Long known as the bastard offspring of Sundance, the Slamdance Film Festival, now entering its 19th year, has become a full-grown adult, no longer sheltered from the outside world, and increasingly spreading its wings (this year’s fest runs Jan. 18-24).
If, in its early years, the festival was associated with Sundance rejects (“The Daytrippers,” “Following”) and regional underground cinema (“Surrender Dorothy,” “Goreville, U.S.A.”), Slamdance has become increasingly more global, bringing international filmmakers into its ranks and striving to reach out to a worldwide audience on digital platforms.
During recent editions, several of the fest’s main awards have gone to foreign films. (Last year, two German movies took home top prizes, Jens Pfeifer’s doc winner “No Ashes, No Phoenix,” and Alex Ranisch’s Special Jury winner “Heavy Girls”; in 2011 and 2010, major awards went to movies from the U.K. and Canada.)
The Slamdance seal of approval has stamped success for foreign filmmakers like Quebec’s Alexandre Franchi (“The Wild Hunt”) and Germany’s Pfeifer. Franchi credits Slamdance accolades with enabling “Wild Hunt’s” U.S. sale to Cinetic’s FilmBuff arm and gaining him Los Angeles agency representation. Pfeifer says the fest lent an “international touch” to “No Ashes, No Phoenix,” helping him to cultivate contacts with new commissioning editors in Europe.
According to Slamdance co-founder and president Peter Baxter, submissions from abroad have made up the majority of the fest’s growth — in 2011, Slamdance fielded a record 5,000-plus entries across various categories.
“I think that has to do with not only our name getting out there,” Baxter says, “but there are more and more filmmakers who are not seeking permission to fund their films, and (are) embracing that DIY spirit. It’s a global phenomenon now.”
As an example, Baxter points to this year’s Spanish entry, “Musgo,” screening in Slamdance’s new Beyond section (which also includes Romanian writer-director Adrian Sitaru’s third film “Domestic”). “Musgo,” says Baxter, is a psychological horror-thriller skillfully shot on the Panasonic GH2 digital single-lens reflex camera on a budget of E3,500 ($4,615). The pic, he adds, shows how a new filmmaker can create something unique and show off talent in a no-budget situation.
Director Gami Orbegoso says he submitted “Musgo” to festivals in Europe, but got rejected because, he believes, the movie was made outside official channels. “Films that are made without money from the government don’t go anywhere in Europe,” he maintains.
An initiative called Slam Collective also is increasing the fest’s global profile. The project, created to support an omnibus documentary, “I Want to Be an American,” with segments from Australia, South Africa, Mexico, India and the U.S., had collapsed, says Baxter, due to “old filmmaking paradigms (such as) profit participation and fixed budget costs.” But digital technology and online distribution helped the project survive, and the film will be shown at this year’s fest, and then online.
“Independent film deserves to be (seen) globally, not regionally,” Baxter says.
Slamdance’s big-tent philosophy has always been an important part of its “By Filmmakers, for Filmmakers” mantra. And festival alumnus like Brian Knappenberger (“We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists”) sees Slamdance as continuing to exist “outside the system and bucking the establishment.”
Still, the festival is very much plugged in: It’s hosting original content online under the banner Slamdance TV, and planning year-round programming on Xbox and Zoom, while readying the announcement of a partnership that will expand the presence of its films across several VOD platforms.
“I think this is fundamental to the future to film festivals,” Baxter says. “If you’re looking to further support the filmmakers that are in your programs, this is one major way to do that: looking at new media and new platforms to bring your films to a wider audience.”