Slamdance 2013 Interview: The Programmers Talk The Nuts & Bolts Of Festival Building

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
In preparation for my first visit to Park City, Utah next week I was able to sit down for a conference call with three veteran players of the Slamdance Film Festival. Co-founder Peter Baxter has been heavily involved with the development of the festival since its inception in 1995, while programmers Josh Mandel and Drea Clark first came to Slamdance as filmmakers with films playing in competition. There is your first clue as to what makes Slamdance so unique. Slamdance is truly a festival by filmmakers for filmmakers; one that utilizes a potent blend of anarchy and democracy to create a world class film showcase. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. So sit back, get comfy and let's dig into the story of Slamdance

Twitch: First off, thanks everyone for taking some time out of the day for doing this. I'm quite excited about it because this is the first time I've ever interviewed programmers. I'd like to hear the story of Slamdance, and I'd especially like to highlight the life of a programmer at the festival.

Peter Baxter: So it's 1995 and I was with a group of filmmakers and none of us got our films into Sundance. We decided we'd crash Park City. Slamdance anarchy in Utah. We really didn't have much of a clue as how to put on a film festival, but we did have one another. We didn't really have a budget, but we did have imagination. We wanted to set for ourselves a launching pad for our careers. It was then quite clear that this just wasn't for us, it was for all kinds of filmmakers and we had to continue. So that's what we did and we've been together since.

Drea Clark: I've programmed at other festivals as well, and Slamdance is incredibly unique in how we program. All of our programmers are filmmakers - active filmmakers. The majority of the team this year are working on projects that are in development or are even in post on things. We do everything as a committee. We don't have a director of programming, which most festivals, if not all festivals have. No voice counts more than another, and we choose everything all at once. We watch all of the films that rise to the top and then compare them all together at the very end. With the numerous festivals I have worked at, Slamdance is the only one I know that does it this way. And we don't invite people to submit. It is all from blind submissions. All of our films in competition are from first time directors and must be under a million dollars in budget

I am always fascinated and pleased that we're so true to our original plans of how we find films and filmmakers. If people really knew the machinations that went on behind the scenes, of how programming works, I would be even more encouraged about how we do it. It is a very optimistic process.

PB: There is no hierarchy. There is no nepotism. Nothing like that. Together we make the Slamdance program, and that's what we've done for 2013 as well.

This year I noticed three German films on the narrative competition slate [KOHLHAAS, VISITORS and THE COURT OF SHARDS]. I'm pretty excited about this since I've recently been binging on contemporary German Cinema (the Berlin School and all). How does something like that occur in the process you've been describing with everyone coming together and gathering films?

DC: I think that's such a perfect example of how organic our process is. At any other film festival, those films would be put up against each other: "We're gonna have a German film, we're gonna have a Spanish film..."

We go: "What are we responding to based on material... Are there too many films competing? Are there too many films about teenagers? Are there too many films about people falling in love in an urban setting?" Now we like a wide range of things, but we also would never limit in the way that festivals that are sort of more rigidly programmed would do. Our questions is: "What are we responding to and loving?"

At the first meeting we had like six or seven films from Germany, right Josh?

Josh Mandel: Yeah, and every single one of those films was different from each other. We kind of thought, "Well something really interesting is going on in Germany right now, from this sort of even newer wave of filmmakers." And what's also interesting is that a year ago, three of our ten competition films were from Canada. So it's kind of the same thing where we're like, "what's going on this year?" Next year it may be Argentina or who knows... it is completely contingent on the submissions we get each year, which is great because it is not about saying "we need one film like this or one film like that." It's really about what is out there in the landscape this year, what's going on right now with filmmaking and us responding to it.

PB: I think there is a root here actually about how Slamdance came about. This whole sense of do-it-yourself... that's what we're still about; this sort-of grassroots film community that we've developed. I think that if you look back at '95 in America, then you're beginning to see filmmakers gather what they could, borrowing money on credit cards, and making their own films in their own way. In Germany, and in other parts of Europe and in Asia, that was kind of impossible to do because of the systems they have in place. But as technology has really advanced, the cost reductions on cameras, post production software especially these days involving coloring, even sound equipment... all of this new technology has really afforded filmmakers around the world to now do-it-yourself. And so I think they've been able to embrace that sort of Slamdance spirit in places like Germany, and in England. The filmmakers there have really grasped that, and so as Drea and Josh were saying, I think that is why we're seeing so many great quality films coming out of places like Germany.

It really feels like there's a great level of empathy at work here. It sounds like you're all wanting to create a home base for these filmmakers in some way; an international home base if they need it. So, Josh, you're now heading up this new Beyond program. Did that idea grow out of wanting to mature the festival with its alumni filmmakers in mind?

JM: A little bit. It's funny 'cause this new section Beyond has been a long time coming. Over the last eighteen years the festival has developed a really great reputation for being a festival of discovery for first time filmmakers, or as we often say, emerging filmmakers. And you know, we're not really looking for necessarily commercial films to sell in the marketplace quick and easy... but at the same time, many of our films do end up serving a real niche audience, and getting out there and being successful. But ultimately every film at Slamdance is a film that is directed by a really interesting director. Over the festival's history we've had these very hard-set rules about making sure that all our films in competition be by first time directors. While that's led us to discovering many of the most interesting filmmakers working today, every year we've had to turn away films that were no less deserving, no less memorable, no less interesting. These were disqualified on a technicality. So we saw these films slipping through the cracks, not being picked up by other festivals. We felt like the idea of new and emerging filmmakers can expand beyond a technicality of just first-time filmmakers. Quite often it's in the second feature or the third feature that the filmmaker really explodes onto the independent film scene. And it is with that film that they change the landscape and then grow into the next great wave of filmmakers, finding financial and artistic success.

Hence, Beyond.

JM: Hence, Beyond. So I like to look at all Slamdance filmmakers as emerging filmmakers. Now we have emerging filmmakers that are truly first-time directors and emerging filmmakers that may be on their second or third feature, but are still on the verge of really breaking out.

Would one of you, or all three of you if you like, if you can find a way to trapeze back and forth, give me a portrait of what it's been like, day in day out, over the last couple of weeks building up to the festival?

PB: What we do to help get things underway is meet soon after the previous festival and check in on what went well in programming and things that didn't go well. And we're trying to do this all together. So once we've got those checks and balances organized, we invite all the programmers, some of whom come from the last festival, to be a part of that. At that point, six months or more out, we have 70-80 people working on all of this. So we have our shorts programming team, we have our narrative features team, and then we have our documentary team, and then we have what we used to call Special Screenings, but as we discussed just now, we have developed into Beyond. So these are the groups. And then the filmmakers will start submitting their work. And it's a good amount of money these days to submit to a film festival, so we want to make sure that we say to these filmmakers that their movie will get watched at least twice before it goes on into another round or it won't go on. We want to give that film a really fair chance, wherever they come from in the world, no matter who they know, it doesn't matter.

DC: When we're in the thick of programming, we like to be very transparent in general. We've spoken about this to the filmmaking community before. I think a lot of filmmakers are really apprehensive about the screening process. It can be such a leap of faith to send something in and it's very easy to feel that nepotism is at play. For us as programmers, there's a steady stream of films we're watching. Depending on where you are viewing, you could be watching ten to twenty films a week. One of the things that I certainly do (and really encourage my team to do), is no matter where we are in the stage of selection, every DVD you put in you really want it to be a good film. If you're a programmer and you're watching things, and you're on your fourth movie of the day, and you're tired, if you are someone that's going to play that DVD in the hopes that it's not good, that you don't have to evaluate it as heavily... then you're in the wrong game. You should put everything in hoping that it's going to blow your mind. You should be really excited about what that film can give you. That does take a lot of energy.

JM: We watch so many movies, and that's all you're doing. It's like literally all you're doing. I mean, I don't get to watch any other movies outside of Slamdance submissions for months at a time. It can be exhausting. But what keeps us going is that promise, that potential of discovery, of finding those next great filmmakers, and that is something that is really exciting. You know it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work and it really can be a grueling experience, but what keeps us really going, and excited about it, is just knowing that we're there with our finger on the pulse for the next great wave of filmmakers. Every time I meet filmmakers on the festival circuit, or anywhere, and you know they think if they submit their film at the beginning of the deadline process, then there's this notion that their film isn't good. But no, submit whenever your film is done, because great films are made all year-round. Great films are submitted at any time of the year, and there's really no method to the way programmers look for films at Slamdance. Maybe at other festivals where they have to invite films, those films that came in earlier have a little bit better chance of being picked earlier, but that's not how it is at Slamdance. We really level the playing field for all filmmakers out there.

DC: And then on top of that, you're not just watching, but also researching because we don't know these filmmakers. As we stated, we compile the entirety of the competition films from these blind submissions. So we're looking... "Is it truly a first-time director? Are they under a million dollar budget? What kind of presence do they have online? Are they someone that could really embrace Slamdance?" Anything that we can find. I often do extra work, like grouping and organizing, so that when we get to the discussion phase, everyone in the room has as much information about all of the films as possible. And you never get to talk about the films enough. I know Josh and I constantly run into each other in the office, or even if you're just trading off films you're always desperate to share. Like: "I saw the craziest thing," or "I saw the most interesting movie!" And so it's a communal experience. It should be. I never share as much as I want to while we're going through that.

So to focus that into a life of a film, going through that process... I figure a good example for that is the film that, in a way, introduced me to Slamdance: Mark Jackson's WITHOUT from 2011.

DC: That one was actually pretty interesting. At the end of the day, it is a subjective process and we're all acutely aware of that. So two different people will be seeing every film, largely to bring their very different perspectives to that. So that's one safe guard. The second safe guard is going into our meetings, bringing the films that have averaged high scores out of their two viewings, and also the programmers in the room are invited to bring a top ten list, or a list of favorites. And that's to help those films that might have been pretty polarized, that may have been discredited for averages. So there's passion behind it if it's on somebody's top list. Without is a film that came in sort of late in the day because it hadn't been seen by the two people yet, and then Josh saw it.

JM: Without was a movie that I saw in the final week of deliberations. We're already starting to think about our favorite films that are rising to the top. And so I saw this movie, and it just completely blew me away. And I thought, had I seen this movie a month earlier, this would have been my favorite film. This would have been at the top of my top films lists and we'd be discussing this earlier on in our deliberations. I made sure everyone got their hands on it and really pushed it along - and it got through. Other people agreed. And it's funny because I'm pretty sure there has been at least one film over the last couple of years that has come in under the wire, at the very end, and got in the competition, and ended up becoming one of the best films at the festival. A film that people just loved, and it's like... to even think about the possibility that any one of those films would not have been seen by that one programmer at that right time... it gives me heart palpitations to think that it would have slipped through the cracks.

DC: I think it is such a testament to that optimism we've been speaking about. You're looking for things 'til the very, very end. Rooting for them. If we talk about watching something in the last week, it is much easier to dismiss things then, you already know that you have a pocket of good films to choose from. I am so encouraged by how the programmers are really in it for the right reasons, and they're looking out for what's best in our line-up; for the filmmakers we're pulling into the family.

JM: Campaigning for even one film is kind of like campaigning for political office. Carrying something with you for months... it's a long and grueling process to get it across the finish line. One of the things I was really shocked by when I started programming was that I had no idea that programmers, especially at Slamdance, can really get so behind a film and carry it with them and fight for it as though it were their own. There's no initial personal attachment to that film, no personal ties to the filmmakers, the producers or actors or anyone. They're fighting for that film as if it were their own all the way to the end. It can kind of be a devastating process because you don't always get the film that you love all the way through. And that's just something filmmakers never really get to see, unless they either get to know programmers or until they program at a festival themselves, because on their side all they can see is, "Oh, I submitted to the festival and I didn't get in and that really sucks, so screw that festival." There's a lot more behind the scenes, especially at Slamdance where everyone's vote is equal.

As someone who'll be coming to the festival for the first time, it's very exciting to hear that there is this unbridled enthusiasm and passion behind it all.

PB: It's really like an addiction. A healthy one.

And there's a fine line between anxiety and excitement, and elation and exhaustion, isn't there?

DC: Oh, yeah.

What then, are you guys excited about for this year?

PB: Well what I am excited about is that we're all still talking [Everyone laughs]. We all, every single one of us, not just Josh, Drea and myself, all the programmers really do have that burning desire to support these emerging artists. I hope you have a really strong sense of that right now, Ben.

I most certainly do.

PB: Every single person has that. And we're all still together. We were at the DGA last night for a gathering. And still after all the films the programmers have watched, they're now just getting back, or almost, to their sort-of normal lives, they're still here to lend their support, to help the filmmakers, to help prepare for the festival. And many of them will be at the festival this year.

JM: We're in a unique position to assist these new filmmakers. Many of them are clueless on the way that the business works, on the way that film festivals work, to the sheer amount of preparation that's in store for them from the two months that their film is picked to then premiering in Park City. Right now I am on the set for a feature film I am producing, and all day I've been on my phone or on Facebook, messaging some of the filmmakers I met at the DGA reception, telling them what they need to do for representation, what they should do with their websites, just any kind of advice they need. You know, sometimes the best films have filmmakers that are just so green behind the ears. They don't know what they're getting into. A lot of this stuff you don't learn in film school and you don't learn in the real world until you're out there and have maybe failed at least a couple times. And we're here to help make sure they can get through that process faster, so that they don't make the same mistakes that many of us made... so that they're not underselling these incredible works that they've made. We have made it all very clear to them that we're here for them. We just don't pick their films and then say "okay, you're on your own!" We want them to succeed.

Well if that's isn't the line to hear for anyone out there that's thinking about making a movie and submitting for 2014.

DC: I think we're also able to do that because of the way we're structured. The number of films we have is a very intentional amount. When we talk about the growth of Slamdance, we're growing all the time. In reach and scope and connection, rather than "we would love to expand into 50 theaters!" No, we know what a really manageable number of films is to handle in a really personal way. For people who experience Slamdance as their first festival, it may be building up their expectations for their festival experience elsewhere, but it's such a strong base for them in terms of knowledge and in terms of connection. This is incredibly intentional.

PB: To continue what we're doing, and to make something stronger, we're also very aware that for this story to continue we're looking for the next filmmakers to help continue it, so that it has then just as much meaning for new people. We were talking about this last night with the community, and it really is now a very large community. And for those filmmakers just to come in through the Slamdance doors, and to help program the next festival, it is continuing that story.

JM: As Drea said, we grow every single year as a festival, but it is more in terms of scope than it is in terms of size. You could be a big fish at a smaller festival, a big fish in a little pond like Slamdance where you can really get seen, or you could be a little fish at a bigger festival and just get buried alive.

PB: You know what we have here in Park City are two festivals in the same place at the same time. And certainly both have independent film programs. You may argue that one is more independent than the other, and certainly we programmers think that Slamdance is truer of independent film, but I don't think anyone could argue against that by having these two very different festivals in the same place is what makes for having a very grand, American, indie experience. There may be more fish, but I think the way festivals work here in the states is that they really do have a cultural impact, and we're finding these films, and fighting for them, and helping them get out there.
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