More than just about any existing film festival, Slamdance was started with an eye toward inclusion. In the case of the Park City festival, which was founded as a more freewheeling alternative to Sundance back in 1995, that sense of inclusion largely pertained to the filmmakers themselves: first-timers, experimentalists and enterprising directors without much in the way of resources to have their films shown in a proper theatrical environment. For Slamdance’s president and co-founder Peter Baxter, however, the ongoing pandemic provided an opportunity to consider how its open-door policy ought to work both ways.
“Independent film should be seen as inclusive, but in a lot of ways it’s been very exclusive,” Baxter says. “You look at film festivals, you look at Park City — you’re in a privileged situation if you’re able to go to Park City and experience Sundance and Slamdance. The travel, accommodations, time away from work and family — that’s a very privileged environment. And we feel that it should be made to be more inclusive.”
For its 27th edition, which runs Feb. 12-25, Slamdance has endeavored to make its film slate as widely available as possible: an all-festival pass to stream every film, panel and Q&A runs at a mere $10 — pennies compared to Sundance’s $350 all-access pass — and anyone who registered before the end of 2020 didn’t have to pay at all. Obviously, the temporary inability to stage an in-person festival has made extraordinary measures necessary, but Baxter hopes that this focus on nurturing engagement with indie cinephiles who have neither the resources nor the connections to attend in-person will continue even once the pandemic subsides. For him, it’s not just the survival of the festival model that depends on it, but independent film itself.
“What this last year showed us was an acceleration of what was already happening in the entertainment industry: that an old model was falling apart, falling away, decaying,” he says. “And I think we’re at a point right now where there is a new model that is going to emerge. And that’s an opportunity for Slamdance, because we really want to make independent film available to a wider new audience that has never experienced … not just our emerging talent, but independent film, period.”
To underline, Baxter notes that a survey on Slamdance’s YouTube channel, which programs short films year-round, found that only 20% of its online audience had ever been to a film festival before. “That really opened our eyes,” he says. In addition to the digital viewing options, the festival is also planning drive-in screenings in Southern California (pandemic circumstances permitting), as well as a drive-in opening night gala screening in Joshua Tree.
As for the contents of this year’s edition, Slamdance has bucked the prevailing trend in COVID-era festival programming for slimmed-down lineups, scheduling 132 films (including feature-lengths and shorts), up markedly from last year’s haul of 109. And as usual, a glance through the festival’s program reveals a slate that’s difficult to tidily sum up, encompassing everything from experimental projects to genre films, idiosyncratic indie fare and documentaries about the most unexpected of subjects. Opening night film “No Trace” (“Nulle Trace”), from Canadian writer-director Simon Lavoie, tackles issues of immigration and human smuggling within a speculative fiction premise. Closing the fest is Stephen DeBro’s documentary “18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story,” which delves into the history of L.A.’s famed fight palace/Bukowski haunt/pro wrestling landmark/punk concert venue-turned-Korean megachurch.
Other programming of note includes Malia Scharf and Max Bausch’s “Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide,” a doc about the famed graffiti artist; Shannon Kring’s docu “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock”; Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers’ social-media thriller “A Brixton Tale”; DJ-filmmaker Keff’s narrative feature “Taipei Suicide Story”; Jason Polevoi’s doc portrait of Chicago community activism, “A Tiny Ripple of Hope”; and Alberto Gerosa’s “Dea,” a feature whose script was developed through an improv workshop with Indonesian women migrant workers in Hong Kong.
The shorts program features a unique new section this year, focused on empowering one of filmmaking’s most consistently ignored and marginalized groups. Dubbed Unstoppable, the section will spotlight 22 shorts that are either directed by, star or focus on the concerns of members of the disabled community.
“It really started with a letter from Juliet Romeo, a filmmaker who has sickle cell,” Baxter says of Unstoppable. “She wanted Slamdance to join her in putting on a panel about creatives with disabilities. And so when we got this letter, we saw an opportunity, because here’s a filmmaker, and we’re an artist-driven network. So we thought, let’s do more than that, let’s start a whole program.”
Baxter asked Romeo to come on as a programmer, as well as reached out to festival alumni with disabilities including “Huntington’s Dance” director Chris Furbee, “Ramy” actor Steve Way and “Roll With Me” producer-subject Gabriel Cordell to build the new section. “That was very important to us to have a team of programmers who not only have a disability themselves, but who, through lived experience, we thought could better understand what types of films to encourage,” Baxter says.
“There’s clear under-representation of creators with disabilities in the movie industry, we all understand that. But another opportunity here is just to see stories that we otherwise wouldn’t see, and to support storytelling that we haven’t seen before. That’s what Slamdance is really all about, the discovery of new storytellers and their own, unique stories. That’s always what we want to celebrate.”
Of course, there’s always the matter of getting Slamdance’s films in front the buyers and execs who can do their own part to spread the word about emerging talent. Considering the intentional lack of star power or name directors, the festival can boast quite a track record for discovery. In addition to the likes of Christopher Nolan, the Russo brothers, Lena Dunham and Sean Baker — all of whom got their starts at the fest — more recent success stories include last year’s Slamdance premiere “Residue,” picked up by Ava DuVernay’s Array for a Netflix release, and “Day Shift,” the in-production Jaime Foxx-starrer which sprang from screenwriter Tyler Tice’s prize from the fest’s screenplay competition.
This year will see the return of the screenplay contest, as well as the Russo-affiliated ABGO fellowship, which awards a $25,000 filmmaker grant. But 2021 does present an unusual challenge for the fest: without the concurrence of Slamdance and Sundance making Park City a concentrated incubator for deals, the festival will have its work cut out to make sure that its class of newcomers gets the same industry attention as in previous years.
“We have thought about that,” Baxter says, pointing to the press portal that the festival set up for press and industry to preview its program weeks in advance. “And from the industry point of view, we’re created a directory of industry members and distributors who have signed up and are passholders, and we’re keeping in touch with them specifically in support of our filmmakers.”
But whatever the obvious hurdles of staging a virtual festival might be, much less one whose focus is a segment of filmmaking that is in particular danger of being squeezed by the economic fallout from the pandemic, Baxter retains a sense of optimism. “[My philosophy] this year could just be summed up as, ‘Get on with it,’” he says. “If you have your health, and a community of filmmakers behind you, why wouldn’t you press firmer on with what you do? And that’s what we’ve been able to do. Fortune has played its part, but so has the desire to reevaluate how we see independent film. We really wanted to step up to that challenge, for our future.”