DIY or Die: An Interview with Peter Baxter of Slamdance
Entering its 20th year of operation, the Slamdance Film Festival is blossoming into adulthood. This year’s festival is stocked full of interesting comedies, dramas, animated films and documentaries that are sure to please audiences in the screening rooms of the Treasure Mountain Inn. Peter Baxter, one of the co-founders and current President of Slamdance, took some time with SLUG to talk about how the festival has changed over the years, to share some of his favorite memories over the past two decades and to give us a glimpse of what’s to come for Slamdance.
SLUG: Tell us about the very first year of Slamdance? How did things go that first year?
Baxter: The first year, you know, we called it Anarchy in Utah, I think you know the story well—we were sort of the anti-festival. We were the group of filmmakers that didn’t get our films into Sundance. We were rejected, but failure can be a friend. I think that was the magic ingredient that sort of made it all work for us, given that we just didn’t have any experience in organizing a film festival. In fact, I think nearly for all of us, it was the first festival that we had been to. [We had a] sense of coming together and community, really, from the first year. We realized that if we worked together, we could do more things for our films, and for each other. Of course, none of our films had distribution. All of our films had been made for a really small amount of money and didn’t have any star names in them, but we showed, even in the first year, that a sort of grassroots independent community could actually do something that was useful in supporting emerging filmmaking talent. Then we realized that we had the desire to carry on and do what we had done in ’95. That we should do the same for other filmmakers that would want the same thing: a showcase that they otherwise wouldn’t have, to bring these new films, these new voices to an audience. Even in the first year we had some success with distribution. It became, then, a viable alternative to Sundance, and I think also to many other festivals that are now established, because a lot of the filmmakers that they were showing—“they” meaning Sundance and other well-established festivals in the US—were showing great films, but films that were made by filmmakers that had already established themselves. It was very competitive, then, as a new filmmaker, to have your film in these festivals, and if you didn’t get into Sundance at that time, it was actually very difficult to showcase your work in other places. As we’ve seen over the years, festivals really are important in bringing talent and films out to a wider audience. They really do play a significant role for filmmakers, period, but especially emerging filmmakers. That’s obviously, from a Slamdance perspective, where it all begins. So here we are 20 years later, and it’s interesting, really, how many things have changed at Slamdance. Our organization has grown, we have sponsors year round, a commercial enterprise with our distribution business and our popular screenplay competition. But that community that we have, that mantra—by filmmakers, for filmmakers—it’s the lifeblood of Slamdance, and that has remained. I think we’ve shown over the years, with the discoveries that we’ve been able to make, that indeed the DIY independent film communities really can do it themselves in supporting these exciting and new voices that have come up, especially through Slamdance.
SLUG: Can you talk a little bit about that mantra? You mentioned the “by filmmakers for filmmakers.” What does that statement mean to you, and how has it affected the way you’ve run Slamdance over the years?
Baxter: Well, it answers the question really, which we had in ’98, which was when the mantra came about. [The question was], “How do you grow a community that wants to show quality films with new and exciting voices?” And very simply, we came up with the answer: You let the filmmakers who have been at Slamdance remain in charge of that program. They’re the ones who supplied that program, no one else, and again it sort of speaks to this idea that, the DIY approach, that filmmakers themselves can, and have done, discovered and helped to discover and provide a showcase for these great new filmmakers who have come up through Slamdance. I think that over the years, the gatekeepers—the studio gatekeepers—have now become fewer, because I think with a film festival like Slamdance, the way that it’s programmed has shown that you don’t have to then be anointed, as it were, by a studio member to say that you can come in and now you can do this. Slamdance has played its part in helping to break down that barrier. So that mantra is very important to our organization, I think it has contributed towards that DIY filmmaking movement as well, as a result.
SLUG: I heard an interview last year with one of the co-founders of Slamdance, Dan Mirvish, where he said that there were a few times when Sundance tried to shut Slamdance down. Is the relationship between the two festivals still a little bit rocky, or do you get along nicely now that you’ve both been around so long?
Baxter: I don’t feel as though the relationship is rocky. I just feel that there isn’t what I would call a “properly formed” relationship, because I believe that film festivals, and especially film festivals that share the same location and have both been around now for as long as they have, that there are things that they could do together, which can actually further support the filmmakers that they are showcasing, and generally I believe that with film festivals in the United States and elsewhere, that these organizations can do more for filmmakers if they work more closely together. So I’d like to see that happen in the future. And I see, having said all that, that Sundance and Slamdance complement one another, in being able to then attract the film industry and audience members to a place which, when you combine these two festivals—one, which is really focused on emerging filmmaking talents, and the other, great films and filmmakers that Sundance shows—it really does make for a stronger indie scene in the US. I’m totally open and would like to see a stronger relationship developing between Slamdance and Sundance. There have been people in Park City that certainly are Sundance supporters, but saw the true purpose of Slamdance, the value of it, and have been great supporters, and there’s one person in particular who sort of gave us a lifeline in ‘97. We were at the Yarrow in our second year in ʻ96 and I had been able to book that location just after the ﬁrst festival. We were welcomed there in ‘96, and then we did well with our festival there and I wanted to continue to have screenings at the Yarrow, and then for some unknown reason at the time, we were told that we wouldn’t be able to book it for the following year. I later found out that it was because Sundance had secured that location for the future, so it was competitive in terms of ﬁnding locations like that in ‘97. Thea Leonard entered the scene, who, at that time, was the sole manager of the Treasure Mountain Inn hotel where we were still located, and she’s now married to Andy [Beerman], and it’s really thanks to people like Thea that really helped Slamdance get itself established. In the end, it’s the people that make things go. We’ve got to give a lot of thanks to many people in Park City that have been able to support and help grow Slamdance over the years. I know I’ve been talking about how important the filmmakers are to the actual film program, but let’s not forget where the festival is, and the people that make it go around. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that, and yeah, we did have a lot of pushback and some negativity around us being in Park City, but equally there are people that also had a positive effect and helped us push on through to get us where we are right now.
SLUG: Do you have any favorite experiences from the past 20 years that you could share with us?
Baxter: Um… Well, a lot of them are X-rated. So…
SLUG: Those are the best ones!
Baxter: I was thinking about this the other day, I was going through the years and I’ve written up a few notes. The one that I keep on thinking about is—which I just can’t believe that we pulled it off—was in 2001. We had our opening-night party at the Silver Mine. I think if you ask around, and ﬁnd those people that were at that party, they might say that it was still the best and the biggest party that they’ve ever been to in Park City at that time of the year. There was a combination of all these special ingredients that made it like that. One was Jägermeister, we had Jägermeister as a sponsor that year, which was a very important ingredient of the story. Another was the band The Roots that came out in support of the film that they had composed the music for, Brooklyn Babylon, which came in 2001. Wandering silver miners, while we were renting out the Silver Mine space, at odd times just turned up and sort of walked their way to the service mine, which they were taking care of throughout the festival. I’m not quite sure how much they heard, but you often have wandering miners going to the mineshaft to go down and service the mine, so that was sort of an ongoing occurrence. And then, after The Roots had performed, I thought the ceiling was going to fall down. When you get people who are dancing in rhythm to the music of The Roots—I remember the sort of beautiful rhythm they created, everyone was sort of going up and down, dancing together at the same time—so when they went up, the ﬂoor must have been weightless, but then when they came down you could actually see the ﬂoor underneath moving. It was bending as they were coming down, and I thought, “This is gonna come down, it’s gonna collapse.” But it didn’t. And then later on I thought we were all gonna go up in ﬂames, because we had this freak show circus that came to perform. I just didn’t know that it was going to be a ﬁre hazard, because we had all kinds of ﬂames coming out of all kinds of oriﬁces, including vaginas, and I still think a lot of people are in shock, even the most mature men who have perhaps seen the world remain in shock still, after experiencing our freak show, our circus show. But it made for a great party, and that was a memorable one. I just remember everyone being so very happy about the opening of Slamdance 2001—a lot of people there. The good mojo, as it were, sort of paid off for lots of short filmmakers. That was the year that The Accountant won the Oscar because of Slamdance, by Ray McKinnon, and that was the year David Greenspan’s Bean Cake, a film which he made at film school, and which by his own account no one really liked or paid any attention to—he got it in to Slamdance, though—and after that Cannes invited him, and then he won the Palm d’Or for that short film at Cannes that year. So it was a really fantastic year for short films. So that was sort of like a stand-out between events and films and filmmakers. That is a fond memory. I still think there must be lots of partygoers still trapped down in that Silver Mine shaft—I’m sure we lost a few on the way. But anyway, it was great fun.
SLUG: You’ve also got a short film at the festival this year in the special screenings category called DIY. Can you tell us a little about that?
Baxter: DIY is about DIY filmmaking, and it’s about the DIY filmmakers that have now found successful careers or just are still looking for those successful careers. We talked a few minutes ago about how DIY filmmaking has changed how we see entertainment; we spoke about the film industry gatekeepers from the studios that used to have a greater charge of who was allowed to succeed. Through festivals like Slamdance, and through the Internet, of course, we see that barrier begin to break down. We’re at the point now where studios are driven by celebrity. And yet, post of that, we do have an entertainment scene where the DIYers, who are working now on the Internet, using independent platforms like Netﬂix, which aren’t associated or owned, controlled by the studios, are really able to compete and do really well, for Slamdance-type filmmakers. We’ve seen a number of our filmmakers do incredibly well in television. They’ve been able to create these unique television serials. So we’re asking ourselves, the DIY filmmaker, how to succeed in this changing landscape now, that’s coming up. We’re hearing from filmmakers that are working in this environment right now, like Benh Zeitlin, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, the Russo brothers, who I’ve mentioned, Matt Johnson, who did The Dirties last year. So it’s entertaining, but it also gives a great insight into how to succeed in this new world of entertainment environment.
SLUG: Slamdance has also expanded a lot over the years, you’ve already mentioned a few things, like the screenwriting competition, the addition of video on demand features, and on-the-road events. Do you guys have anything lined up in the future, in terms of more expansion?
Baxter: I think that what remains important to us is continuing the physical showcase that we have in Park City with Slamdance and bringing filmmakers together, and showing their works side-by-side. We found out, quite a long time ago now, that it was really important to keep that community relatively small in size in comparison to how other festivals have grown in terms of the amount of films that they play, because once you start increasing the number of filmmakers, then you start to lose sight and connection with them, and so we felt that it would not be the right way to go about growing. But I see, as part of Slamdance’s future growth, certainly online, with its commercial ambitions for filmmakers. And I think that Slamdance needs to play a bigger role in supporting the types of films and filmmakers that are at Slamdance with distribution, to enable them to sustain a filmmaking career, and we are, of course, touching on distribution and DIY, but I think that that’s something that’s going to be really important for Slamdance to grow into as we further mature. And we are involved in this business right now. We do have a distribution label, we do have several Slamdance Films on VOD and other platforms, and of course we are expanding our on-the-road program, and we’re also doing one or two interesting announcements this year with alternative ways of distributing films as well, with a couple of partners which I’m really excited about.
SLUG: Is there anything about this year’s festival, or just in the coming year for Slamdance that you’d like to share?
Baxter: I’ve been looking at the program this year, and I think it’s a great program, a great showcase. I continue to believe that the quality of the crafting of the films is continuing to rise as filmmakers take advantage of new technology, and the skill sets that they’ve picked up from other filmmakers that have recently gone before them. But I do think we have a great program this year. It’s interesting, really, when you look at it in comparison to the ﬁrst year because these things remain: our program is still made up of films, which, in competition, that are seeking distribution, which has been made fractionally even smaller amounts of money than they made in 1995, and they don’t have big star names in them. And that has remained the same, so I’m not sure—it’s sort of contrary to change, something I think that is essential to Slamdance, and long may it live.
The 2014 Slamdance Film Festival runs from January 17–23 at the Treasure Mountain Inn, located at the top of Main Street in Park City. They offer a locals-only, all-access pass for $150. Find that and individual passes here.