Ah, Park City in January. A place where an artist's dreams can come true, and logistical nightmares can reign. But mostly, it's a place of stories—both the stories movie-lovers get a chance to experience on film festival screens, and the stories that emerge from the experiences of creators and attendees in this crazy high-altitude environment.
City Weekly offers its annual preview of festival week (beginning Jan. 24) with a chance to look forward and backward. On this 25th anniversary year of Slamdance, we talk with some of its founders about how the upstart festival was born. You'll also find a reminder about some of the great Sundance performances that crossed over into Oscar nominations and wins, and a guide to some of the 2019 Sundance filmmakers who have brought their work here before. And, of course, there are tips and tricks to help you get the most out of these major events in our backyard.
So pull on your best black clothes and practice your "don't you know who I am?" voice. If you set out to explore the wild world of independent filmmaking, who knows what stories you'll bring home?
Slamdance at 25: An Oral History
Festival co-founders reflect on going guerilla in Park City.
By Scott Renshaw
This year, the Slamdance Film Festival celebrates its 25th installment. Three of the festival's co-founders—Peter Baxter, Dan Mirvish and Shane Kuhn—spoke with City Weekly, reflecting on how they came to launch an alternative to Sundance in the festival's own back yard.
- Dan Mirvish
- Poster created for first Slamdance Film Festival in 1995.
Before there was any idea to start a festival, there were simply filmmakers trying to create their work and get it out into the world.
Peter Baxter: I started to make short films while I was at college [in England], though I wasn't studying film. I was very interested in working in the film industry. But at that time, unless you were connected, and knew someone in the film industry, it was very hard to get a leg up. So I was working as a photographer also. I started to do that as a post-graduate. I was working in New York and also London, and managed to get a green card from the place where I was working in New York. I came to L.A. and met a writer, and I made Loser, with Kirk Harris the producer.
Dan Mirvish: I grew up in Omaha, Neb., and went to college in St. Louis at Washington University. They only had one or two film classes there, and I really liked it. I took summer school classes at UCLA; it smelled like eucalyptus and opportunity. They taught me how to use a 16mm camera. Then back at Wash. U, they had a student group that showed films every night—classic, foreign, cult films. I had been involved with that for most of my time there, but now I was the one guy on campus who could use a 16mm camera, so I shot the "Coming Soon" and "No Smoking" trailers. Then I moved out to D.C.—I had been involved with journalism in college—and got a speechwriting job for [former senator] Tom Harkin. But if you stay in D.C. for too long, they give you a three-piece suit and a law degree, so I applied to film school, and got into [University of Southern California]. The summer after my first year there, I got a job on a very low-budget kickboxing movie in the Philippines. There's an old adage that you learn more working on a bad film than working on a good film. So in the span of just a summer vacation, I learned how to make a movie from beginning to end.
Shane Kuhn: After graduating from college, I went to film school in London for a year, mainly to figure out what part of that business I wanted to work in. I'd always been a writer. After going to school in London, I got into the [American Film Institute] screenwriting program. Mark Waters, Darren Aronofsky, [cinematographer] Matthew Libatique were in my class. And while I was in film school, that was like the second wave of independent filmmaking. When I was in London, that was when I first became aware of independent filmmaking as a thing. Richard Linklater was in London promoting Slacker, and I actually interviewed him for my film school newspaper. And he told me, "Whatever you do, do not go to film school." But I did anyway. While I was at AFI, these other independent films were getting notoriety: Laws of Gravity [and] Slacker, of course. That seemed like the right thing for me.
- Dan Mirvish
- Dan Mirvish (center, in hat) leads the annual Slamdance Hot Tub Summit panel discussion in 2014.
The Road to Park City
The would-be filmmakers get to work on the projects they dreamed would get them to Sundance.
DM: In the early '90s, if you made a short film, people would go, "That's great, kid; get back to us when you make a feature." So my second year of film school, I said, "Screw making a short." I went back to Omaha, and I knew a lot of local actors there that I was still friends with, but I needed a local producer. There was this guy Dana Altman—and by the way, his grandfather is Robert Altman. And Altman became our mentor on the film. A friend of mine had told me about a great location called Carhenge. I thought, great, we start in Omaha, come up with a road-trip story [called Omaha (The Movie)]. We were pretty happy with it.
SK: I thought to myself, because I was in the screenwriting program but was always interested in directing—I was a photographer before I went to film school—I'll do what these [independent filmmakers] have done: I'll raise money. I raised about $80,000, and made probably the worst movie ever made, called Redneck.
The Founders Meet
The co-founders take their movies to the Independent Feature Film Market in New York in September 1994, hoping to be discovered and get their invitation to Sundance.
DM: At the time, before Vimeo, you would go to IFFM, do screenings, distributors would go, and more importantly, film festival programmers would go. The goal was to get Sundance programmers to see your movie. The year before, Kevin Smith was there with Clerks, Sundance programmers saw it and discovered it, and suddenly he was Kevin Smith. There were 95 completed feature films that showed there [in 1994], plus a number of works in progress.
SK: My producer friends watched an unfinished version of [Edward Burns'] The Brothers McMullen. After we watched it, we thought, "Thank God that's not our movie."
DM: So if it hadn't got into Sundance, it wouldn't have gotten into Slamdance.
[The Brothers McMullen went on to become the hit of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.]
DM: It was kind of Sundance or nothing. We had one distributor come up to us and say "We love it ... if you get into Sundance." So we realized that was kind of the paradigm at the time: If you got into Sundance, you'd get an agent, you'd get distribution, you'd get into other festivals.
PB: It was very important, because back then, there were far fewer film festivals than there are today. If you didn't get in [to Sundance], you wouldn't have an opportunity, if you didn't have star power, didn't have a budget. They had made huge inroads into attracting the industry to the festival. Even at that time, films that were beginning to play at Sundance, that was becoming the new competition for emerging filmmakers.
DM: The other thing that happened at IFFM, Dana Altman was kind of feeling a little bit alone out there. When you make your own film, you're in your own little bubble; whatever city or town you're making it in, you're all alone, you don't need anyone's help. It's only when you take it out in the world that you need anyone to help you. Dana had this kind of unique idea to create some forum where all of us filmmakers, spread out around the country, on some grassroots level, help each other out. We called this sort of impromptu meeting with about 15-20 other filmmakers at the Angelika [Film Center]. September '94, before the internet, before IndieWire. People were barely getting cell phones. A lot of us that ended up starting Slamdance were at this New York meeting. We talked about, "What are we going to do if we don't get into Sundance?" ... Sundance in the end, when they announced their list, of the 95 films at IFFM, Sundance didn't take any of them. We thought we were going to get in; we were one of the "buzzy" films.
- Peter Baxter
- A venue from the 2001 Slamdance Film Festival.
Coming Up with Plan B
The rejected filmmakers try to decide what to do next.
PB: The year before, Matt Stone & Trey Parker had gone to Park City with Cannibal! The Musical, and played it in a conference room at the Yarrow Hotel. So that provided some inspiration.
DM: We had the same lawyer as Stone and Parker, so we heard about it through them.
SK: I was sitting around thinking, I had known some people who had gone up to Park City and shown movies in hotel rooms. My producing partner was thinking, maybe we could do that. But I was thinking, maybe we could talk to all these other people, and I knew none of them had gotten in to Sundance. Maybe we could bring a whole bunch of movies.
DM: Shane calls me up at 8 in the morning: "Why don't all of us go to Park City and help each other out, combine resources and put on a festival there?" ... A week before the Sundance list came out, I thought, "If I get into Sundance, I'm definitely going to need boots." So I got some, and now I've got to use these boots.
PB: Like everyone else, we didn't get our film into Sundance, and we wanted a showcase for our work. We wanted to make a change, and we wanted to make a change for others who wouldn't have a showcase for their work.
SK: Basically, it was my concept, but I wasn't sitting around thinking we were going to revolutionize everything, grand thoughts about what this was going to be. We all had selfish motivations: We wanted to get our movies recognized, and it would be better to do it as a group than as individuals. But eventually, we realized it was bigger than us. And it was fueled by this incredible naiveté and ignorance, that I thought my movie was actually worthy of Sundance.
DM: One of the other guys in New York was Jon Fitzgerald. We were spitballing names; I came up with "Loserfest '95." Brendan Cowles came up with Slamdance.
SK: I talked to Dan immediately, because he was the guy who could do the press. We really had nothing organized yet, other than "let's do our own collective festival there." Dan wrote the press release, faxed it to a bunch of outlets.
DM: AOL was just kind of starting. I had a connection at Variety, so we got a front-page story in Variety, which was one of those news services where AOL was distributed. AOL had picked up the Variety story. More filmmakers started to find out what we were up to. We didn't have a website, we didn't have a phone number or an address, so how would people get in touch with us? I was working at a Good Guys store as a Christmas job, and people stopped by to drop off tapes with me. ... The funny thing is, everyone thought, "If I didn't get into Sundance I guess I'm in [Slamdance]." We did reject films, even in the first year.
- Peter Baxter
- Slamdance filmmakers and crew pose at the 2006 festival.
What Will Sundance Think?
The founders and others wonder about how Park City's big festival will react.
DM: As soon as it started to look more real, some people panicked, thought they were going to get blacklisted. We thought, "We didn't get into Sundance anyway, we've got nothing to lose."
SK: Keep in mind this was a kind of risky proposition. [Then-Sundance director] Geoff Gilmore left this phone message that was kind of threatening: "I don't think you guys should do this."
DM: For years, Shane kept this tape.
SK: A lot of people around us were like, "You're going to make more films, right? You'll never get into Sundance if you do this."
PB: There was definitely a sense of "there goes the neighborhood" when we showed up. We have to appreciate what [Sundance] had done in terms of establishing their event. To create something like this takes tremendous effort. But you can't care what others have to say—other artists, a festival organization or both—if there's something you want to change. And we were determined to do that.
DM: Dana called up Robert Altman, said, "We've got this idea for this renegade festival, but people are concerned they're going to piss off [Robert] Redford." Altman thought about it for a second and said, "Eh, fuck 'em." So we had his blessing.
PB: [The relationship with Sundance] has warmed, but it still can be a little chilly. We've always, where possible, been open to trying to combine and express the spirit of what we stand for. I think generally over time, what happened is that people at Sundance realized that we're obviously serious about what we do, that we're not here to upset what they're doing. I think they see us as doing good things for the filmmakers we support. We don't battle with Sundance; we don't have a sense of competition.
- Dan Mirvish
- Slamdance visits the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Finding a Venue
The new festival was now in motion; there was just the small matter of where it would be.
DM: The original plan—and Shane was the one who kind of came up with this idea, he had spent a year at University of Utah—was to screen at the university. All of our films were on 35mm or 16mm; they had actual screening rooms with actual projectors. We thought, "We can screen there." We looked at a map: "Salt Lake City, it's right there, people will just come down the mountain from Park City." ... We all got a big condo in Salt Lake; Shane and I drove up from L.A. together.
SK: We held this press conference, and there were a lot of press there, and I was terrified: "Oh my God, this is on the record, and people are writing this down, and we have to be careful what we say." It's no longer just, "Hey dudes, let's put a fucking festival together." It suddenly had this face that was going to be presented to the public, and it had to look right and sound right. I was worried we were going to look like a bunch of amateurs.
DM: We were doing these screenings in Salt Lake, but by the first night we realized, nobody's coming, just a handful of people. So a couple of our filmmakers said, "This is bullshit, we gotta be screening our films up in Park City." So we rented a 16mm [projector] from somewhere and rented a screen, too. The car was a little Honda hatchback and had the screen sticking out the window, so there was snow blowing in the car. We tried to find a venue, and the second place we went was Prospector Square. It was late at night, and some teenage bellhop, when we asked if they had a ballroom we could use, said, "Sure, why not?" The main Prospector ballroom, before the Eccles, was Sundance's main venue. So we were 30 feet down the hall. We got on the pay phone there, called down, told everyone to haul ass up here, we have a venue. We did keep screenings going at the University of Utah, because that was the only way to show the 35mm films. By the third or fourth day, I got a call from a filmmaker who had just heard about us: "My short is on 35mm, I brought a projector, and I'm up at the Yarrow." Congratulations, you're in Slamdance. So then all of us could screen in Park City. Which is ridiculous, for a first-year festival to have three venues.
The Slamdance braintrust decides what happens next.
PB: After [the first Slamdance], there was this discussion of whether it should continue. It was only supposed to be a one-off event. We had no clue, really, how to organize a festival. Most of us had never even been to one. There was a lot of positive energy, but also naiveté, but the energy had been an important ingredient.
DM: We thought, "Why don't we do this again next year?" Baxter had proven himself as a good producer. Why don't we go down to Yarrow's front desk and put a deposit down for next year? Peter had a credit card, so that cemented Peter's involvement.
SK: In the beginning, I didn't have a grander concept beyond that first festival. We were caught off guard by how it took hold. Probably after that first year, we all had a lot of big ideas about what we wanted to do.
PB: Year one, we pulled it off, showed that we could do this. Even films from the first year got distribution. The film I produced ended up showing in over 50 theaters.
DM: The next year, Jon [Fitzgerald] was technically in charge, Peter very much working with him. We kind of ran the festival out of Jon's apartment in Santa Monica. I was like, "Good luck, guys." I was one of the filmmakers that good things came out of [Slamdance]; my film ended up on the festival circuit. It was largely Jon and Peter that second year at the Yarrow. Because I was on the circuit more than the other guys, at SXSW I met Steven Soderbergh. I was kind of afraid to meet him. He's like Mr. Sundance; isn't he going to hate us? On the contrary, he was like "I love you guys!" He had had a falling out with Redford at the time and was also getting soured on the studio system. He said, "I have this crazy little low-budget film I'm working on, Schizopolis, I'm producing this other film (Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers)." Because of that connection, we showed Daytrippers.
PB: [The Daytrippers in 1996] attracted a lot of industry attention, and sold [to a distributor] out of Slamdance, and sold well. It showed that a film here could do just as well as a film at Sundance ... There have been various stages in the festival where I thought, we're progressing, we're growing. But personally, I never take for granted from one year to another that anything and everything is going to be fine. To ever get comfortable and feel like, "That's it, we've got it," is always going to be a mistake. It's about being open to certain changes that your community needs. [Baxter continues to serve as the festival's director.]
SK: I probably was involved for like the first three years more heavily. Then I moved to San Francisco and was out of it for a bit. I'm still part of the board. [Kuhn is a novelist whose books include The Asset, Hostile Takeover and Casual Friday.]
DM: I stayed active for about the first seven years. The way we do our programming is very unique, all by alumni filmmakers, and it's very decentralized. Every film gets seen by at least two different people, and there are these committees where nobody has any more influence than anyone else. When I started to have kids, it was a lot harder for me to do that. There were enough other alumni; it doesn't have to be me. I've still gone every year. [Mirvish continues working as an independent filmmaker, most recently 2017's Bernard and Huey.]
PB: I do love Slamdance and this community. We're looking at the next 25 years, and I want to be involved as long as I can be, as long as the organization will have me.
SK: The way it's run is still very much about trying to give a voice to first-time directors. That's something I really like about it. But there's more ability to do that now than back then. There are all these extensions of that original idea: Let's look for creators that are looking for a break, and give them that break ... The thing about Redneck is, even though it was the worst movie ever made, it was kind of one of the foundations of Slamdance. Whenever I think about what a terrible failure it was, at least it resulted in Slamdance.