Michael Trent and Leslee Scallon started the Dances With Films film festival in 1998, determined to create a space for truly independent films without any well-known actors or powerful industry connections. Over two decades later, they’ve hosted 26 editions in Los Angeles — and last year, they took Dances With Film bi-coastal when they brought a new edition of the festival to New York City. Following the success of the first Dances With Films: NYC, they’ll open their second annual fest in the Big Apple this Friday.
And that’s only the beginning of their plans for expansion.
How Dances With Films Began
In 1998, Leslee Scallon and Michael Trent were working actors in the Los Angeles theater scene. Using the resources they had, they decided to make a film together, and they shot it on Scallon’s family farm in Oregon. But when it came time to start pitching their action-thriller to festivals, they had a hard time getting accepted.
“We got to that part where you’re supposed to go out to festivals, and of course, there weren’t a thousand festivals on every corner as there are now. We tried for the big ones, because what we wanted to do was be in front of industry,” Scallon said.
When they didn’t get into any of their target festivals, they realized that there was a major gap in the festival marketplace, and indie filmmakers without any recognizable faces in their movies were falling through the cracks.
“We had to decide whether we wanted to do just a one night screening tried to bring people in, and then Michael came up with this idea,” Scallon says. “If we’re having this problem, there are probably other people who are having this problem. So let’s create something for those of us who don’t have stars in our films who are doing this, and bring in the power of numbers.”
They took out one single magazine ad that said, ‘Hey, you don’t have anybody in your film? This is the festival for you.'” And it resonated.
What makes Dances With Films stand out from other film festivals of its kind is its unwavering devotion to keeping the playing field level for unknown filmmakers. Trent and Scallon have a steadfast, no-exceptions rule that films admitted to the competition categories cannot have any recognizable, big name actors. It’s only for truly indie films with those who haven’t broken through in Hollywood yet.
However, they do still allow films with stars in them to play at special screenings throughout the festival. They just aren’t eligible to win any prizes.
“Our stars are the people with no voice right now,” Trent says.
DWF: NYC and Beyond
Following last year’s initial success, the second annual DWF: NYC is being held this weekend from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3. This year, the size of the festival has grown from one theater to three, and they’ve nearly tripled the number of films being shown to a total of 136. The categories include narrative feature, documentary feature, shorts, and a new television and streaming pilots category.
The opening night selection will be Dylan K. Narang’s Tapawingo, a lighthearted comedy feature starring Napoleon Dynamite‘s John Heder as a mailroom worker who forms a posse of misfits to protect a young boy from his bullies. The closing night selection will be the world premiere of Nicholas Gyeney’s The Activated Man, whose grieving protagonist begins to see visions of a man in a fedora.
The success of DWF: NYC gives Trent and Scallon hope for their future plans of taking the festival overseas.
“New York is kind of a launching point for others as well, because we’re we’re actually looking at London as the next step,” Trent says. “We want to expand internationally. But we are going to stay the same thing. We are not a corporate festival. We’re never going to be a corporate festival.”
The mission of support and community building that has fueled Dances With Films these past two decades has never hinged on its location, Trent explains, although Los Angeles has been its home for decades.
“We’ve never looked at ourselves as a Los Angeles festival, even though we’re now literally the largest L.A. festival of our kind and have been for a couple of years,” he says. “Since day one, we have screened films from all over the world, and we actually seek those out.”
Their ultimate goal with international expansion is to create more exposure and more opportunities for the truly independent, small films that compete at the festival.
“Who we represent, for the most part, are the unknowns — the unknown filmmaker, the unknown rising actors, the journeymen,” Scallon says.
As people are searching for films to watch online, Trent and Scallon want them to recognize the Dances With Films stamp of approval as a trusted brand.
“The only way to do that, to reach more nationally, is to be more internationally known — and that’s going to help the films,” Scallon says.
See the full lineup for DWF: NYC 2023 on the festival’s website here.
Main Image: A still from Tapawingo courtesy of Dances With Films