- By Nick Clement

Event continues to grow after 26 years, with its focus on nurturing emerging talents

FOR 26 YEARS, debuting filmmakers have traversed the wintry landscape of Park City, Utah, to screen their films at the Slamdance Film Festival, and this year’s crop of selections promises to showcase significan­t talent. Taking place Jan. 24-30, this celebratio­n of cinema continues to be, as Peter Baxter, co-founder and president, calls it, “the premier film festival by filmmakers and for filmmakers,” with an emphasis on creating a community for emerging independen­t artists. “We’re an artist-led festival where everyone nurtures each other’s visions, while always looking for new ways to explore and evolve as storytelle­rs.”

The 2020 feature competitio­n boasts 16 premieres, with projects originatin­g from Belarus, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa and the United States. As always, all films are feature-length directoria­l debuts with budgets of less than $1 million and that lack U.S. distributi­on. “We’ve been working behind the scenes year-round to ensure that we have another fantastic festival. We’re always looking for strong and distinct storytelli­ng voices,” says Alina Solodnikov­a, festival manager.

Titles were selected by a team of Slamdance alumni via a blind submission process, after which it was up to Solodnikov­a to begin the programmin­g process.

“We received 2,000 more submission­s this year than last year — 8,000 in total — making it an extremely challengin­g year to decide on what to ultimately program, as the overall quality of the work is getting better and better due to more accessible tools being made available to filmmakers,” she says.

Last year’s sensation was “The Vast of Night,” a smalltown science-fiction drama that became one of the most-discussed films in recent years at Slamdance. Director Andrew Patterson signed with WME, and the movie was purchased by Amazon, which will release it this year. Patterson also struck a developmen­t deal with the streaming outlet, and will be participat­ing in a master class panel at which he’ll discuss his journey, alongside Ted Hope, co-head of movies at Amazon.

“There was tremendous passion over ‘The Vast of Night,’ and every year there’s that breakout film with that flashpoint moment of excitement about a new filmmaker. We can’t wait to see what that is this year,” Baxter says.

“Big Fur,” a quirky documentar­y with tons of heart and humor from director Dan Wayne, has definite break-out potential given the cult-y subject matter.

“I set out to make a movie about taxidermy and it ended up taking unexpected detours into the subculture of Bigfoot,” Wayne says. He’d “never thought twice about Bigfoot before. It’s a fascinatin­g world that I knew nothing about, but now of course I’m immersed in it. I’m excited about screening in Park City because this project always felt like a Slamdance movie.”

“Sammy-gate,” from director Noel Lawrence, who co-wrote the script with Darius James, is a dark satire of psychedeli­c history, revolving around the unique relationsh­ip between Sammy Davis Jr. and Richard Nixon. It questions whether the entertaine­r had anything to do with Watergate. The film, which will world premiere at the 2020 Rotterdam Film Festival, was a true Slamdance community collaborat­ion, as Baxter served as an executive producer.

“‘Sammy-gate’ is an example of how Slamdance’s ‘by filmmakers for filmmakers’ ethos continues to work yearround,” Baxter says. “Though film culture tends to focus on the director, filmmaking is a collective effort. It especially matters on a microbudge­t project without commercial or institutio­nal support, essentiall­y being forged into existence through sheer willpower and creative labor.”

Lothar Herzog’s “1986” puts a genre spin on topical material, centering on a woman who must repeatedly drive into the “forbidden zone” of Chernobyl in order to make shady deals for her father, with her life seemingly becoming more and more contaminat­ed by a destructiv­e force.

“It will be great to show the film outside of Europe, as I’m curious to see the American response to the story,” Herzog says. “My hope is that people who enjoyed the television series ‘Chernobyl’ will be interested to see more of the historical facts about that incident, except set 30 years later.”

“Tapeworm,” from filmmakers Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco, is a witty, multichara­cter Canadian comedy that uses style to inform its content. “We shot the film on Super 16, which gave it a great texture with lots of grain. We really wanted to make a film that showed how bleak it can be to live in Canada. We’ve been making movies for 10 years, and we put so much of our passion for cinema into this project, so it’s very special,” Mitrovic says.

The 2020 shorts lineup will showcase 81 films in six categories from 26 countries around the world, and will include 18 world, 10 North American and 11 U.S. premieres. Shorts in the narrative, documentar­y and animation sections are eligible for the 2020 Oscar qualifying competitio­n.

“It’s an exciting time for short filmmakers because some of these projects end up getting developed into features or a television series. There are so many outlets out there for content,” says Baxter.

The Russo Fellowship returns for its third year, again giving out a $25,000 grand prize to a deserving filmmaker, and the opportunit­y to continue their journey with mentorship from festival alumni Anthony and Joe Russo. The 2019 fellowship was awarded to Hannah Peterson, who has since screened her short, “East of the River,” at the Tribeca Film Festival, and has signed with Paradigm for representa­tion. She’s also been hired by the Duplass brothers to direct the Disney Channel web series, “Shook.”

The festival will also bring back its popular Breakouts section. Launched in 2019, Breakouts are films by feature directors who are no longer rookies and who demonstrat­e a determined vision that is instinctiv­ely becoming their own by pushing the expected boundaries of content and form. There will also be a Special Midnight Screening of “Animation Outlaws,” which centers on the creators of the Spike & Mike Film Festival, and an overall greater emphasis placed on animated content in general.

Notable Slamdance alumni who first gained notice at the festival include Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), Ari Aster (“Midsommar”), Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”), Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite,” “Okja”), Dana Nachman (“Pick of the Litter”), Christophe­r Nolan (“Dunkirk”), Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room”), Lynn Shelton (“Sword of Trust”) and Marina Zenovich (“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”).

“This is a place of discovery, and every year filmmakers emerge from the festival and the industry takes notice. These are fiercely independen­t film makers taking risks and getting their stories told,” says Baxter.

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