In preparation for my first visit to Park City, Utah next week I was able to sit
down for a conference call with three veteran players of the Slamdance Film Festival. Co-founder Peter Baxter has been heavily involved with the development of the festival
since its inception in 1995, while programmers Josh Mandel and Drea Clark first
came to Slamdance as filmmakers with films playing in competition. There is
your first clue as to what makes Slamdance so unique. Slamdance is truly a
festival by filmmakers for filmmakers; one that utilizes a potent blend of
anarchy and democracy to create a world class film showcase. And that's just
the tip of the iceberg. So sit back, get comfy and let's dig into the story of
ScreenAnarchy: First off, thanks
everyone for taking some time out of the day for doing this. I'm quite excited
about it because this is the first time I've ever interviewed programmers. I'd
like to hear the story of Slamdance, and I'd especially like to highlight the
life of a programmer at the festival.
Peter Baxter: So it's 1995 and I was with a group
of filmmakers and none of us got our films into Sundance. We decided we'd
crash Park City. Slamdance anarchy in Utah. We really didn't have much of
a clue as how to put on a film festival, but we did have one another. We didn't
really have a budget, but we did have imagination. We wanted to set for
ourselves a launching pad for our careers. It was then quite clear that this
just wasn't for us, it was for all kinds of filmmakers and we had to continue. So that's what we did and we've been together
Drea Clark: I've programmed at other festivals as
well, and Slamdance is incredibly unique in how we program. All of our
programmers are filmmakers - active filmmakers. The majority of the team this
year are working on projects that are in development or are even in post on
things. We do everything as a committee. We don't have a director of
programming, which most festivals, if not all festivals have. No voice counts
more than another, and we choose everything all at once. We watch all of the
films that rise to the top and then compare them all together at the very end. With
the numerous festivals I have worked at, Slamdance is the only one I know that
does it this way. And we don't invite people to submit. It is all from blind
submissions. All of our films in competition are from first time directors and
must be under a million dollars in budget
I am always fascinated and pleased that we're so true to our original
plans of how we find films and filmmakers. If people really knew
the machinations that went on behind the scenes, of how programming works, I
would be even more encouraged about how we do it. It is a very optimistic
PB: There is no hierarchy. There is no nepotism. Nothing like that.
Together we make the Slamdance program, and that's what we've done for 2013 as
This year I noticed three
German films on the narrative competition slate [KOHLHAAS, VISITORS and THE COURT OF SHARDS]. I'm pretty excited about this since
I've recently been binging on contemporary German Cinema (the Berlin School and
all). How does something like that occur in the process you've been describing
with everyone coming together and gathering films?
DC: I think that's such a perfect example of how
organic our process is. At any other film festival, those films would be put up
against each other: "We're gonna have a German film, we're gonna have a
We go: "What are we responding to based on material... Are there
too many films competing? Are there too many films about teenagers? Are
there too many films about people falling in love in an urban setting?"
Now we like a wide range of things, but we also would never limit in the way
that festivals that are sort of more rigidly programmed would do. Our questions
is: "What are we responding to and loving?"
At the first meeting we had like six or seven films from Germany, right
Josh Mandel: Yeah, and every single one of those
films was different from each other. We kind of thought, "Well something
really interesting is going on in Germany right now, from this sort of even
newer wave of filmmakers." And what's also interesting is that a year ago,
three of our ten competition films were from Canada. So it's kind of the same
thing where we're like, "what's going on this year?" Next year it may
be Argentina or who knows... it is completely contingent on the
submissions we get each year, which is great because it is not about saying
"we need one film like this or one film like that." It's really about
what is out there in the landscape this year, what's going on right now with
filmmaking and us responding to it.
PB: I think there is a root here actually about
how Slamdance came about. This whole sense of do-it-yourself... that's what
we're still about; this sort-of grassroots film community that we've developed.
I think that if you look back at '95 in America, then you're beginning to see
filmmakers gather what they could, borrowing money on credit cards, and making
their own films in their own way. In Germany, and in other parts of Europe and
in Asia, that was kind of impossible to do because of the systems they have in
place. But as technology has really advanced, the cost reductions on cameras,
post production software especially these days involving coloring, even sound
equipment... all of this new technology has really afforded filmmakers around
the world to now do-it-yourself. And so I think they've been able to embrace
that sort of Slamdance spirit in places like Germany, and in England. The
filmmakers there have really grasped that, and so as Drea and Josh were saying,
I think that is why we're seeing so many great quality films coming out of
places like Germany.
It really feels like there's a
great level of empathy at work here. It sounds like you're all wanting to
create a home base for these filmmakers in some way; an international home base
if they need it. So, Josh, you're now heading up this new Beyond program. Did
that idea grow out of wanting to mature the festival with its alumni filmmakers
JM: A little bit. It's funny 'cause this new
section Beyond has been a long time coming. Over the last eighteen years the
festival has developed a really great reputation for being a festival of
discovery for first time filmmakers, or as we often say, emerging
filmmakers. And you know, we're not really looking for necessarily commercial
films to sell in the marketplace quick and easy... but at the same time, many
of our films do end up serving a real niche audience, and getting out there and
being successful. But ultimately every film at Slamdance is a film that is
directed by a really interesting director. Over the festival's history we've
had these very hard-set rules about making sure that all our films in
competition be by first time directors. While that's led us to discovering many
of the most interesting filmmakers working today, every year we've had to turn
away films that were no less deserving, no less memorable, no less
interesting. These were disqualified on a technicality. So we saw these films
slipping through the cracks, not being picked up by other festivals. We felt
like the idea of new and emerging filmmakers can expand beyond a technicality
of just first-time filmmakers. Quite often it's in the second feature or the
third feature that the filmmaker really explodes onto the independent film
scene. And it is with that film that they change the landscape and then grow
into the next great wave of filmmakers, finding financial and artistic success.
JM: Hence, Beyond. So I like to look at all
Slamdance filmmakers as emerging filmmakers.
Now we have emerging filmmakers that are truly first-time directors and
emerging filmmakers that may be on their second or third feature, but are still
on the verge of really breaking out.
Would one of you, or all three
of you if you like, if you can find a way to trapeze back and forth, give me a
portrait of what it's been like, day in day out, over the last couple of weeks
building up to the festival?
PB: What we do to help get things underway is meet
soon after the previous festival and check in on what went well in programming
and things that didn't go well. And we're trying to do this all together. So
once we've got those checks and balances organized, we invite all the
programmers, some of whom come from the last festival, to be a part of that. At
that point, six months or more out, we have 70-80 people working on all of
this. So we have our shorts programming team, we have our narrative features
team, and then we have our documentary team, and then we have what we used to
call Special Screenings, but as we discussed just now, we have developed into
Beyond. So these are the groups. And then the filmmakers will start submitting
their work. And it's a good amount of money these days to submit to a film
festival, so we want to make sure that we say to these filmmakers that their
movie will get watched at least twice before it goes on into another round or
it won't go on. We want to give that film a really fair chance, wherever they
come from in the world, no matter who they know, it doesn't matter.
DC: When we're in the thick of programming, we
like to be very transparent in general. We've spoken about this to the
filmmaking community before. I think a lot of filmmakers are really
apprehensive about the screening process. It can be such a leap of faith to
send something in and it's very easy to feel that nepotism is at play. For us
as programmers, there's a steady stream of films we're watching. Depending on where
you are viewing, you could be watching ten to twenty films a week. One of the
things that I certainly do (and really encourage my team to do), is no matter
where we are in the stage of selection, every DVD you put in you really want it
to be a good film. If you're a programmer and you're watching things, and
you're on your fourth movie of the day, and you're tired, if you are someone
that's going to play that DVD in the hopes that it's not good, that you don't
have to evaluate it as heavily... then you're in the wrong game. You should put
everything in hoping that it's going to blow your mind. You should be really
excited about what that film can give you. That does take a lot of energy.
JM: We watch so many movies, and that's all you're
doing. It's like literally all you're doing. I mean, I don't get to watch any
other movies outside of Slamdance submissions for months at a time. It can be
exhausting. But what keeps us going is that promise, that potential of
discovery, of finding those next great filmmakers, and that is something that
is really exciting. You know it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work
and it really can be a grueling experience, but what keeps us really going, and
excited about it, is just knowing that we're there with our finger on the pulse
for the next great wave of filmmakers. Every time I meet filmmakers on the
festival circuit, or anywhere, and you know they think if they submit their film
at the beginning of the deadline process, then there's this notion that their
film isn't good. But no, submit whenever your film is done, because great films
are made all year-round. Great films are submitted at any time of the year, and
there's really no method to the way programmers look for films at Slamdance.
Maybe at other festivals where they have to invite films, those films that came
in earlier have a little bit better chance of being picked earlier, but that's
not how it is at Slamdance. We really level the playing field for all
filmmakers out there.
DC: And then on top of that, you're not just
watching, but also researching because we don't know these filmmakers. As
we stated, we compile the entirety of the competition films from these blind
submissions. So we're looking... "Is it truly a first-time director? Are
they under a million dollar budget? What kind of presence do they have online?
Are they someone that could really embrace Slamdance?" Anything that we
can find. I often do extra work, like grouping and organizing, so that when we
get to the discussion phase, everyone in the room has as much information about
all of the films as possible. And you never get to talk about the films enough.
I know Josh and I constantly run into each other in the office, or even if
you're just trading off films you're always desperate to share. Like: "I
saw the craziest thing," or "I saw the most interesting movie!"
And so it's a communal experience. It should be. I never share as much as I
want to while we're going through that.
So to focus that into a life
of a film, going through that process... I figure a good example for that is
the film that, in a way, introduced me to Slamdance: Mark Jackson's WITHOUT
DC: That one was actually pretty interesting. At
the end of the day, it is a subjective process and we're all acutely aware of
that. So two different people will be seeing every film, largely to bring their
very different perspectives to that. So that's one safe guard. The second safe
guard is going into our meetings, bringing the films that have averaged high
scores out of their two viewings, and also the programmers in the room are
invited to bring a top ten list, or a list of favorites. And that's to help
those films that might have been pretty polarized, that may have been
discredited for averages. So there's passion behind it if it's on somebody's
top list. Without
is a film that
came in sort of late in the day because it hadn't been seen by the two people
yet, and then Josh saw it.
was a movie that I saw in the final week of deliberations. We're already
starting to think about our favorite films that are rising to the top. And so I
saw this movie, and it just completely blew me away. And I thought, had I seen
this movie a month earlier, this would have been my favorite film. This would
have been at the top of my top films lists and we'd be discussing this earlier
on in our deliberations. I made sure everyone got their hands on it and really
pushed it along - and it got through. Other people agreed. And it's funny
because I'm pretty sure there has been at least one film over the last couple
of years that has come in under the wire, at the very end, and got in the
competition, and ended up becoming one of the best films at the festival. A
film that people just loved, and it's like... to even think about the
possibility that any one of those films would not have been seen by that one
programmer at that right time... it gives me heart palpitations to think that
it would have slipped through the cracks.
DC: I think it is such a testament to that
optimism we've been speaking about. You're looking for things 'til the very,
very end. Rooting for them. If we talk about watching something in the last
week, it is much easier to dismiss things then, you already know that you have
a pocket of good films to choose from. I am so encouraged by how the
programmers are really in it for the right reasons, and they're looking out for
what's best in our line-up; for the filmmakers we're pulling into the family.
JM: Campaigning for even one film is kind of like
campaigning for political office. Carrying something with you for months...
it's a long and grueling process to get it across the finish line. One of the
things I was really shocked by when I started programming was that I had no
idea that programmers, especially at Slamdance, can really get so behind a film
and carry it with them and fight for it as though it were their own. There's no
initial personal attachment to that film, no personal ties to the filmmakers,
the producers or actors or anyone. They're fighting for that film as if it were
their own all the way to the end. It can kind of be a devastating process
because you don't always get the film that you love all the way through. And that's just something filmmakers never really get to see, unless
they either get to know programmers or until they program at a festival
themselves, because on their side all they can see is, "Oh, I submitted to
the festival and I didn't get in and that really sucks, so screw that
festival." There's a lot more behind the scenes, especially at Slamdance
where everyone's vote is equal.
As someone who'll be coming to
the festival for the first time, it's very exciting to hear that there is this
unbridled enthusiasm and passion behind it all.
PB: It's really like an addiction. A healthy one.
And there's a fine line
between anxiety and excitement, and elation and exhaustion, isn't there?
DC: Oh, yeah.
What then, are you guys
excited about for this year?
PB: Well what I am excited about is that we're all
still talking [Everyone laughs]. We all, every single one of us, not just Josh,
Drea and myself, all the programmers really do have that burning desire to
support these emerging artists. I hope you have a really strong sense of that
right now, Ben.
I most certainly do.
PB: Every single person has that. And we're all
still together. We were at the DGA last night for a gathering. And still after
all the films the programmers have watched, they're now just getting back, or almost, to their sort-of normal lives, they're still here to lend their support, to help the
filmmakers, to help prepare for the festival. And many of them will be at the
festival this year.
JM: We're in a unique position to assist these new
filmmakers. Many of them are clueless on the way that the business works, on
the way that film festivals work, to the sheer amount of preparation that's in
store for them from the two months that their film is picked to then premiering
in Park City. Right now I am on the set for a feature film I am producing, and
all day I've been on my phone or on Facebook, messaging some of the filmmakers
I met at the DGA reception, telling them what they need to do for
representation, what they should do with their websites, just any kind of
advice they need. You know, sometimes the best films have filmmakers that are
just so green behind the ears. They
don't know what they're getting into. A lot of this stuff you don't learn in
film school and you don't learn in the real world until you're out there and have
maybe failed at least a couple times. And we're here to help make sure they can
get through that process faster, so that they don't make the same mistakes that
many of us made... so that they're not underselling these incredible works that
they've made. We have made it all very clear to them that we're here for them. We just don't pick
their films and then say "okay, you're on your own!" We want them to
Well if that's isn't the line to hear for anyone out there
that's thinking about making a movie and submitting for 2014.
DC: I think we're also able to do that because of
the way we're structured. The number of films we have is a very intentional amount.
When we talk about the growth of Slamdance, we're growing all the time. In
reach and scope and connection, rather than "we would love to expand into
50 theaters!" No, we know what a really manageable number of films is to
handle in a really personal way. For people who experience Slamdance as their
first festival, it may be building up their expectations for their festival
experience elsewhere, but it's such a strong base for them in terms of
knowledge and in terms of connection. This is incredibly intentional.
PB: To continue what we're doing, and to make
something stronger, we're also very aware that for this story to continue we're looking for the next filmmakers to help
continue it, so that it has then just as much meaning for new people. We were talking
about this last night with the community, and it really is now a very large
community. And for those filmmakers just to come in through the Slamdance
doors, and to help program the next festival, it is continuing that story.
JM: As Drea said, we grow every single year as a
festival, but it is more in terms of scope than it is in terms of size. You
could be a big fish at a smaller festival, a big fish in a little pond like
Slamdance where you can really get seen, or you could be a little fish at a
bigger festival and just get buried alive.
PB: You know what we have here in Park City are
two festivals in the same place at the same time. And certainly both have
independent film programs. You may argue that one is more independent than the
other, and certainly we programmers think that Slamdance is truer of independent
film, but I don't think anyone could argue against that by having these two
very different festivals in the same place is what makes for having a very
grand, American, indie experience. There may be more fish, but I think the way
festivals work here in the states is that they really do have a cultural
impact, and we're finding these films, and fighting for them, and helping them
get out there.