Park City, UT
16th Slamdance Film Festival January 21-28, 2010
As promised, this festival has a bias alert attached. I moved to Los Angeles from Seattle in fall of 2004 to become the Festival Director at Slamdance Film Festival. I left the festival six months later, just a month after the 11th edition. It wasnÕt a pretty departure.
IÕd always been a fan of the festival, from the very first days when I was in Park City for MovieMaker Magazine and Dan Mirvish and the boys were screening in the hallway rooms at the Prospector Square Inn (alongside the line of people waiting to try to get into the Sundance screenings). It was a brilliant start to what I always thought could be a terrific film festival, given the tools to grow.
Slamdance is headquartered at the Treasure Mountain Inn (www.treasuremountaininn.com ) at the top of Main Street. ItÕs been a perfect location for the festival, and as the TMI has grown over the years, itÕs provided Slamdance with a high profile home on prime real estate.
One of the great advantages to being at Slamdance was the close proximity to the industry attending the Òother festivalÓ. However, as Sundance inches off Main Street and moves its festival center back to the Marriot in Prospector Square, the crowds near TMI and Slamdance have diminished. The festival still remains a great place to screen, and indeed many well known filmmakers screened their early films there (Stephen Soderbergh, the Russo Brothers, Chris Nolan). But now, for filmmakers more actively involved in the whole life cycle of their film, thereÕs a little more work to do.
One of the Slamdance traditions is a disdain for anything that smacks of professional programming. They prefer the curatorial duties to be performed in a presumably more egalitarian manner by Slamdance alumni filmmakers. While on the face of it this is a fantastically democratic method of choosing films, the year I was there I saw politics, ego, and indifference doom many a film. Slamdance recently changed programming directors, a move which may offset the former issues, but filmmakers are still strongly reminded not to take a rejection from Slamdance as personal or a reflection of their film in any way.
In 2004 I programmed Mad Hat Ballroom after a call from Micha Green (then at Cinetic) who alerted me the film was suddenly (and to the filmmakers, surprisingly) available as it had not been programmed by Sundance. When Micha called, we had one slot left—Opening Night. I remember asking him point blank, as we roared down the mountain from Park City to try to catch the last flight out of SLC for LA, if the film had Opening Night potential. He assured me it did, and he wasnÕt wrong.
Mad Hot Ballroom was the first time anyone at Slamdance had been involved in a bidding war for a film. I was the only one who had any experience with the feeding frenzy of a hot festival film. By the time the night was done, David Dinerstein and Paramount Classics had acquired a hit.
In the years that followed, Slamdance honestly claimed a number of hit films and filmmakers including King of Kong and Writer/Director Lynn SheltonÕs My Effortless Brilliance (LynnÕs third film, Humpday, would play at the 2009 Sundance Festival and be picked up for theatrical distribution).
But what does this mean for filmmakers at the 2010 edition?
Since the infrastructure of Slamdance is run entirely on underpaid staff and non-paid volunteers, and since the festival will have a new festival producer this year (the truly brilliant Drea Clark, who replaced me at the 2006 festival, has stepped down), filmmakers will be well served to be very proactive regarding their experience (something the festival recommends anyway).
The festivalÕs press office is superbly run by Nubia Flores and her team, so while filmmakers should make their own outreach to press they will, at the very least, be well supported by the festival.
Program scheduling is rarely done strategically, so filmmakers need to be insistent if they want priority time slots. Awards are often influenced by staff, so filmmakers who need to win awards should consider hanging around the TMI and buying a round or two of beers. And the all-important industry crowd isnÕt just going to wander up to the TMI on their own anymore. Buy yourself some tickets and get to the people you want to see the film.
A special shout-out needs to be made for the most devoted of the Slamdance team: The projectionists. Skizz Cyzyk and Gabe Wardell in particular have never let a film down, and quietly, unassumingly make the festival look as good as it does. If youÕre going to buy a beer for anyone, buy it for these guys.
In 2009, Slamdance was hit by the same economic downturn as everyone else. Attendance in Park City in general was down by 40%; how much of this affected Slamdance is hard to say. What we did notice is that the big teams of acquisitions executives just didnÕt come to Park City last year. Instead of junior-junior execs watching the smaller films and reporting to their bosses on the gems they just had to see, only the bosses themselves came and their viewing list was limited to the films with pre-festival hype and buzz (another reason filmmakers need a publicist, especially at Slamdance).
I had the distinct pleasure of working with Director Lee Storey on the 2009 Slamdance film, Smile Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story (www.smiletilithurts.com ). A fearless filmmaker, Lee made her experience at Slamdance work for her throughout Park City, blurring the lines between the two festivals as she promoted Smile Til It Hurts at every venue she could find. Lee didnÕt win an award at Slamdance (she was too busy promoting her film to buy those rounds of beer) but I can tell you how well her awareness campaign worked: Everyone in the business knows about the film and most have made a point to see it.
Slamdance truly is a festival experience that is what you make it.