Upon being rejected by the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, a group of filmmakers decided to form their own film festival. The result was “Slamdance: Anarchy in Utah.” Twenty years later, as Slamdance co-founder and President Peter Baxter points out, Slamdance is no longer a teenager.
When reached by phone for an interview, Baxter talked staying true to the events roots and managing thousands of entries.
When you first started out, did you think it would go this long?
I didn’t think it was going to last this long, to be honest with you. When we started in 1995, we were sort of a wild bunch of filmmakers. We really didn’t have much of a clue on how to put together a film festival.
And we had been working all hours, as independent filmmakers do-especially filmmakers who just made their first film-to get them ready to show. Having been rejected by Sundance, we wanted to do something together and to form strength from that as a collective to showcase our work.
If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been able to create opportunities, which we do actually, for a number of the films, even in 1995 like the film that I produced. We were very fortunate that we got good reviews out of the festival, it found distribution. Likewise for a number of other films.
Then we realized that there are going to be other filmmakers who would want the same kind of showcase for them, which is really focusing on emerging filmmakers. That’s why we continued Slamdance. That’s what we’ve been doing every year. And here we are at Slamdance 20, and the focus, as you will see, is still on emerging filmmaking talent.
So Slamdance 20 is looking towards the future while embracing the roots of the festival?
I think one of the reasons Slamdance has lasted and been able to grow is because we remained focused. I think it’s very easy to do this in the United States where there are art organizations and art showcases that you tend to gravitate towards. Star names seemingly grab you the attention you want for your event.
But at Slamdance we have proven that as a grassroots community, we have been able to do it ourselves and bring forth the new filmmakers, which really are the stars of tomorrow. We’ve been very determined to stay true to that, and that’s thanks to our programmers who are filmmakers themselves who come back year-after-year.
It’s a huge endeavor on their part, and we try to be fair to every single entry; we have well over five thousand this year. Each film is watched at least twice. Each programmer has their own vote; there is no “higher ground” that comes in and chooses films.
If you are committed to becoming a member of the programming group, your vote counts as much as anybody else’s. And through discussion, argument, passion, love for the film that you’ve seen, that’s really what makes up the Slamdance program. And I think that’s what makes the organization unique. It is that desire to showcase new talent that has kept the festival alive and certainly kicking.
Five thousand films that are watched at least twice? That’s a staggering number.
It’s a little mind-boggling, really. It takes a lot of organization, not to say commitment. You can only imagine: you’ve got all these films coming in and you’ve got over 75 programmers who started with Slamdance. We do ask a programmer to make an agreement with us that they are going to watch a certain number of films-and most do.
It’s really important, then, that they stay through the course. When they come together in the final weekends, all of them have got a really great idea of the entire entry, and therefore able to make-we hope-a more objective decision on the films that they want to see.
All of the films are decided at the last minute at Slamdance; there is no revolving submission door where a film is asked to come into the festival.
Slamdance 2014 takes place in Park City, Utah on January 17-23.