|Peter Baxter of Slamdance
Since its founding in 1995, the Slamdance Film Festival has established itself as one of the premier alternative film festivals in the world. Initially, of course, it simply provided an outlet for filmmakers who didn’t make the cut at Sundance, but who wanted access to the mob of distributors and press who congregate in Park City, Utah every January. In the past few years it’s become much more.
Peter Baxter, a Slamdance co-founder, continues to support the festival’s rapidly expanding presence in the moviemaking community, while making sure that it stays true to its “by filmmakers for filmmakers” motto. With online shorts competitions, educational “boot camps,” and festivals in Poland and China, Slamdance continues to flourish in what is becoming an increasingly competitive industry. Here, Baxter talks with MovieMaker about the keys to Slamdance’s success, how it has adapted to today’s festival climate, and how the festival will continue to push the boundaries of what it means to support the independent moviemaker.
Jennifer Straus (MM): In 2004, Slamdance really proved its permanence—and constantly growing reputation—by being one of the only alternative festivals left in Park City. There was no Nodance, Slamdunk, etc. In what ways do you think the festival environment changed in the past year that caused these events to fall away?
Peter Baxter (PB): That’s a good question. I think that it’s just very hard work to make an event happen in Park City at this time of year, and you need a team of people who’ve got the enthusiasm and the passion to keep a festival ongoing. I think that we’ve been fortunate because we’ve got a great team of people working at Slamdance, and we’ve been able to establish ourselves not only in Park City, but also on a year round basis as well, which attracts film- makers and indeed supports filmmakers out of festival time. I think that’s the main reason we are still in Park City, because we’ve grown the organization outside of the place, which in turn has given us strength. It’s not just about supporting filmmakers in Park City; it needs to be done in other places, as well.
MM: So these other festivals didn’t have that kind of outreach into the community?
PB: Yeah, I think that probably is the case. Also, there is a very strong identity that’s been built up over a long period of time with Slamdance, because we have stayed true to our roots in supporting emerging filmmakers. We’ve kept a very close eye on making sure that the focus, the mission statement if you like, is continued.
MM: How have you had to change your business model or mission to keep up with the shifting climate of the festival circuit?
PB: I would say really that Slamdance has come into three phases: first it was a film festival for one week of the year, and then we turned the organization into a year round activity, not just with the festival, but also with on-the-road screening, now both at home and abroad. We’ve recently had success with other elements of Slamdance, like the 99 dollar specials. One of those is being turned into a TV show, “Significant Others,” on Bravo. Also, what we’ve been able to do with slamdance.com, which is a pretty popular website, is show films online, and now numbers increase in terms of people voting on those short films.
The next stage, which is the obvious one really, is to begin some commercial enterprise, of trying to then create further exhibition opportunities and distribution opportunities for filmmakers, but also at the same time to try and find reward for their work, in such a competitive environment. I think the brand is strong enough that it can do that. I think that the “by filmmakers for filmmakers” approach is something that is appealing for independent filmmakers to be a part of. But I think also in this commercial marketplace there is room for something like Slamdance, both from a theatrical and ancillary perspective.
That’s why we started Slamdance Media Group.
MM: What made you decide to expand Slamdance into more than just a yearly festival?
PB: I think that there were basically two routes that were an option to us after about year three of Slamdance, after we had established ourselves in Park City. The first option would be grow the festival itself in Park City to have a much bigger program, to attempt to secure much bigger venues, and basically then to step up and compete with what Sundance is doing. The other route, which we’ve taken, is to stay true to our mission statement, which is to support emerging filmmakers who don’t have distribution for their films at the time that they play at the Slamdance Festival. We don’t have a program which is too large, and kind of then gets watered down so we can’t stay close to the filmmakers, who then don’t have a real chance to get to know one another, which they still do at Slamdance, which I think is very important. It’s not just about distribution, it’s about a community and I think that’s been a very important aspect of this festival. I think by keeping it relatively small we’ve been able to further create that community over the years, and at the same time it’s provided for opportunities that we’ve taken and now developed into other elements of the festival, which have naturally led to a commercial enterprise.
MM: How do you see Slamdance continuing to change in the future?
PB: I see them being strengthened, and I think that what’s been very important is that we’ve focused on trying to do a few things well rather than a lot of different events during the course of the year. What I’d like to see right now is further strengthening of the festival. We’re always looking to improve spaces in Park City and to improve the screening experience. That has been a challenge for us partly because Sundance was in there first, and they have access to the larger theaters that were already established and in place. Slamdance on the other hand has to come in and set those up, and that’s been very difficult. When I talk about strengthening, it’s the goal of Slamdance to try and find venues like that, which make everything easier and a better screening experience. On the other hand, don’t forget there is a certain virtue in preparing something from a grassroots perspective and something that is fresh and unique each year, that’s enjoyable and I think that’s an important part of what we do. There’s room for improvement in this area and that’s something we’re working on right now.
And the other thing to is that we’re in the final stage of deciding the new director here, in the next few weeks. So obviously another goal is to make sure that the new director comes into a position of strength, and the person that we’re going to choose hopefully then will be able to have her or his own way of improving things, and we’re looking forward to that happening as well.
MM: This year Slamdance was really the main alternative festival in Park City, how did that help and hurt your festival?
PB: Well I’m not sure whether help is the right word. I think in the end, more people spent more time at Slamdance because we were that alternative, but I think that the hurt is the fact that its good to have the other festival events in town, because they do things differently than we do. It was particularly disappointing not to see Nodance on Main Street because of their focus on digital filmmaking. The great thing about what Nodance is doing is that it did have platform; we know as part of the independent film community, there will be a lot more digital filmmaking, we’re going to see a lot more digital exhibition. I think it hurt the community in part that Nodance wasn’t there, because of its focus. I personally take the view that it’s important to see other events in Park City.
MM: The festival has always maintained a very independent, guerilla moviemaking mindset. Has the model Slamdance filmmaker changed over the years? Or is he/she similar to what you looked for from the start?
PB: I think it’s similar. I think a lot of people have gotten excited about digital cinema, but the fact is it’s just a means to an end—it does not mean that you’re going to make a greater film necessarily just because you’re using that technology and the equipment that goes along with it. It’s all about how you use it creatively. So I think from Slamdance’s perspective, it’s anything the filmmaker decides he needs to make, in whatever format, and if the programmers like it, that’s it. There is no fashion in that sense, or a desire to follow any industry or technology trends, it really is about the film that’s being made.
MM: The screenplay competition has always been one of the festival’s hallmarks, too. How have you seen this part of the festival change over the decade—both in terms of content and number of submissions?
PB: Yes, it has, and it’s largely changed because of the work that its leader, John Stoddard, is putting into it right now. What we’ve done now on a year round basis is to work with writers who finished into the top category of the competition in organizing readings for them here in Los Angeles, and also trying to put them in touch with agents and managers. There’s been a great push to continue the effort after the screenplay competition is finished, and John has done a tremendous job organizing that. The other thing that we now offer is feedback on screenplays, and we send the coverage to the writers. It’s such a simple concept, but we know how much that is appreciated—it’s a very important service for filmmakers, but takes a lot of organization. This year we’ve just received I think 1,800 screenplays for our competition deadline.
MM: For your 2004 event, Slamdance received more than 2,600 submissions from all over the world. How has this number increased from when you first began?
PB: The film submissions have steadily increased, but what we’ve found out the last couple of years is that the increases have slowed down. Obviously the increase of digital and video submissions have increased dramatically—I think we’re now way over 50 percent of submission now come in on some kind of digital video format. But I think what’s happened is that in ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, when the press really got on the bandwagon of independent film, and created this sort of great fervor amongst potential filmmakers to pick up a camera. I think that type of approach to filmmaking now is dropped off, I think you’ve got more serious people now involved in the long haul of filmmaking, rather than trying to make a film, see if it works, and go from there. So I think it’s kind of weeded out the serious filmmakers who are looking at this truly as a career rather than something that has been energized by the media.
MM: I think one of the problems is that many people seem to feel—erroneously—that festival exhibition is not the best way to distribution nowadays—theatrical or otherwise—yet Slamdance continues to see its filmmakers being picked up every year. How do you see the distribution business changing, and how can festivals like yours—and filmmakers—keep up with these changes?
PB: I think exhibition distribution is changing, and I think what’s really exciting for us right now is that it seems that the companies that we’ve approached have been open, and they’re giving us room to show our films. It’s interesting to see filmmakers get a taste of how difficult it is to find distribution for their film, but filmmakers would do well to study how competitive it is for some of these ancillary distributors, how they’re working right now and what they have to do to get products out in the marketplace. That is right now an amazingly competitive marketplace, so as a filmmaker to try and work something out with a bigger distributor, you’ve got to have a core audience for your film already in place, and if you don’t, you need a distributor to create one if it’s not obvious.
What really is fascinating is that some filmmakers today take the view, “I’m gonna do it myself, I’m going to set up a website, I’m going to get us
fulfillment house, and I’m going sell my own DVD, and that’s going to be it.” And there are a number of success stories now like that which are working really well for the independent filmmaker. And good luck to them, all the best, we know it takes a tremendous amount of work.
MM: What are some of the films/who are some of the filmmakers that found success in 2004 (and before)?
PB: It’s been a good year all around for documentary filmmakers, and at Slamdance the first film to be picked up at the festival this year was a documentary—that was Bruce Haack: King of Techno. Another film that has been picked up is Arakimentari by Travis Klose, which tells the story of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. And then in years previously its been about helping to discover filmmakers and give them a platform which they might otherwise not have had. For instance with Marc Forster and with Chris Nolan and the Russo Brothers, their first films helped get them to the next stage, helped get their next films made, and we know speaking with them, that this was a long time coming.
MM: What’s the best advice you have for filmmakers looking to screen at Slamdance?
PB: I guess there are two schools of thought in filmmaking. Some people have an eye on how well it’s going to work in the marketplace, and who the audience is. And then there’s the true independent approach of “look, I believe in this film, I’m going to make this film the way that I want to make it, or in the way that this group of people want to make it,” and that remains the most exciting type of filmmaking. As you find success, you may not have the opportunity in the future to have all that creative freedom that you had with your first feature. That’s the exciting thing about independent film, and the best way to make it is for the least possible money, and to use that as part of the creative process. That, to me, is still the most exciting route to take.