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“When We First Started It Was a Variation of the Salon des Refusés…”: Slamdance President Peter Baxter on Accessibility, Community and Moving to L.A.

A Slamdance 2024 audience (Photo: Lauren Desberg)

Slamdance announced last week that the Slamdance Film Festival will move from Park City, Utah, where it’s been since its founding in 1995, to Los Angeles beginning with next year’s edition. The dates will shift slightly to February 20-26, and the move will afford the festival bigger and more professional screening facilities, including at Landmark Theatres and the DGA Theater complex.

As Slamdance co-founder and President Peter Baxter notes in our interview below, Slamdance has long had a Los Angeles presence, through both its year-round office but also through its summer AGBO+Slamdance Summer Showcase. About the move, filmmakers and AGBO co-founders Anthony and Joe Russo said in a press release, “Our journey in the film industry began at Slamdance, and our commitment to the festival and the opportunities it offers filmmakers has remained unwavering. Over the years, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with numerous filmmakers through our fellowship program and various initiatives at our studio. We look forward to witnessing the continued growth and impact of Slamdance in its new home.”

The mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, also commented: “We are thrilled to announce that the Slamdance Film Festival is moving to Los Angeles and will host its first event here beginning in February 2025. To know the history and landscape of independent storytelling is to know that Los Angeles has always been a home and a source of inspiration for artists, as the creative capital of the world. As we welcome filmmakers, artists, and cinema enthusiasts from around the world, the Slamdance Film Festival will serve as a dynamic hub for creativity, connection, and job opportunities for Angelenos.”

To learn more about the move, Slamdance’s decision-making process, and how the festival is adapting to changes across the industry, I spoke with Baxter earlier this week, and our edited conversation is below.

Filmmaker: How long has this move from Park City been in the works?

Baxter: Well, in a sense, every year since the beginning of Slamdance, because nearly every year there’s been a review. Sometimes we didn’t do that review when we had contracts that we had agreed to and we knew we were going to be there for another two, three, four years. But we’ve always considered our presence in Park City. We remained there because we believed that we could find opportunities for our filmmakers there, which I think we have. But now we’re seeing that we can create more opportunities for our filmmakers in Los Angeles. So, this decision has been made over the course of many, many months involving our community, our filmmakers, our programmers, as well as the board and the office team. 

Filmmaker: Did you consider other cities?

Baxter: Los Angeles was the only location that we were really considering. After all, we’ve been in Los Angeles for a very long time. The office is based in Los Angeles, and we have year-round events in Los Angeles. We started the Downtown LA showcase last year with Anthony and Joe [Russo’s] company, AGBO.

Filmmaker: Was there a particular reason why 2025 was the year to move as opposed to 2023 or 2026?

Baxter: Something which is front and center of those of us in the film industry, and of course pretty much every American, is the cost of things. And Park City has become a very expensive proposition. Not just for us to produce an event in Park City, not just for audience members to attend, but for our artists, who are the reason why we exist. Our purpose is to discover filmmakers who are going to change the film industry and to help launch new careers and new ideas in filmmaking. And it’s become very expensive for them to take part in the festival. It’s going to still be an expense to attend Slamdance in Los Angeles, but it’s going to be a far lesser expense in comparison with the cost of attending Slamdance in Park City. We also have many programmers who live Los Angeles who will be able to attend [more affordably]. And then there is accessibility. We have a program called Unstoppable for creators with visible and non-visible disabilities. The Yarrow was a great venue for us this year, partly because it was accessible. But the fact that Park City is a mountain town means the surroundings are not accessible. So for our Unstoppable filmmakers, being in Los Angeles will be much easier for them. And this is a really important consideration when the mission of Unstoppable is to recognize, showcase and support filmmakers who have been underrepresented in the film industry. So this is also part of our decision.

Filmmaker: Was this just a sort of ironic coincidence that you were doing this contemplation at the same time as Sundance is considering potentially moving?

Baxter: It was a decision that had nothing to do with what Sundance may or may not do. Our business is to look at our filmmakers and what we can do to further grow our mission. So we were solely focused on Slamdance’s business and not Sundance’s.

Filmmaker: What about time of year? You’re going right after Sundance this year. Did you think of other times of the year?

Baxter: We felt that the late February timing was a good timing. It’s the beginning of the year, and it’s been a period then where the industry tends to look at new talent — to acquire films and to sign new talent during that first quarter. We are towards the end of the award season, where there is a focus on independent artists as well. So altogether we felt that was a good timing for us, but we’re under no illusion. Because we’re here in Los Angeles, as it were the capital of the entertainment industry, there’s work to be done on inviting and making sure the industry here are really going to be a part of what Slamdance is doing. This is what now we’re really looking forward to — further developing those collaborations with industry members to really make sure that we can help introduce them then to our filmmakers that we showcase.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about the facilities, because you’re doing the DGA theater, right?

Baxter: Yes. The goal is to be focused in Hollywood. One of the events will be Hollywood adjacent, but we have a long-standing relationship with the DGA. It started actually when Christopher Nolan had Following at Slamdance. After the festival, the DGA invited Chris to become a member, and so we have a really great relationship with them, and they’ve been generous. We’re going to be holding screenings at the DGA and also at Landmark, which is right next door. The idea is that we want filmmakers and audience members to be able to walk between locations and create that sort of community sense of being close together. We want to have that focus where people can more or less remain in one place during the course of the day during festival week.

In terms of collaborations and partnerships, education is also really important to this festival. This is one area we’re going to be able to grow aside from having more screening spaces. We have an education program called Polytechnic, and this is a free and accessible education program. We will be doing a program of free-to-attend education events, which will not only be serving filmmakers attending Slamdance but also high schoolers. And then also other education programs around filmmaking during the course of the week for anyone who is seeking to get to the next level of their filmmaking career.

Filmmaker: How do you think you will have a relationship with the Los Angeles exhibition community, which has really been robust in recent years? And of course there is another festival that just started just a couple of months ago, the Los Angeles Festival of Movies. Where do you see yourself in that ecosystem?

Baxter: We believe that there are more opportunities by coming to LA, and those opportunities include the inclusive nature of how we work with other arts organizations. I just mentioned the DGA, for example, and there are some education institutions too that we are going to be working with. We would absolutely like to collaborate with an institution like AFI, or other festivals that are already here, not just during our event but year round. And frankly this is something which was much harder for us to do in Park City. In more recent years we established a really great relationship with the University of Utah, which we are bringing forward, actually, here in Los Angeles. But as I said, it has been a challenge to take on that sort of inclusiveness in Park City. When we first started it was a variation of the Salon des Refusés, a reaction against something which is in situ. We have always been very open to any collaboration with Sundance over the years, but that has sometimes been a challenge. In Park City it did not work like the Cannes-type environment, where you have several festival programs joining together, like Directors Fortnight [and the main official selection], for the greater good of filmmaking. So now we have the freedom to be able to express that more in Los Angeles.

Filmmaker: These have been tumultuous years for the film business, the entertainment industry, but also the festival world. Festivals are contracting, seeing budget cuts, and in some cases whispering of shutdowns. What are the challenges of the present moment for Slamdance, and how are you handling those challenges?

Baxter: I think we touched on this in your question about the L.A. community. One of the ways that we can help from a macro point of view is to share. When I first came here and was part of getting Slamdance going, it was my belief that we were always in an inclusive environment. But as Slamdance has grown, I have come to realize that independent film has kind of developed exclusive tendencies, the price of entry being one example. It is very expensive to attend many festivals in the United States that show great independent films. Why aren’t they not more inclusive? Why is the ticket price not less? Anything that Slamdance can do to help create a more inclusive environment for independent film, that is what we are going to be attracted to. Not just for our festival but the whole ecosystem of independent film. Our $50 festival pass recognizes that.

Filmmaker: What about Slamdance’s own economic model? It seems so many non-profits are sponsor-driven these days. Everything lives or dies on high level sponsorship, and when those sponsorships are lost, programs contract or disappear. Obviously creating a larger sense of community is part of creating another model.But in terms of the way Slamdance runs and operates, are you subject to the same kind of forces that all these other festivals are feeling right now? Have you developed different ways of adapting?

Baxter: I can’t speak about how other organizations are run. But speaking about our business, we are just looking ahead. The decisions that you make today are going to affect tomorrow, next month, next year, the next seven years. The goal is to continue to grow and be around for a long time to come. I think planning for the future with what resources you have, big or small, is really important, as is understanding what those resources are. And being very careful with your ambition to grow when what you had for one year you no longer have and suddenly you’re in a really difficult situation. You’ve got to be very steady all the time in your decision making, be very agile and decisive about adapting to the environment while keeping your identity and staying true to your priorities. 

Our community — our filmmakers and our programmers — is our lifeblood. They make Slamdance go. So it’s about understanding that you really do have a community, and then how do you communicate with them? How do you not separate yourself from the team or the board? Make sure that everyone is truly connected and that you’re all on the same page. As my wife says, “Keep it simple, Baxter.”

You know, we haven’t always been a non-profit. When we started our non-profit, I went around and asked people who worked in non-profits to get their experience, and the feedback that I got is that very often the board has their own vision of things, and it’s a very different vision from what is taking place on a day-to-day, week-in, week-out basis in the office or in your production team. There is a lack of communication between how the right hand and the left hand are working. And then [organizations] get to a point where something goes wrong and they now have a major issue. I kept on hearing variations of this story from people that I met. And so this is something I’ve been really quite conscious of trying to avoid and to make sure that we’re all always connected.

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