Slamdance gets ‘Mad Hot’

Alternative fest launching with McInnis as new director

Back in November, when indie acquisitions execs were throwing around names of titles likely headed for Park City, Marilyn Agrelo’s “Mad Hot Ballroom” was considered among the shoo-ins. The docu, about New York-area kids prepping for a ballroom dancing competition, will indeed make the trek to Utah — but not at Sundance. Instead it will open the 11th annual Slamdance Film Festival, the most established alternative film fest to Robert Redford’s famed indie gathering.

Besides skedding a prime acquisitions target as its opener — “Mad Hot” is repped by Cinetic Media, the firm behind the sales of such Sundance high flyers as “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Super Size Me” — Slamdance launches this year under a new festival director, Kathleen McInnis.

“I think, to be honest, we just got lucky,” says McInnis of nabbing the docu from what seemed like an easy Sundance berth. “(The film) is fabulous. It makes you feel good, and to get one of those films that just grabs you and wakes you up is just so great.”

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Reflecting the increasing interest in and quality of non-fiction submissions, Slamdance also closes with a doc this year, Michael Franti’s “I Know I Am Not Alone.” (Last year, Sundance opened with the surf epic “Riding Giants,” marking the first time that fest kicked off with a documentary.)

This year, 23 world and U.S. features will premiere at Slamdance, including 11 competition features, eight competition docs, six special screenings, seven midnight offerings and nearly 80 shorts.

McInnis, former lead film programmer at the Seattle International Film Festival, sees Slamdance as a different proposition today than when it first launched.

“We’re not the same film festival we were in 1995,” she says. “That was a reaction to a perceived slight. We’ve gone beyond that. We are no longer in this reactionary mode, but in a proactive mode.”

Slamdance was initially launched by filmmakers whose movies had been rejected by the 1995 Sundance fest. The offshoot has grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening years, debuting indie fare such as Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers” and Chris Nolan’s “Following.” But it still plays second fiddle to Sundance when it comes to industry attention.

“It’s not that we’ve thought poorly of Slamdance,” says one harried exec prepping for Park City. “We just haven’t thought of it. We have so much to do at Sundance proper, we haven’t had time.”

On the other hand, Cinetic is pleased with “Mad Hot’s” Slamdance berth. “I have confidence that we are going to get a real audience there. That’s what we’re looking for,” says Cinetic’s Micah Green. “It’s not an idea we thought of, but it makes sense.”

To McInnis, Slamdance’s less industry-heavy screenings can be a good thing. “How many times have you heard an acquisitions executive say to a filmmaker, ‘I really liked your film in Cannes, but I want to see it in front of a real audience,”‘ says McInnis. “This is where we excel. First and foremost we’re an audience film festival. (Our films) are seen by an audience that’s smart and passionate. That’s the advantage that we have.”

Josh Braun, whose Submarine sales shingle last year repped Slamdance grand jury prizewinner “Monster Road,” says that the film gained more attention by not being at Sundance. “We were the big fish in the slightly smaller pond,” he says. “With the right slot and the appropriate setting, Slamdance can be a better place to be than Sundance. It all depends on what your situation is. It helped ‘Monster Road’s’ profile, leading to its eventual sale.”

And while some higher-profile sales could ruin Slamdance’s more “real” atmosphere, McInnis says she’ll work to maintain a balance.

“It’s a careful line to walk,” she says. “We’ve got a slowly growing history of acquisitions taking place. And we’ve only been able to (survive) because there was some kind of need. It wasn’t ‘I hate waiting in line for tickets (at Sundance), let’s go up the street.”