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Park City in January

Park City in January

Articles - Festival Beat

Peter Baxter
Peter Baxter of Slamdance

In 1995, a group of energetic young
moviemakers decided they wouldn’t let a little thing like
not making the cut for the Sundance Film Festival stop
them from screening their films in Park City. Legend has it that
they simply banded together and started a festival of their own,
cheekily calling it Slamdance.

Peter Baxter is one of the founders
of the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently holds the post of
festival director. After six years in Park City, neither the festival
nor Baxter show any sign of slowing down. Now a full-fledged organization
with an international component, traveling series and screenplay
contest, Slamdance is hardly the upstart counterculture event
it once was. Which is not to say the founders have shifted their
goals. Slamdance is still “by, for, and about filmmakers,”
particularly first-time filmmakers without the influence that
industry contacts can bring. Here, Baxter talks with MovieMaker about what sets Slamdance apart from other festivals, and
what it’s like to be part of the Park City movie community.

Jennifer M. Wood (MM): Tell me about the first year of Slamdance, and what that experience
was like.

Peter Baxter (PB): At
the time we started Slamdance, one was just about to see the explosion
of independent filmmaking. Despite the fact that most of the films
had no “names” or distribution attached-neither
at Slamdance nor at Sundance-audiences for independent film
were growing. We started the festival in Salt Lake City and, about
halfway through, we came up to Park City and had the screenings
there. By the end of it, along with a front page piece in Variety about what we were doing and really good audiences and distribution
interest, we found that we had struck something that was valuable
for our type of filmmaker. That’s why we’ve continued
this festival.

MM: How did the idea
for Slamdance actually originate, and at what point did you come
into it?

PB: I came along a little
bit later. Dan Mirvish and Shane Kuhn first met at IFFM in the
Fall of 1994. While chatting amongst themselves, they talked about
what would happen if their films didn’t get into Sundance.
They had heard that, a year before, a couple of filmmakers had
brought their films up to Park City and showed them in hotel rooms.
So they waited to find out and see if their films got in. They
didn’t, and they got together with John Fitzgerald, another
co-founder. Then my film, Loser, came along and that’s
when I got involved. It was these four films plus eight other
features and 14 shorts that made up the first Slamdance Film Festival.

MM: You made quite
a splash your first year in Park City. Why did you plan on relocating
the festival the second time around, and what made you decide
to stay?

PB: Each year, we take
a good look at our location. We’ve done this every year,
and each year we’ve come back to Park City for the simple
reason that we always try and put the filmmaker first at Slamdance.
We’ve realized that Park City has been the best place for
them so far. One of the reasons why is that all the industry members
turn up there each year.

MM: As far as the
atmosphere goes in Park City, with so many festivals and so many
moviemakers, what is the competition like among festivals and
is there a sort of hierarchy that exists?

PB: I like to
think that everyone comes together as a group of filmmakers. I
think that for a festival to be competitive or to think of itself
in terms of a hierarchy is not a positive way to go because, in
the end, that is self-serving and that won’t help the filmmaker.

MM: What is the one
thing that you believe sets Slamdance apart from the other festivals
in Park City?

PB: We have established
ourselves, that’s one thing that has helped us. We’ve
been able to establish ourselves because we have doggedly focused
on helping independent filmmakers. I think, at last, people can
now appreciate that and are looking at the films in a different
way. They’re not just judging it by the cast or the story
line or the trailer, they’re actually looking at the film.
And a number of films which have found distribution after Slamdance
are sort of adding to that. We haven’t moved away from that
so people understand what exactly we do. Also, we’ve become
a year-round organization, so we’re not just a festival for
seven days out of the year.

MM: Was there any
one incident or film that was a real breakthrough for Slamdance?

PB: In 1996, our second
year, we got 450 submissions. One of the films entered that year
was Greg Mottola’s Daytrippers. It won the Grand Jury
Prize that year. Since then, Steven Soderbergh, who helped produce
that film with Nancy Tanenbaum, has become a supporter of ours.
Having a film like that really helped grow Slamdance.

MM: Is there one film
that, over the years, you have been most proud to present to an
audience?

PB: There are a number.
I’m very interested in filmmakers who struggled to make their
film with no stars and very small budgets. I’m very proud
of a number of films that we show each year, and I’m proud
of the program that we put together each year. But two films that
are really think merit mentioning here are The Bible and Gun
Club
by Daniel Harris and Kevin DiNovas’ Surrender
Dorothy
. To me, those films represent what independent filmmaking
is about.

MM: The programming
method at Slamdance is quite unique. How do you go about selecting
which films will show at the festival each year?

PB: All of our programmers
come from the festival as filmmakers. These are filmmakers who
have screened at Slamdance before. Their vote is the same as anyone
else’s. We don’t decide any of the films until the last
day of programming. There are about 50 programmers. Each film
is marked and commented on and submitted back into the office.
Each film is watched three times before it goes on or is rejected.
The further a film goes, the more comments there are and then
we pick the films out at the end that we want to consider for
final programming.

MM: What can we expect
to see at Slamdance 2001?

PB: First and foremost,
we’re focusing once again on our feature film competition,
which is the most important part of Slamdance. This is a competition
where films have been made by first time directors, on limited
budgets, and also part of that competition is short films as well.
In the last two or three years we’ve been developing the
Filmmakers Lounge. This year we’re developing more elements
to the Lounge, one of which is the $99 Special. Here are a group
of films which have been made for $99 by Slamdance alumni, where
they’ve been given $99 and 99 days to make a film under 5
minutes. So we’ll be showing those in the Filmmakers Lounge
but they’re intended, initially, to premiere on Slamdance.com.

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