Slamdance turns 15, as feisty as ever

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Peter Baxter remembers the chaos of throwing together the first Slamdance Film Festival in 1995.

"Could you actually call us a festival in year one?" Baxter jokes of the slipshod event, conceived as a venue for films that were overlooked by its more mainstream namesake. "We were a collection of filmmakers who had no experience as festival organizers, a wild bunch. We've grown up a bit, but if you look at the program, the types of subject matter we have and the filmmakers we're supporting are still the same."

Indeed, as Sundance's hipster kid brother gears up for its 15th year, its adolescence has been anything but awkward. The festival that was initially told by the Park City chief of police that its days were numbered now offers a year-round filmmaker program supported by six full-time employees and 40 volunteer programrs who screen more than 3,000 annual submissions from first-time directors working on budgets of less than $1 million.

Slamdance has provided key launching pads for some of this year's hottest directors. "Loungers," the first film from Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace"), won the first Slamdance audience award in 1996. "The Dark Knight" helmer Christopher Nolan brought his debut feature, a 70-minute black-and-white mystery called "Following," to Slamdance in 1999.

"That was a film that didn't have obvious commercial prospects, but anyone who watched it could tell he was an obvious talent," recalls Baxter, who co-founded Slamdance and still serves as president.

More recently, the fest screened Jared Hess's short "Peluca," which he later expanded into 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite" based in part on the strong Slamdance reception. And Seth Gordon's 2007 Slamdance documentary "The King of Kong" led to a studio job directing the holiday hit "Four Christmases."

This year's typically diverse offerings include the Shakespearean vampire flick "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead"; a new Broken Lizard comedy, "The Slammin' Salmon"; and an opening night premiere that Baxter is particularly high on, Glenn McQuaid's grave-robbing–and–zombies epic "I Sell the Dead." "One of the reasons we chose it is because of how the filmmakers are embracing technology and how that can work in a low-budget environment," he says. "It's one of the reasons indie film is going to thrive in the future."
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