Two Decades of Slamdance: A Chat With the Founder of the Reactionary Fest

Peter Baxter Slamdance Headshot - P 2014
Courtesy of Subject

Peter Baxter Slamdance Headshot - P 2014

Born from Sundance rejection, Peter Baxter's indie experiment is stronger than ever with a growing distribution arm and a surprisingly high batting-average when it comes to selling films.

Slamdance cofounder Peter Baxter isn't shy when discussing the origins of his indie-minded festival. After being rejected from Sundance, Baxter and fellow passed-over filmmakers Dan Mirvish, Jon Fitzgerald and Shane Kuhn decided to inject the film festival scene with punk spirit. The quintet spent time, money, blood, sweat, and tears on their films -- how could they walk away without screening them for audiences? So in 1995, they held the first Slamdance, subtitled, "Anarchy in Utah."

"There was a bit of 'there goes the neighborhood' when we started,"  Baxter says of the first festival. ''We didn't have much of a clue on how to put on a film festival back in 1995." Today, Baxter sees Slamdance, which takes place concurrently with Sundance each year, as complementary to its behemoth counterpart. "That's important because it makes for a grander independent film experience."

Entering its 20th season (running Jan. 17 - 23), Slamdance will pair its usual slate of narrative and documentary films with a well-earned celebration. DIY, a new documentary short by Baxter, will examine the history of do-it-yourself cinema, while Slamdance alum Christopher Nolan will be honored with the festival's first Founder's Award.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Baxter to discuss the history of the Slamdance Film Festival, how its been shaped by its surroundings, and how it will continue to expand into the future.

THR: How would you compare programming Slamdance 20 years ago to programming Slamdance today?

Peter Baxter: The "by filmmakers, for filmmakers" mantra comes from the fact that filmmakers program the festival. We have a lot more of them then we first started in 1995. So when we had the first Slamdance, we had 48 submissions. I don't know if you could say we had "programmers." There was just an eclectic spirit to the films that came in. What we did to establish our current programming setup was create a community. So filmmakers from previous Slamdances, we asked them to come back and support, keep the festival going by coming back and deciding which films they wanted to see. It's been very important to create a level playing field for filmmakers coming from all parts of the world. We program with blind submissions. We make no calls, no invitations for any film. So right at the end of the programming experience, where each group selects their films at the same time, each filmmaker gets one vote. 

THR: How was Slamdance provoked into existence by Sundance. Would you consider it counter-programming?

Baxter: It was a reaction, based partly on common sense and partly on practicality. Why can't filmmakers make their own decisions on the types of films that they would like to see in a festival? We talk about an independent film community, but I can tell you after 20 years of doing this, being involved in Slamdance and experiencing other filmmakers and groups, it's hard to keep that community together. We have one at Slamdance. It shows the grassroots effort that we created has lead to the ability of helping to discover, support and launch new talent.

THR: How has the rapid evolution of technology impacted the festival?

Baxter: It's had a huge effect on the festival and the filmmakers. When I made my film, Loser, which played Slamdance in '95, we made it on film and I remember struggling with all of the film elements and the budget to make it work. Today, making this documentary DIY, you have the ability to buy small equipment that creates creative opportunities. You're able to edit and do the post-production at your home. There's never been such a great time to make an independent film, the ability to do it yourself and do it yourself well. They can compete quality wise with far more expensive films. 

And yet, the hard news is that it's never been as difficult to find meaningful distribution for this work. So many more people are doing it and it's easy to find distributing. But how meaningful? How is that distribution going to sustain your career and able you to make your next film? Even if it's won festival awards and accolades and great reviews. But at Slamdance 2013, a majority of feature films were picked up for distribution. That's a great result for the filmmakers and what the festival is able to achieve with the showcase.

THR: Has the narrative quality of films evolved over the past two decades?

Baxter: I think the narrative has become smarter and more creative. For two reasons: New technology has enabled filmmakers of today to spend time crafting the story they've written on the page or imagined as a documentary. When we first began, you weren't afforded the luxury of time because of a practical point of view. You rented equipment, rented space at post-houses. It was harder then to edit. That's increased the standard of independent film. Also, there are so many more filmmakers creating. We had over 5,000 submissions this year. The films you're looking at will probably be better.

THR: I imagine the expansion of Slamdance as a very delicate process. It could grow too big, too Sundance-like. What considerations have been made to avoid that?

Baxter: I've often thought in Park City that it would be so great to have another venue to complement what we're doing at Treasure Mountain, our festival headquarters. But what has remained important is this community aspect and it's worked out perfectly at this hotel, creating a close-knit community where filmmakers can come share their work with audiences and industry members in a friendly, open, non-exclusive environment. We've been careful not to increase the size of the program because we felt we'd lose sight, lose touch of that community. But we've expanded year round, going out on the road with the programs that we do and now with Slamdance Studios, our distribution business. We'll continue to do that. But in Park City, it's the right size.

Twitter: @misterpatches