Slamdance Kicks Off, Prepares to Debut Its Russo Brothers Fellowship

The 2018 Slamdance Film Festival runs Jan. 19-25 in Utah with 10 narrative films and eight documentaries being showcased, nine of which are world premieres, and with work originating from America, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany and the Netherlands. This is the 24th annual celebration of first-time filmmakers and their passion projects, with the festival having always been seen as the edgy alternative to Sundance, bridging the mainstream and the indie world of filmmaking and storytelling.

“This year’s competition lineup truly embodies who we are as an organization,” says Peter Baxter, who co-founded Slamdance back in 1995 and serves as its president. “We seek to offer that unfiltered cinematic voice and it’s that particular voice that we’re looking to embrace each year. We’re not about hot trends and blockbuster programming, but rather, finding those films that celebrate humanity in a special way.”

The festival’s opening-night attraction is the documentary “Pick of the Litter,” an endearing piece about the adoption process for guide dogs that spans two years and shows the lives of five amazing animals. Some of this year’s other promising titles include “Human Affairs,” which stars Kerry Condon (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”); gonzo-comedy “Rock Steady Row,” featuring Diamond White (“Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween”); the trippy-sounding “Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out” from writer-director Bert Scholiers; the inter-connected drama “Birds Without Feathers” from writer-director Wendy McColm; and punk-rock romance “Fake Tattoos,” from writer-director Pascal Plante.

“This year’s crop of films comes from a very organic place in terms of their construction and attitude,” Baxter says. “Across all programs of the festival, we’re highlighting work from filmmakers who exhibit an honest and raw sense of storytelling.”

This year, one of the festival’s biggest new wrinkles is the Russo Fellowship Award, with the Russo brothers (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War”) on hand to present the winner with a $25,000 cash prize, as well as mentorship from the siblings as the winning filmmaker develops the next project.

The brothers premiered their experimental and non-linear first film, “Pieces,” at Slamdance in 1997. “Thankfully,” recalls Joe Russo, Steven Soderbergh saw it, and this was around the time he was making ‘Schizopolis’ so he must’ve seen a kindred spirit in us. He opened the door for us and we learned a ton from him, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this fellowship. We’re two guys from Cleveland who had no industry access and someone took a chance on us. Now we want to pay it forward, and our company is in a great spot to work with new directors. We’re always looking for fresh talent, especially in the television world, which we’ve used as a springboard to launch new careers.”

Baxter adds that the fellowship “truly exemplifies the ‘by filmmakers/for filmmakers’ paradigm that we’ve established at Slamdance. This further increases our support system within the community and from our alumni who continue to help by launching the careers of other artists. And beyond the great cash prize, the winner filmmaker will work hand in hand with the Russos, and utilize their Los Angeles studio.” The opportunity is open to every filmmaker who has been selected to screen their film at Slamdance, with a new winner being selected each year moving forward.

Slamdance’s 20-year partnership with the Directors Guild of America continues, as the DGA has embraced various fest winners as they develop their careers. “Christopher Nolan was the first director to premiere a film [‘Following’] at Slamdance and then become a DGA member, and since then, more have followed in his footsteps,” says Baxter.

He is happy to remind that the festival has had a number of emerging filmmakers showcase their work there. “Lynn Shelton, Bong Joon-ho, Azazel Jacobs, Rian Johnson, Marc Forster, Lena Dunham and Steven Soderbergh are all alumni and they’ve continued to help Slamdance in ways that we might not have been able to anticipate.

“And it’s a year-round effort with people investing a lot of time and energy into our submission process. This year, we received 10,000 submissions across all divisions of the festival, and some alumni ended up screening close to 100 films. Filmmakers like Summer Garber, Josh Mandel and Paul Sbrizzi have been instrumental in making sure that the best voices are heard and recognized. ”

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