Felix Vasquez Jr.’s F-Bombs: Slamming Sundance

2005’s “Mad Hot Ballroom” was the hit of the year. The Nickelodeon/Paramount owned documentary featured three Public Schools in New York, all of whom were taught the art of ballroom dancing and ultimately experienced a coming of age with their skills that took them in to a major competition by the end of the film. The film grossed a total of over nine million dollars, screening on theaters in the double digits. 2007’s “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” about the inadvertent rivalry between two master gamers competing to obtain the world record Donkey Kong made the top ten lists of over a dozen critics in 2007, and garnered immense buzz over the course of the year from news companies alike.

2009’s “Paranormal Activity” was made on a micro budget and filmed in generally one location. It received rave reviews by critics across the board before being snatched up by Paramount and Dreamworks catching the attention and praise of big wigs including Steven Spielberg. Subsequent its successful distribution, director Oren Peli’s film went on to garner a world wide release and successful viral campaign ultimately grossing almost two hundred million dollars worldwide, transforming in to a franchise, garnering a highly praised sequel, and a milestone for a new decade of internet bred horror buffs.

Why is this at all relevant information? Like many original titles of late, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “The King of Kong,” and blockbuster “Paranormal Activity” originated from the seedy underbelly of the Slamdance Film Festival, the indie film festival that sets down on Park City, Utah right alongside what we know as Sundance. Fact: “Paranormal Activity” was rejected from Sundance.

Sure, 2011 saw a resurgence in the indie blood flow with Sundance, the festival that was once a bona fide market for product placement, big parties, and a parade of stars attending, many of whom admitted to not even seeing any of the films competing. There was even a stretch of a few years where the biggest news coming out of Sundance was which highly regarded celebrity couple showed up to a film and very rarely did we hear about the films. I can’t tell you how many great films were passed over for publicity in favor of more photo ops with celebrities posing with products and hand bags.

Some of the better films from Sundance tried to convey something of a message about third world countries and the last effects of hurricane Katrina, but sadly, Sundance became such a juggernaut of glitz and glam, it forgot that it’s really there for the films and the next big game changing titles that could reshape cinema as we know it. 2011 is gladly a time where Sundance is loosening its belt and embracing its more independent sensibilities.

With director Jason Eisener’s “Hobo with A Shotgun” (which I can almost ensure will be thirty times better than “Grindhouse” was) and Kevin Smith’s own “Red State” (I guarantee you that film is as much an indie as “Avatar” was), Sundance is touching down on to its roots finally and handing us something of an independently financed festival. But if you’re in the market for something a little more off kilter, and not as widely publicized, you may want to check out Slamdance some year.

While most of the success stories happen in Sundance (or at least the more bloated over promoted despicable stories a la Kevin Smith), often times the submission process is much too congested with submissions and exclusionary to obtain actual independent films made under budgets of half a million dollars, save for a few titles here and there that seep in under good fortune and pre-established critical favor.

With the economy in the collective dumps as it is, independent filmmaking is becoming a tougher prospect to fathom for most artists out there. Grants and outside funding are becoming more and more difficult to obtain, and self-financing is mostly out of the question for your average aspiring director and or screenwriter. Most of the filmmakers I’ve talked to all seem very weary since they’re anxious to make their next film and get it out on the market, but are shocked at how absolutely expensive it’s become.

Like actual independent filmmakers, they work and toil just to complete their next project in the hopes of being purchased by a studio and garnering a distribution deal from amazing home video retailers like Cinema Epoch and Dimension, and Slamdance conveys such an artistic struggle in America that not so much the final stop, as it is the stepping stone to more high brow genre festivals like Screamfest or Fantastic Fest.

Slamdance has been something of an oddity since the nineties and bred some of its own followers including the yearly Tromadance which is like the off off Broadway play only the more perverse drama students attend. Years ago when I wrote for another film website, I spent a lot of the month of January each year reviewing a glut of respective screeners from Slamdance, many of which were either rejected by Sundance, or submitted in to Slamdance out of love for the general spirit of being truly indie.

For a period of four years I was often tasked with reviewing many of the independent films from Sundance and from Slamdance respectively and quite often I couldn’t figure out why Slamdance was given the short end of the stick in the area of publicity and general praise among cineastes alike. Over the course of a week I’d hunker down and watch a series of shorts, feature films, and documentaries from the Slamdance festival, all of which guaranteed something new and rich every time I popped in a DVD or VHS.

The tone was always so filled with a daring and bravado that made the viewing of the respective films so much fun and abundantly surreal. Even when a film was flat and a completely failed experimentation in the filmmaking medium, the titles were at least rich with innovation featuring films that garnered some daring topics and even hosted some of the most entertaining animation I’ve ever seen dabbling in the classic claymation and occasional CGI.

I can still fondly remember the short documentary about crane operators in high rises, a short animated film about a street rat who falls in love with a lab rat, and a short documentary about the life of morticians, a truly disgusting but fascinating glimpse in to an overlooked profession. Along the same vein I also checked out a documentary about William Castle entitled “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” that was so absolutely entertaining and satisfying for a film geek like yours truly, I wondered why it wasn’t a hot ticket in Sundance.

2011 has been about Sundance reclaiming the alleged independent spirit that it purported to have the monopoly on during its inception in the nineties with the revelation of actual independent filmmakers struggling to get their films seen like Jason Eisener for “Hobo with a Shotgun,” Rashaad Ernesto Green for “Gun Hill Road,” and André Øvredal for his horror film “Troll Hunter,” but if ever handed the option of a ticket to Sundance or a ticket to Slamdance, I’d actually opt for Slamdance if only to commune with the indie community in their habitat who are out looking for distribution and aren’t all too concerned with photo ops.

Fuck it, no disrespect to any of the hard working folks at Sundance, but for this man’s money, Slamdance is really the indie scene deserving of television spots where the truly starving artists toil away.