Interview: Peter Baxter (Co-Founder – Slamdance Film Festival)

Dan Mirvish, Jon Fitzgerald, Shane Kuhn and Peter Baxter are the founding forefathers who, along with co-conspirator Paul Rachman, fought for truly independent filmmakers by giving them a voice in 1995 at the very first Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, the festival takes place every January in the breathtakingly stunning, snow-capped mountains of Park City, Utah at the exact same time as the Sundance Film Festival, to provide a more authentic representation of independent filmmaking. Up-and-coming writers, directors and producers, alongside seasoned veterans and film lovers, converge for the weeklong celebration of independent cinema, realizing that Slamdance is a great place to find those next, great, visionary films.

Slamdance lives and bleeds by its mantra By Filmmakers For Filmmakers. No other film festival in the world is entirely run and organized by the creative force that can only be found in filmmakers. Slamdance adamantly supports self-governance amongst independents, and exists to deliver what filmmakers go to festivals for – a chance to show their work and a platform to launch their careers. The festival has earned a solid reputation for premiering films by first-time writers and directors working within the creative confines of limited budgets.

Anticipating the 20th anniversary edition of the Slamdance Film Festival we managed to speak with the festival co -founder Peter Baxter about its evolution over that time, its relationship with Park City, the difficulties of a democratic programming approach and much more.

The 2014 Slamdance Film Festival will run concurrently with the Sundance Film Festival, January 17-23, 2014 in Park City, Utah.

Find more information and tickets to the 2014 Slamdance Film FestivalHERE


How has your outlook toward the festival and its place amongst the landscape of independent film changed (if at all) over the last 20 years?
When we first started we did not have much of a clue about how to run a festival.  We were a wild bunch of filmmakers who wanted to have their work shown.  Surely over the last 20 years the festival has gotten better organized.  We have this mantra “by filmmakers for filmmakers” which stems from alumni filmmakers coming back  to help program the next edition of the festival. This is the heart and soul of Slamdance.  When us four guys started planning the festival in 1995, we did it for our own films and others joined us, but we did not have distribution; we were new filmmakers; the films were low budget and independently made; we all got rejected from Sundance, so by not accepting defeat we wanted to do something about it.  We also realised there would be other filmmakers coming along who could not get their work shown and who were competing with big names and films with distribution.  We wanted to provide an alternative.

As the years have gone by we have gotten more and more submissions.  In the first year we were at 48 and now we are over 5000, so now we have a great community that is underpinned by our filmmakers who come back each year to make up the festival.  We have over 75 active programmers who are trying to create a level playing field for filmmakers to submit to Slamdance.  All of our films come from blind submissions.  We do not choose any films before the final day of programming and when they are chosen they are chosen amongst the team of programmers.  Each has a vote; each has a voice.  I am one of the programmers in one of the groups.  My voice is equal to everyone else in that group and we do not interfere with other programmers in other groups.  It is as objective as we can possible make it.  That is very important to our organization.

With the rise in submissions, has programming the festival become more difficult, especially in keeping with your philosophy?
There is always something that can come along to upset organisation.  I have learned, within this microcosm of democracy, how hard it is to make this work.  You have to believe in everyone around you and you have to allow that freedom to exist all the time. Every now and again you might second guess that but you have to spend time listening and working with people who may have a new idea or think differently from everyone else.  At the end of it, having done that has made our organization stronger.  It is a basic thing to say but it has been essential to the success of Slamdance.  It is very unusual as this is not how other festivals or organizations are built.  People are employed to do certain jobs there, but what we have done is given that power to the programmers. Sure there are other important things that need to be thought about like festival production, sponsorship and year round activities but the heart and soul of what we do come from the submissions we get and how we work in organizing the festival.

Specific to 2014, did you and your programmers notice any common themes emerging amongst the submission pool?
There is no fashion or theme that the festival is specifically looking at, but we can talk about the theme of quality in independent film which has gone up a lot over the last 5 years.  New technology has enabled independent filmmakers to take a more hands on, DIY approach to what they are filming because you can now buy this great new equipment and technology.  You can spend all the time you decide you want to spend in crafting your next work and that has made a huge, positive, difference in creating independent film.  As we know, cameras are a very big part of that development in technology.  Its also in editing and coloring technology.  For a documentary filmmaker it is so easy to spend time by yourself crafting what you want to do in your home or office rather than relying on a team of others to do it.

In your observations what aspects of independent film have changed over the past 20 years?
It has never been a such a great time to make an independent film.  In 1995, when I made my film, it was on 35mm film and was made traditionally in the sense that we worked with a lab, a post house and coloring which were all outside of our production office.  It is interesting because while a lot of filmmakers are still working with film they are converting it digitally, so we are very much in the digital world.  The program that we see this year reflects the standard and quality in new ideas and storytelling that is coming out of all those great assets.

At the same time you can say that it has never been harder to find meaningful distribution for your film.  Everyone can find some kind of distribution.  Right now you can just put it up online on your own and that can be considered distribution.  The idea that is going to be able to sustain your filmmaking is a completely different matter.

How do you incentivise buyers and distributors to remain part of Slamdance?
There is a track record at Slamdance which shows that this is a great place to acquire quality films.  In 2013 the majority of the feature films found meaningful distribution so the place is becoming a popular one for people to find great films.

The Slamdance brand created and what it stands for in the spirit of independent filmmaking is becoming more attractive because it represents an authentic version of independent filmmaking.

Do you find any particular aspects of organizing the festival as being consistently difficult?
If you take a step back and consider the sheer amount of submissions we get and how we organize them so the films are fairly watched is one of the biggest jobs that has to be done thoroughly every year.  When you get more and more films submitted every year this will obviously become a challenge.  We do not want to let down any filmmaker.  Even if they do not make it into the festival we tell them that they are going to have their film viewed properly.  It is our job to do that and it is a very important part about running our organization.  Again, when you think you have  system down for that something may come along to change it so you have to monitor and be careful with it every year.

How is your relationship with Park City?  How is your model emblematic of where indie film can branch outside of the major production hubs like New York and Los Angeles?
Our offices are based in Los Angeles but we move up to Park City during the festival period.  We are also in and out of Park City throughout the year.  In terms of the physical space it is the people who make places go.  We have a lot to thank the people of Park City for in allowing us to be there at the same time as Sundance.  I think they would agree that if you put both the festivals together it creates an even better representation of indie filmmaking in the United States as they complement one another.

In terms of film production it is a very interesting question right now.  We are making a documentary ‘DIY‘ and just interviewed Benh Zeitlin (‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’) who is no longer based in New York but, rather, New Orleans.  The main reason he moved to New Orleans is because he wanted to carry on making independent film and needed more space, as well as making it affordable.  A place like New York is too expensive and too restrictive for that.  A place like New Orleans is liberating for filmmakers.  Our submissions are coming from all over the country, not just New York or Los Angeles.  We are seeing more independent filmmakers taking advantage of what these cities can provide and it is mostly in regards to what Benh was saying.

Finally, is there any aspect of this years festival you are particularly excited about presenting?
As always we are very excited to show our competition films which will be made up of films by first time directors, with small budgets and without distribution.  As I mentioned before, the program only gets stronger as we go along.

The other exciting aspect of this years festival is the amount of returning alumni.  Not only as programmers but in just coming to support the filmmakers.  This is great to see.  We have some quite well known alumni returning as it is our 20th anniversary.  It just goes to show that the grassroots, DIY approach can really help one achieve success.

– Interview conducted (via phone), edited & transcribed by Steve Rickinson





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