Slamdance Festival at 20: Alt Fest Shows Rebel Roots


Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter recalls 10 moments that defined the event’s first 20 years.

Instead of walking away into the sunset when we didn’t get our films into Sundance, a wild bunch of film- makers got together to make a change. We didn’t know our guerrilla upstart would make it through 1995, let alone begin a 20-year movement. After we got through the first year, we found the desire to help other filmmakers like us.

The opening of Slamdance ’96 didn’t go well. Our projectionist had a heart attack, and his 35mm projector broke down with him. This left co-founder Dan Mirvish and Steven Soderbergh in charge of running projection operations on opening night. After Dan got a shock sticking a screwdriver in the wrong place, Steven somehow got the projector fired Slamdance Festival at 20: Alt Fest Shows Rebel Rootsup for “The Daytrippers’” world premiere. (The film went on to earn our first grand jury prize — later called a Sparky — and an invitation to Cannes.)

But projection issues continued with our other system: a new video projector (by all accounts, we were the first festival to use one) that weighed more than 500 pounds and proved too heavy to lift to our upstairs screening room. With the goal of helping as many filmmakers as we could, we ambitiously launched an online showcase of more than 50 films, including trailers, press kits and production information, but we had failed to grasp the complexities of getting images moving online in 1996. Undaunted, we worked through opening night to find more bandwidth, and by noon or so the next day, we were playing films online. We even got the world’s heaviest video projector up and running.

When Steven arrived with his experimental comedy “Schizopolis,” he said his own filmmaking career was at a crossroads. But his support for other filmmakers remained undiminished. Having already produced Greg Mottola’s 1 “Daytrippers,” he went to the premiere of “Pieces” by Joe and Anthony Russo and later called them offering to produce their next feature.

We were glad to support Steven’s film in ’97, but the truth is, he’s given Slamdance a whole lot more in return over the years. The Russos did not forget what happened to them as they continue to help Slamdance today and often give new filmmakers the same type of 2 opportunity that Steven gave them.

One thing that sets Slamdance apart is the fact we invited filmmakers who attended and felt passionate about their experience — folks like Jessica Yu, Drea Clark and Kent Osborne — to come back and program the lineup, where everyone gets to vote on his/her favorite film, selected from a pool of blind submissions. This simple act has given Slamdance its life and soul ever since.

When I first met Chris, he had just finished his first feature. Incredibly, the future of this ground-breaking film was uncertain. But there was nothing uncertain about Nolan’s filmmaking ability. Even at this point, you knew here was a young director who was going to advance film storytelling and production. We wanted to tell the world about this great new talent and premiered “Following” at Slamdance.

Slamdance took over the Silver Mine building at the top of Main Street in 2001, throwing an opening party that many remember as the biggest and best celebration the town has ever seen. (I think some of our partygoers may still be down that mine shaft.) The ingredients were right: Sponsorship had been growing, and Jagermeister wanted to join the show. The Roots came out in support of Mark Levin’s film “Brooklyn Babylon,” and we had this industrial silver mine space that we managed to rent while miners carried on working beneath.

At one point, I thought the ceiling would give way as the Roots got everyone dancing together in the same rhythm on the building’s old floor. By midnight, it looked like we might all go up in smoke, as no one had told us the Freak Circus show included flam- ing vaginas. The rest is X-rated, and I can’t tell you anything. But this opening mojo kicked off a great year for short films, as Ray McKinnon’s “The Accountant” went on to win an Oscar and David Greenspan’s “Bean Cake” won a Palme d’Or.

“Paranormal Activity” changed the way the movie industry saw Slamdance when they discovered it was possible to find a $10,000-budgeted DIY project by a then-unknown filmmaker (Oren Peli) and turn it into one of the most profitable franchises of all time.

In 2009, Slamdance made an agreement with Xbox to add a VOD program for an international audience at the same time as the physical event. It became the first festival to do this, and the agreement also included year-round programming of Slamdance films through Xbox’s console. Slamdance has long since been a year-round organization through our On the Road screening program, screenplay competition, $99 special productions and slamdance.com site, but working directly with Xbox marked a significant development with its commercial ambitions for filmmakers. Going forward, the event will continue to be held in the physical festival space, but I see significant growth for Slamdance online.

When Slamdance started, we received just 48 submissions. In 2013, our team received more than 7,500 from all over the world.

Not just a film festival, Slamdance is a community, an experience and a statement. Established by a wild bunch of filmmakers tired of relying on a large, skewed system to showcase their work, Slamdance is an ongoing experiment that has proven, year after year, that when it comes to recognizing talent and launching careers, the independent and grassroots film communities can do it themselves.