Prize with “The Daytrippers” in 1996. “It will always hold an appeal to those of us who fantasized about writing for Cahiers du Cinema or running around city streets with a 16mm camera, John Cassavetes-style,” he says.

Despite their early animosity, Sundance and Slamdance have settled into a comfortable relationship and both serve their constituencies. Mottola, who this year has “Adventureland” unspooling at Sundance, says, “I’m pleased and impressed that Slamdance is still around and showing excellent films. Much like the different sections of the Cannes Film Festival, I think that the Slamdance/Sundance dynamic has been lively and valuable for both institutions.”

“What goes on (in Park City) is important for young American filmmakers,” adds Slamdance East coast director Paul Rachman. “It’s an important place to be and it’s harder and harder to get there. There’s a co-existence and there’s this common ground that’s been found and I think people recognize that — finally.”

The Slamdance folks also have a reputation for being among the nicest people in the business. “When people are nice it makes everything a bit easier,” says director Marina Zenovich, who had documentary “Independent’s Day” at Slamdance in 1998 and “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” at Sundance last year. “The vibe at Slamdance has always been one of camaraderie. At Sundance, you have the camaraderie but you have the feeling of competition underneath it because the stakes are higher. But that’s not Sundance’s fault.”

For director Azazel Jacobs, who won the Slamdance Dramatic Short Grand Jury Award in 1997 with “Kirk and Kerry,” Slamdance was an encouraging start to a career. “I can remember that (acceptance) phone call,” he says. “Winning the award, that was this kind of green light saying ‘Keep going, you’re worthy, go for it.’ “

For Slamdance, the filmmakers keep coming.

Tip Sheet

What: Slamdance Film Festival

When: Today-Jan. 23

Where: Park City, Utah

Web: slamdance.com

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