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Slamdance Film Festival Continues to Elevate Emerging Talents

For 26 years, debuting filmmakers have traversed the wintry landscape of Park City to screen their films at the Slamdance Film Festival, and this year’s crop of selections promises to showcase significant talent. Taking place January 24-30, this celebration of cinema continues to be, as co-founder and president Peter Baxter calls it, “the premiere film festival by filmmakers and for filmmakers,” with an emphasis on creating a community for emerging independent artists. “We’re an artist-led festival where everyone nurtures each other’s visions, while always looking for new ways to explore and evolve as storytellers.”

The 2020 feature competition boasts 16 premieres, with projects originating from Belarus, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa and the United States. As always, all films are feature length directorial debuts with budgets of less than one million, and which lack U.S. distribution. “We’ve been working behind the scenes year round to ensure that we have another fantastic festival. We’re always looking for strong and distinct storytelling voices,” says festival manager Alina Solodnikova.

Titles were selected by a team of Slamdance alumni via a blind submission process, and then it’s up to Solodnikova to begin the programming process. “We received 2,000 more submissions this year than last year – 8,000 in total – making it an extremely challenging year to decide on what to ultimately program, as the overall quality of the work is getting better and better due to more accessible tools being made available to filmmakers,” she says.

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Last year’s sensation was “The Vast of Night,” a small-town science fiction drama which became one of the most discussed films in recent years at Slamdance. Director Andrew Patterson signed with WME, and the movie was purchased by Amazon, who will be releasing it this year. Patterson also struck a development deal with the streaming outlet, and will be participating in a Master Class Panel where he’ll discuss his journey.

“There was tremendous passion over ‘The Vast of Night,’ and every year there’s that breakout film with that flashpoint moment of excitement about a new filmmaker. We can’t wait to see what that is this year,” says Baxter.

“Big Fur,” a quirky documentary with tons of heart and humor from director Dan Wayne, has definite break-out potential given the cult-y subject matter. “I set out to make a movie about taxidermy and it ended up taking unexpected detours into the subculture of Bigfoot,” says Wayne, who comments that before he set out to make his film he’d “never thought twice about Bigfoot before. It’s a fascinating world that I knew nothing about, but now of course I’m immersed in it. I’m excited about screening in Park City because this project always felt like a Slamdance movie.”

“Sammy-Gate,” from director Noel Lawrence, who co-wrote the script with Darius James, is a dark satire of psychedelic history, revolving around the unique relationship between Sammy Davis Jr. and Richard Nixon, and posing the question of whether or not the entertainer had anything to do with Watergate. The film, which will world premiere at the 2020 Rotterdam Film Festival, was a true Slamdance community collaboration, as Baxter served as an executive producer. “‘Sammy-Gate’ is an example of how Slamdance’s ‘by filmmakers for filmmakers’ ethos continues to work year-round. Though film culture tends to focus on the director, filmmaking is a collective effort. It especially matters on a micro-budget project without commercial or institutional support, essentially being forged into existence through sheer willpower and creative labor,” says Baxter.

Lothar Herzog’s “1986” puts a genre spin on topical material, centering on a woman who must repeatedly drive into the “forbidden zone” of Chernobyl in order to make shady deals for her father, with her life seemingly becoming more and more contaminated by a destructive force. “It will be great to show the film outside of Europe, as I’m curious to see the American response the story. My hope is that people who enjoyed the television series ‘Chernobyl’ will be interested to see more of the historical facts about that incident, except set 30 years later,” says Herzog.

“Tapeworm,” from filmmakers Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco, is a witty, multi-character Canadian comedy that uses style to inform its content. “We shot the film on Super 16, which gave it a great texture with lots of grain. We really wanted to make a film that showed how bleak it can be to live in Canada. We’ve been making movies for 10 years, and we put so much of our passion for cinema into this project, so it’s very special,” says Mitrovic

The 2020 shorts lineup will showcase 81 short films in six categories from 26 countries around the world, and will include 18 World, 10 North American and 11 U.S. premieres. Shorts in the Narrative, Documentary and Animation sections are eligible for the 2020 Oscar Qualifying Shorts competition.

“It’s an exciting time for short filmmakers because some of these projects end up getting developed into features or a television series. There are so many outlets out there for content,” says Baxter.

The Russo Fellowship returns for its third year, again giving out a $25,000 grand prize to a deserving filmmaker, and the opportunity to continue their journey with mentorship from festival alumni Anthony and Joe Russo (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War”). The 2019 fellowship was awarded to Hannah Peterson, who has since screened her short, “East of the River,” at the Tribeca Film Festival, and has signed with Paradigm for representation. She’s also been hired by the Duplass brothers to direct the Disney Channel web series, “Shook.”

The festival will also be bringing back its popular Breakouts section. Launched in 2019, Breakouts are films by non-first-time-feature directors who demonstrate a determined vision of filmmaking that is instinctively becoming their own by pushing the expected boundaries of content and form.  There will also be a Special Midnight Screening of “Animation Outlaws,” which centers on the creators of the Spike & Mike Film Festival, and an overall greater emphasis placed on animated content in general.

Notable Slamdance alumni who first gained notice at the festival include Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”),  Ari Aster (“Midsommar”),  Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”), Bong Joon-Ho (“Parasite,” “Okja”), Dana Nachman (“Pick of the Litter”), Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”),  Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room”), Lynn Shelton (“Sword of Trust”),  and Marina Zenovich (“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”). “This is a place of discovery, and every year filmmakers emerge from the festival and the industry takes notice. These are fiercely independent filmmakers taking risks and getting their stories told,” says Baxter.

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