The Slamdance Film Festival Turns 18: Talking With Co-Founder Dan Mirvish on the State of the Indie

Although the recession certainly cut back on the acquisitions budgets of independent film distributors, Mirvish believes that Park City will see a lot of film-buying activity shortly.
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As the Sundance Film Festival gets underway this week, the neighboring Slamdance Film Festival kicks off its 18th edition in Park City as well. This writer was there for the first Slamdance Film Festival in 1995, when a small group of the festival's founding filmmakers were screening their films in whatever venues were available, including restaurants, and soliciting whatever audiences they could find in the snowy streets, via fliers and posters. Since those early days, Slamdance has grown into a powerful force of the independent film world, spotlighting first-time filmmakers, and has debuted first features from the likes of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), whose feature Following screened at Slamdance in 1999. Films are now regularly picked up for distribution at Slamdance, including the debut installment of the Paranormal Activity series, which was purchased by Dreamworks after its Slamdance screening in 2008.

Dan Mirvish was one of the co-founders of Slamdance in 1995 and has remained one of its guiding forces, while also sustaining a directing career which began in 1994 with his first ultra low-budget feature Omaha (the Movie), and continues today with his just-completed feature Between Us, starring Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George, and David Harbour. Although the recession certainly cut back on the acquisitions budgets of independent film distributors, Mirvish believes that Park City will see a lot of film-buying activity shortly. "I think it's going to be a good year, judging from what I know of the films that are going to be there, at both Sundance and Slamdance," says Mirvish. "The word on the street is that distributors are going to be buying films. There are a couple of big filmmakers, like Spike Lee, who are coming to Park City, without distribution (with Red Hook Summer), with films which 10 years ago would have been made by a studio."

The digital revolution in filmmaking has made it possible for anyone with access to a camera and computer to make a feature film now. While that has unquestionably increased the numbers of other filmmakers that a first-time director has to compete with today, the lower costs of shooting on digital, as opposed to film, have sometimes freed up budgets for directors to hire better-known actors on a small project. Eli Perle, Mirvish's manager at Provocation Entertainment, who also represents a number of other indie filmmakers, including previous Slamdance Grand Jury winners Daniel J. Harris (The Bible and Gun Club) and Kevin DiNovis (Surrender Dorothy), elaborates, "With the whole digital aspect of getting films made, you can make a really good-looking movie for a lot less money than you used to. But more importantly, actors, and, even more importantly than that, their agents, have realized that the big studios are not making adult dramas." Mirvish nods, adding, "Studios don't really make Oscar movies, independent films become Oscar movies. Because of that, the agents and the actors are realizing that they need to pay a lot more attention to indie and low-budget filmmakers in a way that they hadn't so much before. Which is great for the filmmakers, because it means that you don't have to necessarily raise millions and millions of dollars to get A-list actors. You can raise a few hundred thousand dollars, get great actors, great cameras, and make a really amazing movie."

Another trend that has dovetailed with the ascent of digital filmmaking has been the use of "crowd-funding" via sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo to raise budget financing. Mirvish says, "This year, I think Kickstarter was involved with around 20 films at Sundance. And probably half the films at Slamdance did some type of crowd-funding. I think it's become a lot more acceptable, and mainstream, to just ask friends for money to help make your movie."

At the same time, Mirvish, whose Between Us received some of its initial funding via a successful Kickstarter campaign, points out that there is a reason the site is called Kickstarter and not KickFINISHER. He elaborates, "You don't raise all your money through Kickstarter, and one shouldn't expect to. A lot of people really emphasize the money aspect of these crowd-funding campaigns, but also important is the emotional aspect. You know, the hardest part is convincing yourself that you're making the film. The second hardest part is convincing others. What Kickstarter and these other campaigns do is convince you that you're doing this thing. And even though you don't necessarily owe those people back the money, you sort of emotionally do. In a very real sense, it sort of forces you to put together business plans and trailer reels and get your act together."

The 18th Slamdance Film Festival runs Jan. 20-26 in Park City, Utah.

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