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Slamdance Elbows Its Way to Respectability

Still something of an upstart, the other Park City film festival has sponsors, spawned a few deals and even gained Sundance's blessing.


PARK CITY, Utah — 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."

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