Dances with Films still defiantly independent after 15 years

Fest kicks off Thursday in Hollywood

After starting out decidedly under the biz’s radar, L.A.’s Dances With Films fest begins its 15th year today with an increased focus on connecting budding talent with bizzers. Based at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the fest runs through June 7.

Rising interest from auds and burgeoning filmmakers has brought Dances With Films, founded by Michael Trent and Leslee Scallon, to the attention of Hollywood, including CAA and ICM. In the past couple of years the fest has hooked high-profile industryites as panelists and jurors; this year’s edition features speakers that include Amber Entertainment founding partner Mark Ordesky and Alcon exec VP Steve Wegner.

“People are starting to realize that we’re the talent pool of tomorrow,” Scallon said. “Our films might not be the most refined or polished, but it’s about finding great talent.”

The founders tout filmmaking alumni such as “Superman Returns” scribe Dan Harris, “Big Love” creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer and animation director Donovan Cook; thesps including Jessie Eisenberg, Melissa Leo, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston and Margo Martindale appeared in films at the fest early in their careers.

Helping link new filmmakers with connected industry members, lunchtime panels from June 4-7 will feature bizzers including Gersh agent Eric Garfinkel and Jay Cohen, CBS acquisitions exec Scott Shooman, MTV New Media’s David Gale and CAA’s Laura Lewis.

Even with deeper relationships with Hollywood and more money to work with, Dances With Films stands by its punchy tagline — “Defiantly independent” — and a succinct “mission statement”: “No politics, no stars, no shit,” Trent said with a chuckle.

The fest kicks off tonight with an opening party at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel and screenings of Kelly Greene’s “Attack of the Bat Monsters” and Tamar Halpern’s “Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life” with Mira Sorvino and Joe Pantoliano.

Closing-night pic is Jesse Wolf’s Everglades drama “Eye of the Hurricane,” while other narrative films premiering include Steve Hick’s rock-laced neo-noir “Fuzz Track City,” psychological thriller “Into the Wake” and unlikely love story “Transatlantic Coffee.”

Documentary selections include “Face 2 Face,” Chinese Internet story “Crocodile in the Yangtze” and L.A. music scene chronicle “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”