If you’re reading this, we probably don’t need to tell you that there are a lot of film festivals out there. From the big names like Cannes and Sundance to smaller, more local fests, moviemakers looking for a place to submit their masterworks and moviegoers looking for a place to possibly see the next big indie hit have an abundance of options. So what sets Los Angeles’ Dances With Films (DWF) apart? For the answer, look no further than the “defiantly independent” part of the its tagline. Kicking off its 15th year tomorrow, May 31st, DWF has always stayed true to its original mission of supporting and discovering unknown moviemakers. Unlike most other independent film festivals, you won’t see any big names on the program at DWF… and that’s just how co-founder Leslee Scallon likes it.
“We are looking for those who are willing to risk everything because they have a story to tell, a message to give, not just [for] a paycheck to pay the mortgage,” explains Scallon. To that end, DWF eschews the festival politics that often result in films being accepted more because of the presence of a recognizable actor than the quality of the film itself. Every film that gets submitted to DWF is watched by festival staff from beginning to end, and accepted films are never screened opposite one another, giving each one the benefit of festival attendees’ full attention.
Scallon took the time to chat with MovieMaker about DWF and share the inspiring story behind how Kelly Greene’s Roger Corman homage Attack of the Bat Monsters came to be the festival’s opening night film.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): There are thousands of film festivals out there—what sets Dances With Films apart? To what do you attribute the continued success of the festival?
Leslee Scallon (LS): Dances With Films stands apart because we are not about a celebrity or “name” being in the project. We, in fact, disqualify a “name” from our competition section of the festival. Since we hold the festival in Los Angeles, arguably the most celebrity-oriented city on the planet, it does make us truly independent.
Our continued success has been because we have held to the integrity we established in our first year. That we would be the place for artistic voices who might otherwise be ignored due to their lack of “star power” to be heard.
MM: DWF prides itself on how it’s stayed “defiantly independent” since its first year in 1998. Are there any ways in which the festival has evolved since then? Do you plan on any changes going forward?
LS: We will always be defiantly independent. Otherwise we would simply be part of the herd. The festival has definitely evolved, [in that as] we became better known as a “discovery” festival, more and more of the interesting, unknown films came to us.
There are always plans on changes. Otherwise it would be boring. We plan to continue our evolution to being the place for Industry to find unsigned talent. For that unsigned talent to know that when they submit they will be given a full chance to screen in one of our time slots, not one of maybe two slots that are actually available due to programmers having previously slotted films in.
MM: It seems like popular perception of what an “independent film” is has been changing in recent years—a studio-financed film with a budget in the low millions often gets the same “indie” label as the self-distributed DIY film made for a few thousand. What does “independent film” mean to you?
LS: We look at it in two ways. Yes, Dreamworks and George Lucas are independent. Independent in financing and independent in voice. However, we are looking for those who are willing to risk everything because they have a story to tell, a message to give, not just [for] a paycheck to pay the mortgage. And I think that is where most of our filmmakers come from. No disrespect to either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas intended.
MM: Are there any films or events that you’re particularly looking forward to at this year’s DWF?
LS: All of them…
However, our opening film, Attack of the Bat Monsters, is a particularly inspiring one. This is a film that we had in our competition film section in 2000. Twelve years ago. It won our big award—Grand Jury for Features. Got one of the best reviews in Variety that we had ever seen at that time. However, in a classic sense of non-self promotion, the filmmaker did not push his film aggressively. In 2010 a terrific company out of London, Watchmaker Films, heard of it via Scott Foundas, the Variety critic who now programs for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and asked our help to find [director] Kelly Greene and his film… Long story short, they found each other, and now Attack is getting a distribution deal and opening the festival with a terrific panel [that] includes Bill Krohn of Cahiers du cinéma and Mark Sikes, a casting director who has worked extensiviely with Roger Corman, [to whom] the entire film is an homage.
Dances With Films runs from May 31st to June 7th at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. For more information on the festival and its lineup, visit www.danceswithfilms.com.