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Slamdance's door is open

The film festival was created as a haven for first-time filmmakers, but screenwriters have a welcome mat there too.

June 22, 2005|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

The Slamdance Film Festival was born of rejection. The four co-founders couldn't get their films into Park City, Utah's Sundance Film Festival, so they started their own festival in 1995 -- at the same time, in the same place and with almost the same name -- but open only to low-budget independent films by first-time directors.

From those humble beginnings (48 entries that first year), Slamdance has become a year-round operation, with an office on Melrose and projects ranging from screenings in other countries to a video-game competition. This spring's festival saw more than 2,800 submissions.

The founders' credo, "by filmmakers, for filmmakers," led them to create a screenwriting competition in 1996, and the success of past winners and finalists -- 2001's "The Woodsman" (first place) and "Maria Full of Grace" (third place) both went on to be produced to much acclaim -- has raised the contest's profile of late: Writers on both films credit the competition with helping get their projects made, and with advancing their careers.

A win-win proposition

Reflecting Slamdance's writer-centric nature, even non-winners get a prize of sorts. Entrants have a chance to receive detailed responses to their scripts -- "coverage" -- from the judges, an element that contest director John Stoddard calls the cornerstone of the competition. "In the world of screenwriting competitions it is very rare," he said. Apparently it's also very welcome. Last year's contest had 1,800 entries, with 1,400 pieces of coverage generated, and Slamdance is bracing for this year's scripts. The deadline for the competition is July 1, and since organizers know how writers can be, the late deadline is July 8. (Details are available on Slamdance.com.)

"It's very nice, obviously, when a screenplay gets made into a successful movie, but at the same time, when you're getting going, you're not always going to hit the home run," said Slamdance president and co-founder Peter Baxter. "It is about singles, getting to the next step. This screenplay competition, like the festival, can help writing talent get to the next step."

Last year Slamdance began offering screenwriters another potential boost with "Slamdance on Stage," a reading series of the top 10 screenplays and top three shorts. "This just seemed like a great way to push these scripts and get them out there to people in the industry," said Howard Casner, a playwright and screenwriter who reads for the competition and proposed the series.

Casner's plan involved using different theaters to put on each reading, letting them cast and direct the pieces and stage them in their own locations, so he asked Ken Metz, an L.A. theater veteran, to co-produce the series with him. Metz then turned to his friends and their Rolodexes. Coronet Theatre associate director T. Jay O'Brien and celebrity consultant Toula Mavridou helped the pair find name actors for various lead roles, to help increase turnout.

This year, Metz and Casner volunteered their time again, and the top six finalists of Slamdance's new teleplay competition were also given readings in L.A. theaters from March to May.

"The Apology," a screenplay by Amir Ohebsion, Fariborz David Diann and Babak Shokrian, won the latest Slamdance competition and received its reading, the final 2005 series installment, at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza. A character study of a legendary Iranian showman who struggles with life in exile, it was read by members of the Ark Theatre Company, with Enrico Colantoni ("Veronica Mars") as the lead.

About 75 people were in the audience, a pretty good turnout for a Monday night reading, and the writers were thrilled to see their work performed. "It's actually very inspiring to hear other people utter the words you've written on paper," Ohebsion said a few days after the reading. "I almost cried when I saw a couple of the people saying all these lines we had toiled over for hours and hours and hours."

"Watching it on stage for the first time was really helpful, because you get to see which scenes are working" and how the crowd responds, added Shokrian, who admitted to getting chills during some of Colantoni's lines.

At first blush

Ken Pisani, the winner of this year's first teleplay competition, found his reading similarly enlightening, although at times uncomfortable. "I was sitting next to two sweet little old ladies right out of central casting, and every time one of my characters invoked oral sex, incest or blurted the 'F-word' (yes, this is kind of an unconventional TV pilot) I kept shrinking in my seat," he commented via e-mail.

Pisani entered the contest because he thought it would be a good way to get cheap coverage. As the winner, he received a blind script deal -- worth about $50,000 -- with fox21, a new TV studio that's a division of 20th Century Fox, and the main sponsor of the teleplay contest.

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