Every year about this time aspiring filmmakers head to Utah to show their work. Hoping to launch their career or at least make that next important contact, they flock to a festival that emphasizes scrappy self-reliance, low-budget creativity and the homegrown spirit of (really) independent cinema.
The Sundance Film Festival, you say? No, the Slamdance Film Festival.
Opening its 15th edition today (and running through Jan. 23), Slamdance has settled into a certain rag-tag respectability, albeit while still maintaining the edginess of what was once a renegade upstart. Begun by a group of filmmakers who had been rejected by Sundance, Slamdance would simply not have been created if not for its Park City, Utah, neighbor, and the two festivals now seem to happily coexist.
While it can be easy to dismiss Slamdance's staunch downmarket integrity in the glare of Sundance's glitzier profile, the festival has helped launch an impressive array of now mainstream filmmakers. Christopher Nolan and Marc Forster -- directors of the Batman and Bond franchises, respectively -- both screened early works at Slamdance. Among other alumni are the directors of the recent holiday comedy "Four Christmases" (Seth Gordon) and period melodrama "The Secret Life of Bees" (Gina Prince-Bythewood), as well as the filmmakers who went on to make "Napoleon Dynamite" (Jared Hess), "The Brothers Bloom" (Rian Johnson), "Superbad" (Greg Mottola) and "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (Marina Zenovich).
"By the time we came along, it was becoming clear that not all new independent films worth showing could be presented by Sundance," said Peter Baxter, president and co-founder of Slamdance.
Of the 29 features screening this year, 23 are by first-time directors. It is not unusual for directors to move on from Slamdance, often showing their next film just down the hill at Sundance. "Our films are the ones where they get representation," joked Executive Director Drea Clark -- in fact, it's expected.
"I think it would be totally counter to how we approach things to resent or be sad about it," Clark said of seeing filmmakers go on to bigger venues after first showing at Slamdance. "Our focus is primarily on first-time directors, that's why we exist and I think that's why we're such a good complement to Sundance, at this point. We want to find people who are going to make another film and be more successful. To me it's gratifying."
"Our filmmakers don't actually leave us," added Baxter, while noting that in keeping with their mantra of "by filmmakers, for filmmakers," programming selections are voted on by teams consisting largely of people who have previously screened works at the festival.
"The thing you have to take into account is that the people who run Slamdance are sincerely committed to the scale of the festival, and the purpose of the festival is as it's been all along," noted Nolan on how the festival has maintained its mission through the years. "They're not necessarily interested in growing into the biggest film festival in the world -- the thing that impresses me so much about the festival is their commitment to first-time filmmakers. It's such a precious time in somebody's career.
"It allows complete outsiders access to the festival world," Nolan said.
This year's opening night film, "I Sell the Dead," represents that outsider spirit and the festival's self-sustaining inter-connectedness. The debut feature by writer-director Glenn McQuaid, the film is co-produced by and costars Larry Fessenden, a staple of the indie-horror scene who showed his "Wendigo" as a special screening at the festival in 2001.
McQuaid describes the darkly comic film as "a period horror movie set in the British Isles made in New York City." Its tale of 18th century grave robbers also stars Dominic Monaghan and Ron Perlman. As an example of the festival's principles in action, Fessenden said no strings were pulled to nab the opening-night slot.
"We just submitted it, like total anonymous filmmakers," said Fessenden of how "I Sell the Dead" got into the festival. "Obviously, they knew I was involved right away -- I'm on the screen -- but I like to say this was not a matter of nepotism, we never called and pushed them to watch our movie. It feels good to get in on the merits of the movie.
"I've seen it unfold where Slamdance does no favors. I've had other movies I tried to get in and couldn't."
Among other films screening at this year's festival are Mo Perkins' domestic drama "A Quiet Little Marriage," Jordan Galland's vampire comedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead" and the latest from the Broken Lizard comedy team, "The Slammin' Salmon." Documentary selections include "Zombie Girl," a look at a 12-year-old making her own zombie feature, and "Smile Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story," an exploration of the political ideology behind the singing ensemble.
Though filmmakers may not come to Slamdance expecting the Sundance-style big sale, they nevertheless arrive with hopes that their fortunes and futures could soon change.
"It's like the first day of school, prom and graduation all at once," Clark said. "It's this intense week and a half where anything could happen."