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Slamdance elbows its way to respectability

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Jamie Strohfeldt calls it her "bat cave."

Each day since the Slamdance Film Festival opened here last week in a converted silver mine high above this ski resort town, massage therapist Strohfeldt has invited frazzled, anxiety-ridden independent filmmakers to turn off their cell phones, stop worrying for a few minutes if a distributor will buy their movies and experience the healing powers of a professional massage.

With flickering candles providing the only light in her makeshift therapy room, which is set up one floor under the Slamdance screening room, she urges the filmmakers to relax as she gently kneads their back and shoulder muscles with her aromatic-scented fingers.

"I find that everyone is really super tense and also very excited about their film," Strohfeldt says. "And this is a space where they can let themselves be in the moment and bring themselves back to the excitement of knowing why they are here. It's a space where they retrieve their soul."

You think filmmakers attending the larger, more prestigious Sundance Film Festival running simultaneously this week down the hill need to relax? Check out Slamdance.

These filmmakers seem willing to go to nearly any length, even arrest, just to get their films noticed by the hundreds of media representatives who have flooded into town to cover Sundance.

Take director Chris Haifley and producer Nene Gonzalez, who brought a movie called "Ronnie" to Slamdance this year. There they were Monday afternoon, standing across the street from the Egyptian Theater on Main Street scoping out both ends of the thoroughfare, hoping the cops weren't coming.

Then, from out of nowhere, one of their actors, a husky fellow named Matt Casado who plays a drug addict named Rat in the film, came running down the street zigzagging between cars dressed in a blue G-string and holding aloft a "Ronnie" poster while yelling like a banshee.

"Slamdance is big," Haifley said, "but it's still overshadowed by Sundance, so we're just out doing what we can do."

It has now been eight years since Slamdance came into existence, formed by filmmakers whose movies were rejected by Sundance.

In many ways, Slamdance is still a showcase for budding talent, fresh ideas, edgy material and those crazy promotions. In short, a platform for films that might otherwise have never been seen.

But Slamdance is no longer the annoying neighbor everyone wishes would just pack up and leave. True, you won't find the mega-deals going down here as you do at Sundance, or as many big-name celebrities posing for paparazzi (if at all), but there are subtle and not-so-subtle signs that Slamdance has finally come out of the cold.

For one thing, this is the first year that Park City has run a free shuttle to and from Slamdance, in this case the old Silver Mine where the festival this year has its headquarters, holds its seminars and screens its movies. (The site was once a busy mining operation; then it was transformed into a public tour. It is a weird sight to see rusting ore carts and stuffed mannequins dressed up like old prospectors dotting the Slamdance venue.)

For another, Sundance founder and actor Robert Redford is encouraging the upstart festival to keep doing what it is doing because it's all in the same cause.

Peter Baxter, president of Slamdance, recalls that Redford wasn't always that way. "People saw us, as Robert Redford once said, [as] a parasite," Baxter said. "At that time, it seemed that Sundance and Slamdance were more close together in that independent film world. But since then, that film world has really, I think, fragmented. Today, you can see that Slamdance is distinguished from Sundance. It really supports new filmmakers from a grass-roots perspective, whereas on the Sundance side, you have filmmakers who have been at Sundance before and had films made by distributors' money."

Redford, in an interview this week, said he wanted to "set the record straight" on Slamdance.

"In the early years, I was sensitive to just getting started," Redford recalled. "It took a lot of years and a lot of hard work to get established. When someone has success, it's either safe for someone to come in or [say], 'Oh, I'm going to jump off of that thing.'

"In the year that they came on, I said, 'This is a rival that is born out of -- I don't know if petulance -- but the films couldn't get in here so they formed their own thing," Redford continued. "Now, what I also said was, I wished they didn't feel the need to gain attention to themselves by presenting themselves as an alternative to us, like we're the bad guys, because there are so many discontents, there are so many malcontents. People who were ignored or didn't get in and they're angry or they're bitter. Well, hey, can we not have that?"

Redford said, "The truth is, I don't mind you there at all. I don't mind you, or two or three others like you there, because the whole point is to promote independent film and we can't possibly show all the films."

High-Profile Graduates and Corporate Sponsors

Baxter pointed to filmmakers who have come through Slamdance, such as Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") and Christopher Nolan ("Memento"), who now have good production deals.

"People are beginning to see now that Slamdance has helped these filmmakers get to the next step in their careers," he added.

Slamdance's remarkable turnaround can also be seen in its corporate sponsors. Some of this year's sponsors, in fact, fall outside the movie industry: Timbuk2 Designs, Kozak vodka and Dos Equis beer.

"Independent film is now being sold as a type of lifestyle," Baxter explained. "... They believe the independent film world is something which they leverage to help sell their product to a particular group of people who are -- not necessarily filmmakers -- but sort of represents the type of lifestyle that they think their buyers and customers want."

Baxter described the people who frequent independent films as "someone who is free-thinking, independent in mind [and] independent in spirit."

Of course, some of the films entered in Slamdance competition this year require independent tastes.

For instance, "Lurch" is about a man with the job of preserving animal corpses at the Berlin Natural History Museum. "Lefty-Right" tells the story of a right-handed man who hears a news report that left-handed people die earlier than right-handers. Because he leads such a bleak existence in a small apartment full of clutter, he decides to become left-handed so he can depart this world a little quicker.

Slamdance is also quickly becoming a name familiar enough that it can be marketed. Besides the T-shirts that sell for $15 to $20 each, or the Slamdance 2002 filmmaker bags that go for $35 each, the news broke this week that later this year the Moviola cable channel in Canada will produce 26 one-hour television programs called "The Slamdance Show." Baxter said the program will feature short films, many of which first screened at Slamdance, as well as interviews with independent filmmakers around the world.

Director Alexandre Rockwell, who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his 1992 film "In the Soup," believes the growing respect for Slamdance is a result of the film world seeing it as a niche.

Director Notes Change in Sundance

"Slamdance doesn't really threaten Sundance because I think Sundance has really changed in that it really is a hugely commercial vehicle," Rockwell observed.

"Sundance is a very expensive festival to run, so they are going to want to attract the Miramaxes and the foreign sales people, and the only way you are going to do that is to take their movies," he added. "How are you going to get [Miramax chief] Harvey Weinstein to come to Sundance unless you take three Miramax films? It's kind of unspoken, but it's pretty obvious to me. I don't blame them for it. It's a high-profile festival. If they didn't do that, they wouldn't get the attendance they get or wouldn't have the success they have.

"Slamdance is not about that," Rockwell added. Rockwell has returned to Park City, but to Slamdance, not Sundance. His new film, "13 Moons," features an ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Beals, David Proval and Karyn Parsons, and follows seven strangers during one Los Angeles night as they come together to save the life of a 6-year-old boy.

Rockwell believes there is probably a point where every film festival can begin to compromise the reasons it began in the first place.

"I think a film festival probably has a life [cycle]," he said.

"It starts out that they have interesting films, then finally people start coming to see the interesting films, and then it's like a trend and all of a sudden it gets co-opted by tons of money and then it kind of loses its intrinsic value. I do believe that, although there are institution festivals like Venice or Cannes or Berlin. They make no bones what they are about. They are markets and they are film festivals. They are like the stodgy old pros. Whereas, any kind of budding film festival that is going to introduce new talent, that prides itself on that, is probably going to burn out."

Slamdance burns out at some future date is inconceivable at this point. Baxter notes that it received more than 2,400 entries this year, a record.

He also points out that last year, five Slamdance films received distribution "of one kind or another, some deals bigger than others." And, he said, this year, five Slamdance alumni are nominated for Independent Spirit Awards.

"I feel as though it really is a coming of age, it's something we've believed in for a very long time, but now normal people outside our organization are seeing that."

And those who don't get into Slamdance? They can always use a good massage.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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