Indie Cinema Forces: Festival Explosion

No single festival can accommodate the indie explosion. In 1985, about 50 independent films were made in the U.S.; in 1998, the number is estimated to be over 1,000. Sundance is the mecca for indies, but, inevitably, many directors aren't invited to the “holy land.” The competition is so tight that decent films are bound to be rejected. On 1995's snub list were: John Fitzgerald's Self Portrait, Shane Kuhn's Redneck, and Dan Mirvish's Omaha: The Movie. When Sundance failed to show interest in their low-budget features, instead of taking no for an answer, they created their own festival.


Slamdance, the first guerrilla festival, was born in January 1995, audaciously running head to head with Sundance. The 12 films screened were made for a combined total of less than $1 million. The organizers rented theaters around the University of Utah and made sure that producers and agents who couldn't get into the sold-out Sundance screenings come to their free showings.

In three years, Slamdance, which began as a renegade, ragamuffin festival, has gained respect for its resourcefulness–and chutzpa. In an era when critics fear Sundance might go too mainstream, Slamdance appeared as a reminder that the indie spirit is still alive. Based on a deepening alliance with former Sundance darling Steven Soderbergh (whose Schizopolis screened at Slamdance), they doubled their budget to $125,000, bought new projectors, and refitted screening rooms. In the first year, distributor presence was thin–the general attitude was “send me a tape”–but in the third year, their visibility increased.

The formerly poverty-stricken festival now boasts sponsorships (in cash and equipment) from Dolby, Thrifty Car Rental, and some that support Sundance, like Panavision, Fotokem. It also created a Web site, which includes a virtual marketplace from Slamdance paraphernalia to clips from competition films. Among the 10 premieres in 1997 were Stefani Ames' A Gun, a Car, a Blonde, starring Billy Bob Thornton; Anthony and Joe Russo's Pieces; Joelle Bentolila's The Maze; and Alexander Kane's The Gauguin Museum.

Slamdance came into its own in 1998 with a strong lineup of features, sell-out crowds and more attention from the industry. Surrender Dorothy, a hard-edged saga about a bisexual drug-addict, was the grand jury prize winner. The audience award was given to 20 Dates, a comedy about making a first feature, and the documentary award went to Goreville, U.S.A., about an Illinois town in which locals are required by law to own firearms.

Slamdance was conceived in protest against Sundance, the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval for indies.” Created by frustrated filmmakers, the gathering was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the bigger festival. But Slamdance is more of a complement than a rival to Sundance. Maureen Crowe, vice president at Arista, thinks the venerable organization and the scrappy newcomer work in tandem. “Sundance has become a little bit Park Avenue, or Top 40 to use a music term,” she said. “Slamdance is a little bit more raw in spirit–more `street.' You can't go straight to Top 40 without getting the street credibility. It's not a second choice; it's a necessary step.”
Having grown up, Slamdance buoyed by both corporate sponsors and a record 1,300 entries for the 31 competition slots. It serves a vital purpose that Sundance can't accomplish alone: showcasing limited-budget films. “They started out not even in Park City, with three or four kids in tennis sneakers handing out fliers. Now Slamdance has become an important festival unto itself,” said producer rep Jonathan Dana.

The festival has had some successes. The 1997 Jury Prize winner, The Bible and Gun Club–Daniel Harris' comedy about five Orange County Bible salesmen in Las Vegas for their annual convention, received 3 nominations for the Spirit Awards, the Oscars of the indie world. And Greg Mottola's Daytrippers, which premiered at Slamdance in 1996 after being rejected by Sundance, went on to Cannes. Released by CFP, the well-received film grossed more than $2 million.

Unknown artists are Slamdance's major draw, as festival director Baxter stresses, “We're about first-time filmmakers, undiscovered talent.” Rejected by Sundance, screenwriter Myles Berkowitz (20 Dates) was grateful to compete at Slamdance. “Sundance has changed the film world for the better. They created an independent market. But the movies in Sundance now I could not direct and star in,” he said, pointing to films with name actors and sizable budgets. For Berkowitz, Slamdance fills a gap that needed to be filled for first-time filmmakers. However, asked if he wants to be a part of Sundance in the future Berkowitz is quick to respond, “Absolutely!”

For Christian Gore, who publishes the weekly
e-mail Film Threat, Slamdance is less affiliated with the “corporate” indies. “I don't consider Miramax an independent film company. They're funded by Disney and are a studio. The opening film at Sundance, Sliding Doors, had a budget of about $11 million and is being distributed by Miramax and Paramount. For Gore, most of what's called independents now are basically “low-budget studio pictures.” About half of the 103 features at Sundance in 1998 were “truly” independent, i.e. funded and made independently. But Slamdance screens such films exclusively. Besides, Slamdance offers a mellower scene. Many of the Sundance isms–the cell phones, the beepers, the Armani-suits–are looked down upon at Slamdance, which caters to “the coffeehouse crowd.”

But with over 1,000 submissions a year, the organizers found themselves in the same position that triggered Slamdance in the first place–forced to reject decent low-budget films. Hence in 1997, yet another guerrilla festival, Slumdance, came into being. Which proves the point that as soon as a festival becomes too established, a new, more audacious venue would emerge to fill the gap created at the bottom.