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Slamdance Festival: Proud to Be Park City Disrupters

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Nick Clement
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The 23rd annual Slamdance Film Festival kicks off Jan. 20 and runs through Jan. 26 in Park City, with a new crop of rising filmmakers ready to present fresh and energizing work. Created in 1995 by Dan Mirvish, Jon Fitzgerald, Shane Kuhn, and Peter Baxter, Slamdance continues to be a hotbed for new cinematic talent living on the edges of the independent and studio landscape.

“We love disruption of the creative variety,” Baxter says. “We don’t have one particular direction and there’s no hierarchy here. We’re looking for films that defy description, that showcase brave filmmaking, with artists looking ahead to new forms of media and art.”

Throughout the years the festival has grown considerably. There’s a screenplay competition, Slamdance Studios, and Slamdance on the Road, which acts as a mobile theatrical showcase for Slamdance titles. And to hear it from Baxter, it’s an evolutionary process of selecting exciting and challenging worldwide cinema.

“Slamdance is for the filmmakers, and by the filmmakers,” Baxter says. “This year we received close to 10,000 submissions, with 2,500 of those being screenplays, which we’ve seen a huge increase in over the last few years.

“The selection process is very important, as we don’t send out any invites. All of our films are selected from the submissions we receive, and our entire program is built on that foundation. It can be a messy affair, but our process requires that everyone has an equal vote.”

This year’s narrative crop includes “Aerotropolis,” from Taiwanese filmmaker Jheng-Neng Li; the Chinese-Australian co-production “The Family,” from writer-director Shumin Liu; and Bill Watterson’s “Dave Made a Maze,” which has breakout potential due to its quirky premise.

“Honestly, I was shocked and relieved,” says Watterson about his reaction to his film’s selection. “It is, of course, no small feat, and I was intensely proud of my team and thrilled that someone saw the value in what we are doing. We’ve loved the movie for ages, so it’s a long-delayed joy to finally be able to share it.”

Slamdance has a long history of championing first-time filmmakers, with festival veterans including Christopher Nolan, Lena Dunham, Marc Forster, Jared Hess, Oren Peli, Benh Zeitlin, Seth Gordon, and Lynn Shelton solidifying the festival’s reputation as a cornerstone for dynamic storytellers.

“I will be forever grateful that my career as a feature filmmaker dawned at Slamdance,” says Shelton, who has moved back and forth between features and television, with credits including “Laggies,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” and ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

“They debuted and bestowed honors upon my first feature film, ‘We Go Way Back,’ and I felt appreciated and celebrated as a director in a way that I don’t know I would have at a larger festival. My experience there was wholly inspiring and sublime.”

Documentary titles include Scott Drucker and Yu Gu’s “Who Is Arthur Chu,” which looks at the life of a famous “Jeopardy” contestant; the potentially controversial offering from Austria, “The Children Send Their Regards,” which focuses on abuses within the church; and Jessie Auritt’s “Supergirl,” which combines religion, humor, and sport into something truly fascinating.

Running alongside the festival is the Slamdance’s Polytechnic program, which operates as an all-inclusive learning environment that encourages fresh ideas and creative methods in DIY filmmaking. Designed as a series of open-environment educational workshops, the program draws upon festival alumni and sponsors who help to organize and educate.

“Our goal is to support media and film production, with the idea being that it would be free and open to the public,” Baxter says. “We started this seminar as a way of getting filmmakers to experience the things that they were saying they weren’t experiencing out in the real world, like production experiences and personal experiences. So we created a workshop that we could share with film schools across the country and it’s become core curriculum.”

And when it comes to the films themselves, Baxter is optimistic but a realist. “We don’t play the distribution game. We’re not looking for movies that can sell. We’re looking for great art. We’re looking for bold and emerging talent who have something new to say. Slamdance helps in more than just distribution, as filmmakers show their films, and have the chance to meet managers and agents, and yes, sometimes distribution deals are born out of this. Last year was one of the most successful and meaningful years for films being acquired out of Slamdance. We have a rich history and we’re looking forward to everything that comes our way.”

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