Peter Baxter freely admits he and a few fellow filmmakers never intended to start a film festival. In creating the Slamdance Film Festival, they intended to start more of an “anti-film festival,” the antithesis of Sundance.
He’s also very honest, perhaps too much, when he’s asked if he ever imagined his anti-film festival project would survive for two decades.
“We did not know it would last so long,” Baxter, a Slamdance co-founder, says while chuckling. “But I feel as excited about Slamdance 20 as I did when I first came to Park City in ’95.”
Slamdance, born through the ambition of a few independent filmmakers as a challenge to the juggernaut of Sundance in 1995, has since grown to be a legitimate companion festival.
“If you look at Sundance, it’s a very large organization and it certainly shows independent films, but it also shows films that have already got distribution and films that have been made by established and great filmmakers,” Baxter said. “At Slamdance, you’re seeing work for the very first time. You’re seeing a program that is unique in that respect where it’s all new and filmmakers are coming up and coming out.”
Baxter said despite increasing popularity and the sheer volume of submissions increasing each year, Slamdance has always stuck to the mantra “by filmmakers, for filmmakers.” The model of capitalizing on celebrity and big budget works for others, Baxter said, but it’s just not and won’t ever be Slamdance’s style.
“We’ve retained the true indie spirit of where we’ve come from. We are authentic and we can say that because we’ve continued to focus on these emerging artists coming through,” Baxter said.
Even if Slamdance prioritizes a grassroots foundation, the festival has had plenty of success of its own. This year, Slamdance will feature a “DIY” documentary with interviews from alumni including Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”), who will be honored Jan. 18 at the festival, Marc Forster (“Stranger Than Fiction,” “World War Z”), Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”).
Baxter said the documentary is a celebration of the spirit of Slamdance, that any one director with a camera and an idea can emerge from obscurity when given a chance.
“From our point of view, we are rooted in this whole DIY filmmaking movement where so many of our filmmakers have done it completely by themselves without any system, getting any permission and any studio backing. We think that’s an entertaining and informative area to show and make a documentary from,” Baxter said.
The Slamdance system also encourages festival alumni to return as mentors for the next generation, with some becoming programmers who screen and select films to be shown during the festival.
“[It’s] of paramount importance for us to allow that kind of fertile ground for filmmakers to get together and connect,” Baxter said.
Anna Germanidi, the Slamdance Festival manager, said that community spirit is what has allowed Slamdance to survive and thrive over the long haul.
“It’s so important when some anarchists started this, eventually it became something that so many people know and admire. They’re still passionate about it and it’s wonderful to see this community grow every year,” Germanidi said.
Even after 7,500 total submissions of films and screenplays this year, Germanidi said the glue that holds the festival together is sticking to a standard of programming and combing through each submission with integrity.
“It started so small,” Germanidi, who refers to herself as the “filmakers mom,” said. “So very few people knew about it and it just proves that when people find alternate ways to make their art happen, they succeed.”
This year, Slamdance is also distributing movies across platforms like Amazon and Playstation to get out the word of independent film through as many avenues as possible, something Baxter sees growing exponentially in the future. He also said the Slamdance brand has grown to a point where the next priority will be supporting independent films commercially, fostering growth of independent filmmaking beyond initial festival screenings.
Asked to pick a memory from the past two decades of Slamdance, Baxter recalls when he met a director struggling to get noticed. As a festival programmer, he couldn’t fathom why no one was taking the director seriously when he recognized a talent that was going to change production and storytelling forever.
That director was Christopher Nolan, who in 1999 screened his movie “Following,” which had only a $6,000 budget, at Slamdance. “I guess that’s the reason why [Slamdance] should exist, is for moments like that,” Baxter said. “It told me as a filmmaker and also someone that runs a film festival that you can never take anything in the film industry for granted.”
Slamdance at 20
Slamdance, running Jan. 17-23 at Park City’s Treasure Mountain Inn, will have 10 narrative features and eight documentaries on its competition slates — culled from more than 5,000 submissions. They include 11 world premieres, four North American premieres and one U.S. premiere. For more information, visit www.slamdance.com.