November 30, 2011 – Today Sundance Film Festival announced their 2012 lineup. Filmmaker Daniel J. Harris responds to the announcement and reveals the submission stats for the concurrent and always irreverent Slamdance Film Festival.

Peter Baxter, head honcho at Slamdance HQ, forwarded me the annual submission stats and on review it tells a story about the state of low budget independent filmmaking. Conventional wisdom over the last decade for a first time feature filmmaker wanting to be in Park City in January has been to apply for both festivals. What’s another $75 bucks when you have maxed three credit cards?

Slamdance has as its mandate for 17 years, reserved the main festival competition’s narratives and documentaries for debut feature filmmakers. Sundance has no debutante director’s fortnight, they only insist on the film being a World Premiere. They do have multiple categories though. Slamdance has categories for Features, Narratives, Documentaries, Shorts and Special Screenings (a selection of films by invitation from filmmakers with more than one feature credit).

The notion of a having a film festival based on first time films is unique and should be a clue for what the festival seeks says Paul Rachman Slamdance founding member and programmer who urges filmmakers to:

“Spend time looking a bit selfishly into yourself to find your own true voice, the story you want to tell, the film you'll like. Your first time out into feature filmmaking especially with a low/no budget path you can really afford to say fuck the norm, fuck the indie establishment, fuck what people think and what festivals want, fuck the distributors, hell fuck the audience too. In this way you'll make something original, bold and maybe just blow people away. Then if you can establish yourself into a small but firm foothold in the film world you can start considering all the things necessary that can make a career and create your own rules that others will abide by.”

Slamdance does not insist on Word Premiere status; they will take a shopworn film as long as it makes the grade. Submitting your debut film to multiple festivals in the USA, is costly, grueling and a gamble. If you don’t make the Sundance cut, the marquee event for American independents, you are left with dozens to consider but nothing beats being in Park City for ten days with a captive industry audience. With so many festivals looking for your premiere it should be a no brainer to go with Sundance, if they do call, right?

I am not privy to Sundance submission stats but their six competitive categories are open to all ages with the stipulation that they are World Premieres. In addition to the six categories, Sundance has seven Out of Competition categories including yet again the NEXT category comprising of 8 USA narrative features that Sundance insist on also being world premieres.

NEXT falls in under 'non competitive' yet in the spirit of the Sundance Special Olympics of indie filmmaking, a genius over in marketing has come up with the ‘best of NEXT Audience Award’. I could find no submissions exclusively for NEXT so it would seem Sundance dumps eight films it kinda likes but ultimately rejected into this category and sell it as “there is nothing categorical about them. By nature, they embody the spirit of indie filmmaking," according to the Sundance website.

My argument is not that these film should not be screened, I have no idea if they are great films but given the opportunity the filmmakers might find success at another festival like SXSW later in the calendar rather than be seduced and swallowed up in huge slate that gets bigger every year. Is Sundad saying these films are, “man so far out, like so Underground, we think you cool kids have it going on!”

Clearly Sundance wants to be perceived as the only festival for all American independent filmmakers and for them to try lay claim to this underground spirit is like Goldman Sachs opening a burrito stand at Liberty Square.

Slamdance along with the now deceased NYC and Chicago Underground successfully trafficked them in for years. Films like Kevin DiNovis’ Surrender Dorothy, Monteith MaCullum’s Hybrid or Q’s Gandu are proof of its commitment to the authentic spirit of resistance. I’ve always been amazed at the films rejected by Sundance that then make it to Slamdance a few days later. How do they miss these films? It’s always been Slamdance good fortune that Sundance programmers seem to lose all courage of conviction when confronted with a new slate at the 11th hour.

At Cannes, there is Directors Fortnight born in protest at the French cinema’s ancient regime and in support of the ’68 student rebellion, a side bar that has nothing to do with the main festival. It’s credo led by Godard and Truffaut was “by filmmakers for filmmakers”, a maxim claimed by Slamdance.

Steven Soderbergh screened his Sundance rejectee Schizopolis at Slamdance some years ago that was seen at the time as a solid fuck you to the establishment. That it was less a call to arms than a mistress once scorned is not the point, it's the sentiment that counts. It’s a tough call for producers wanting to sell their films; one needs guts, bluff and bravado. This is Off-Hollywood after all.

My suggestion to the 8 NEXT filmmakers who will get an email this week inviting them to this soiree is to politely decline then collectively find yourself a digital projector and host your own Occupy Sundance. Pitching tents in the snow, and yelling cine-Marxist agitprop is always a better way to promote your film than by being co-opted by The Man.

Hell, globally everyone is pissed off at anyone with authority, is it not time someone made a statement or is it maybe Americans filmmakers have nothing really left to say?

Slamdance always cuts the fat real lean so here’s how it stacks up for 2011:

Narrative Feature Competition 10 spots available
Documentary Feature Competition 8 spots available
Narrative Short Competition 50 spots available
Documentary Short Competition 13 spots available
Special Screenings (not in Competition) 6 spots available

Submissions by Category:

Shorts - 2939
Features - 738

Documentary Features - 315
Documentary Shorts – 248

Late submissions pushed the total to over 4500 films by the 1st week of November.

Slamdance submissions have a $1 million budgetary cap. This decree was mostly a kindly aside to Lebanese producers of Wings Hauser trilogies looking for artistic street cred to keep their 75 bucks rather than asking young filmmakers to be parsimonious in their budgeting. Word from Peter Baxter is the micro budgeter submissions were up big time this year.

Budget breakdown:

27 Narrative Features with a budget under $100… yep a C note. If I was you cheap ass lot (and do not make the Slamdance cut), get to Park City and start a $100 Occupy Slamdance fest outside Treasure Mountain Inn and they will send out hot soup before the Utah cops move you along with pepper spray.

Remember filmmakers, Slamdance was born out of REJECTION, failure is good.

44 Narrative Features with a budget under $1,000.

58 Narrative Features with a budget under $2,500.

113 Narrative Features with a budget under $5,000
179 Narrative Features with a budget under $10,000.

I have no stats yet on how many of the under $10k Narrative Features were shot digitally but I would assume all of them. To shoot film for $10K is still just possible but you have to be a real smartass to attempt it.

As for authentic shot-on-film submissions, "don't dump your Kodak shares yet, film is still alive." said Slamdance cofounder & filmmaker Dan Mirvish, "14% were still shot on film. And remember, these are the lowest of budget filmmakers who can barely afford underwear, much less film stock. Steven Spielberg would be proud."

Film Shooting Formats:

Total submissions shot on FILM – 590

8mm: 16 films submitted.
Eight millimeter?! These are some die-hard Cine-Calvinists, there might be one lab left on the planet that will process your late 50’s 8mil reel.

Super 8mm: 61 films submitted.
More than likely films were student graduate submissions and always a joy to watch no matter the Maya Derenesque experimentations. Possibly some of these entries come from Straight8, a very cool little festival of one take/cartridge S8 shorts that I highly recommend like THIS ONE.

16 mm: 102 films submitted.
Very cool, good old 1:33 16mm, gonna have to check if my old FilmCrash pal Matt Harrison did not submit all these.

Super16mm: 200 films submitted.
Die hard cine-grain contrarians. Certainly give me the cash I would shoot S16 to the grave. Very keen to know if there was a B&W S16 feature in there. Ya just know that all of these filmmakers would spit on a Canon 5D.

35mm: 176 films submitted.
This lot is tapping some Hedgefundage, way beyond your average kickstarter poverty row funding. You could, in theory shoot a 35mm feature for $100k but more than likely these films are well over the $250k mark.

Super35mm: 35 films submitted.
These filmmakers are getting more aspect ratio for the buck and that shit looks good wide. Ambitious 1st time feature filmmakers here, this is Hollywood after all.

This is my view on shooting film in the US. If you are in the micro budget world, say under $20k logic dictates digital, you need cash elsewhere. Achieving a film look is easy these days, that’s not the point. You can still shoot a low budget S16mm feature, rental, stock 1/5 shooting ratio, processing, scan for under $40k. Deals can be made.

For a budget of $250k, it’s not the camera; it’s you the filmmaker.

I understand the emotions in buying your 1st pro camera. It’s a powerful drug to own a RED epic or the new Scarlet. The eternal filmmaking dilemma, spend $20k of your shitty budget on S16 film, own a pro digital system…or rent. Ten years ago, hell five years ago a low budgeter would buy a used old cool ArriSR for 10-15K or an Aaton Minima for $12k, to save on a budget. That was the thinking.

In the interim more than likely the camera did not get used much between big film projects. That’s my concern with filmmakers buying into pro systems like RED with big ass backend post costs. Pro-gear have overheads as well, maintenance and lenses and gear rentals. It’s a bitch of a decision.

Want to make your debut feature look like an episode of House? Shoot Canon 5Dmk2 or rent the new Canon C300. Want your film to look like Wim Wender’s State of Things? Buy Cinegrain, composite then overlay. I use a really cool $900 Panasonic GH2 hacked camera that shoots insane sensor bit rates that IMO seriously smokes a RED image (with some grading), but I know I would look dead sexy shooting handheld with a Scarlet.

Apologies I’m off topic.

There were no statistics on what was shot on RED, AF100, Canon 5/7D etc. I will do a follow up during the festival to see what filmmakers were shooting with.


Foreign submissions are up 30% to a total of 1151 entries of shorts, docs and features out of just over 4500 total subs.

Slamdance is global. There is no Sundance fuzzy foreigner film sidebar at Slamdance, they compete in the main competition with the rich Americans. Now that’s the democratization of cinema!

As I write this from my outpost in South Africa looking in at the American Independent scene with just a little envy mixed with admiration at the tenacity of filmmakers to slog it out I predict a few trends this year in Park City, the most obvious likely being a successful micro-budgeter. Slamdance has had them in the past, Oren Pelli’s horror trilogy Paranormal Activity first saw light at Treasure Mountain Inn and last year's Q’s (pictured above) micro Rupee Indian 7D feature Gandu hit blasted the festival. But I envisage films will be born from the streets (or aborted like the Canon 7D Gandu) and take you to worlds only stealth cameras like the GH2 and Canon’s can.

Unlike the apartment dwelling Mumblecore genre, (surely the most embarrassing New Wave of filmmaking in cinema history), I predict a Go-Pro-Soaring-Camera micro or an Xbox inspired flick by imitators of Freddy Wong the Youtube maniac who makes Robert Rodriguez look like a wedding video guy, to make a real splatter in January at Slamdance or Occupy Sundance.

Daniel J. Harris
Cape Town November 2011

Daniel J. Harris made Slamdance Jury winner The Bible and Gun Club and is producing a documentary collective feature for Slamdance 2012.

You can follow him on twitter @biginvegas.