Slamdance Film Festival Co-Founder Dan Mirvish Discusses its Roots

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In 1995, Dan Mirvish released a film called Omaha, which could be seen on a poster behind him during his interview with Movieweb. He initially submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival at a time that was pivotal for independent film.

“It didn’t get into Sundance. And this was at a time in the mid-90s that was pivotal for independent film, and kind of the Hollywood association of independent film. It was around that time that Miramax had just become part of Disney, Fine Line had become part of Warner Bros., Fox was launching Fox Searchlight; because of that, Sundance went along for the ride… So for their first ten years, they had been really supportive of first-time, low-budget independent filmmakers who didn’t have distribution, who would then find distribution at the festival, and didn’t have big stars necessarily. Then all of a sudden, by the mid-90s, they started showing films with bigger budgets and bigger stars, and films that already had distribution, because those distributors were now sponsors.”

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Mirvish went on to explain that because of this, a lot of first-time filmmakers who had potential were left behind because of their niche. He refers to them as “the first generation,” like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, and others who had previously been discovered in the first round of Sundance.

“The industry was like, ‘Dude, if you don’t get into Sundance, you’re screwed,’ and you wouldn’t get distribution. You wouldn’t get into other festivals because other regional and international festivals would just take the Sundance program and go, ‘there’s our list of the 12 indie films from America this year.’ You wouldn’t get an agent. You wouldn’t get a boyfriend or a girlfriend,” he joked.


Filling the Gap with Slamdance

“We had heard of a couple of individual filmmakers the year before in January 1994, who didn’t get into Sundance and did their own little renegade screenings. Those people were Trey Parker and Matt Stone — the South Park guys. Their film was called Cannibal! The Musical, and their own screening in a hotel room got a bit of attention. There was another guy named James Maron, and the same thing with his film… there have been a group of short filmmakers from New York called Film Crash, they had done a couple of little things like that too. So, we thought, ‘Okay, that’s our plan B — why don’t we do that?’ But then we realized how many of us first-time directors had films that were not getting into Sundance, and we said, ‘Why don’t we take that but really multiply it?’ Our first year, we had a dozen features.”


They also had a dozen shorts, and by combining all of their resources and picking a “name that would look good on a t-shirt,” Slamdance is now known as the festival that showed the first films of people like Bong Joon-ho, Christopher Nolan, the Russo brothers, Lena Dunham, the Safdie brothers, and the list could go on.

Related: Exclusive: Willa Fitzgerald Talks Watergate Scandal Inspired Comedy 18½

The Importance of Independent Filmmaking

Slamdance plays a role in filling the gap for independent cinema, an important one for a myriad of reasons. You could consider the development of directors and writers, giving them an opportunity to see their projects through to (hopefully) distribution. Another consideration could be the importance of telling a story despite it perhaps not being a blockbuster. Some documentary films may fall into that category. You could also think about the actors, explained Mirvish.


“It’s a couple of things. In terms of the actors, they get stuck doing TV shows or wearing tights, which is great for their bank accounts and careers. There are not a lot of actors who turn that stuff down. But they love to dig their teeth into something else, either a character or a role that they’ve never done before. Comedy if they’re known for dramas, or non-action films if they’re known for action. It’s really refreshing for them,” explained Mirvish, relaying how independent filmmaking really provides them an outlet. “It keeps them happy, meaning that it keeps their agents happy. Which means if you’re an independent filmmaker, you can get some really great people, if you know how to approach it.”

Slamdance was co-founded by Dan Mirvish alongside Jon Fitzgerald, Shane Kuhn, Peter Baxter, and Paul Rachman. Dan Mirvish’s most recent film is a Watergate-inspired comedy titled 18½, which releases on May 27. You can watch the trailer below.


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