Peter Baxter could have felt jealous when he opened up last year’s Sundance Film Guide to find Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” given special pride of place in the screening program.
And Baxter could have torn out his hair to learn the news, weeks later, that Zeitlin’s film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film, and also the Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or prize.
But the cool, collected Englishman and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival did neither. Baxter instead basked in the quiet, but little-known fact that Zeitlin, now an Academy Award nominee, cut his film festival teeth at the 2005 Slamdance with “Egg,” a surrealist short inspired by Moby-Dick.
In fact, Baxter delights in running off a list of well-known directors who count themselves among the aspiring film talents who once walked through Slamdance’s festival doors and onto bigger projects. Among them: Oren Peli, the prodigy behind “Paranormal Activity”; “Batman” and “Memento” director Christopher Nolan; and Utah’s Jared Hess, the creator of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
When Slamdance first pitched its tent next to the Sundance calendar in 1995, industry elites from both coasts sniffed their noses in curiosity — or, worse, derision. Today, just one year shy of Slamdance’s 20th year, that curiosity has grown into a robust sense of name recognition among filmmakers. With its programming selection process driven solely by filmmakers from the previous year’s festival, Slamdance remains proud of its “By Filmmakers For Filmmakers” marketing mantra.
“It’s never been about offering up competition to Sundance,” Baxter said by phone from Los Angeles. “It’s just that when you put both festivals side by side, you have a greater American film festival experience.”
This year’s festival showcases two new features, a Special Screenings Program featuring the work of global filmmakers and the launch of a Slam Collective. The latter boasts seven Slamdance directors, from five continents, who will direct a collective short titled “I Want to Be an American.” Inspired by the parlor-game method of picking up where the past participant left off, each filmmaker will contribute a documentary segment inspired by the one previous.
The festival itself offers 70 film works culled from more than 5,000 submissions, and the competition for a foot in the Slamdance door grows more fierce with every year. This year’s offerings include “Between Us,” a dramatic feature by festival co-founder Dan Mirvish, already the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Bahamas International Film Festival; “My Name Is Faith,” a documentary about a 13-year-old girl recovering from a disorder brought on by childhood neglect; and “Diamond on Vinyl,” a drama of sexual intrigue and secrets starring Sonja Kinski, daughter of ’80s-era film star Nastassja Kinski and granddaughter to German acting legend Klaus Kinski.
“[Kinski] was just electric, to the point where other people in the audition were losing track of their lines,” said J.R. Hughto, director of the film, by phone from Los Angeles. “She has a very different energy from her mother, but there’s a very strong echo.”
Hughto said he put his full trust in Slamdance’s blind submission process, and its jury of filmmakers, when he submitted his film to the festival.
“I’ve only been in the [Slamdance] family for a few weeks now, but it’s a very comfortable feeling because it’s about cultivating a filmmakers’ collective in so many ways,” he said. “Everyone’s very generous. I think I’ve learned as much as I have in one month already as I have in the past three years.”
James Duff and Julia Morrison, the husband-and-wife directing team behind “Hank and Asha,” are traveling their own professional film journey along those same lines. The couple’s quiet, but intense drama, about two young filmmakers romancing each other across the North American and European continents through “video letters,” seemed an ideal fit for the Slamdance ethos. “Hank and Asha” works on parallel levels, as love story and the art of narrative seduction but also, said Morrison, about “the anticipation of creating yourself” through visual communication.
The couple discovered the idea through a friend in Prague, who was sending his beloved video footage of his hotel room or latest walk through a park.
“We thought they would be extraordinarily boring,” Duff said. “They weren’t.”
Morrison added: “We liked the Slamdance vibe from the outset. It’s intimate and appealing when you’ve just come out from the larger film world, sweating it out on your own.”
When • Friday, Jan. 18, through Thursday, Jan. 24
Where • Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City
Info • $12 for features; $8 for film shorts blocks; at 323-466-1786 or www.slamdance.com; passes from $150-$325.
More • Visit www.slamdance.com or www.slamdancecollective.com for film schedules and more information