Scamdance The Film Festival That Wasn't By Skizz Cyzyk. In the late eighties, the well-established American Film Festival in Park City, Utah became the Sundance Film Festival...

In the late eighties, the well-established American Film Festival in Park City, Utah became the Sundance Film Festival. Following the success of the Sundance discovery, Sex, Lies & Videotape, the festival quickly became one of the most important film festivals in the world... The American Cannes. Established as a showcase for films made outside the studio system, Sundance made overnight success stories out of many independent filmmakers.

However, while Sundance was formed as a reaction against the established studio system, many filmmakers rejected from Sundance began seeing the festival as the new establishment. As a result, a handful of such filmmakers began the Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 as an alternative way of getting their films seen during Sundance week in Park City. At first seen as a rebellious upstart festival, Slamdance persisted until establishing itself on an even level with Sundance. In recent years, Slamdance’s well-oiled-machine operation and daring programming paired with criticism of Sundance’s programming and technical problems have helped Slamdance receive even greater, more positive recognition. There were 1300 submissions to Slamdance '98. According to the festival program, "...statistically speaking, it is now harder to get into Slamdance than Sundance."

As a result of the tremendous amount of entries, yet another upstart festival popped up in 1997—Slumdance, more of a party than a film festival, held in the basement of a deserted Mrs. Field’s Cookie Factory right across the street from Slamdance. While Slam and Slum worked together to enhance the Park City experience in '97, it was common knowledge around town that Sundance did not smile kindly on the upstarts.

Why would Sundance, whose mission is to showcase worthy independent films, not embrace underdogs with the same mission? Sundance pulled Slamdance’s 1996 screening venue, the Yarrow, out from under them and rumor has it they tried to do the same with the Treasure Mountain Inn, sight of Slamdance '97 and '98. This gives the impression that Sundance’s ulterior mission is one of power and control more than anything else.

While covering the '97 Park City experience for Cashiers du Cinemart, I was struck with an idea that came out of confusion. Try talking about Sundance, Slamdance and Slumdance and see how quickly you get tongue-tied and confused. This confusion prompted me to start my own upstart festival, mostly because I loved the name I came up with, The Son Of Sam Dance Film Festival (or S.O.S. Dance), and secondly to get a reaction out of Sundance.

I wanted my upstart fest to be something different. No one had made it their mission, yet, to showcase truly underground, D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself), low budget (under $20,000) films in Park City. That’s what I would do. Since I would already be in Park City anyway, running the projectors at Slamdance for the second year in a row, I planned to get a rental car and some 16mm projectors with AC adapters for the cigarette lighter, and drive around Park City at night projecting films on the sides of buildings. It would be Park City’s only outdoor/mobile/guerrilla/upstart film festival.

The more I thought about it the more I loved the idea. Unfortunately, I also realized what a bad idea it was. After projecting all day at Slamdance, I would be too tired to do much of anything else, plus there’s no way I could afford to rent a car, much less equip it with projectors. Other problems factored in too. During Sundance week in Park City, there are virtually no flat white surfaces to project on that aren’t covered, several layers thick, with posters and flyers promoting the many films showing around town. Besides, who would stand around outside in the snow watching films while all the parties are going on? As if those reasons weren’t enough to cancel the festival, I assumed I would also be breaking a law or city ordinance and didn’t like the idea of being arrested by the Park City police.

Then it hit me. If the festival is mobile, and no one would know when or where it would be taking place, who would know if I didn’t actually do it? The festival could only be experienced by those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time... i.e. nobody. But who would know? Thus the idea was born; I would put flyers all over Park City advertising the festival but I wouldn’t actually carry out the festival. People would think it was happening and that they were simply missing it. The reason for having the festival in the first place suddenly got better—how great it would be to catch Sundance bad mouthing a festival that doesn’t exist. How funny it would be to get a ton of media attention for something that wouldn’t happen. I love a good media prank and this seemed like it couldn’t fail, besides—eliminating the need for the festival to actually exist would enable me to program a better festival. After all, if the festival doesn’t exist then the films wouldn’t have to exist either... I could make up any film I wanted and program it into my festival.

To help with the program, I enlisted the creativity of a large handful of fellow filmmakers from all over the U.S. and Canada, who I have had good experiences with in the past and who I knew would love the idea. Each was asked to make up a film, either one they would like to make but never will or one that simply makes fun of the lame pretentious film descriptions found in many festival programs. Though most of them initially responded with very positive reactions to the invitation, only a portion of those invited submitted anything (Cashiers Du Cinemart editor Mike White from Detroit, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE from Pittsburgh, Ken Hegan from Canada, HITCH Magazine editor Rod Lott from Oklahoma, Jeff Krulik & Alvin Ecarma from the DC area, and J.R. Fritsch & myself from Baltimore). Luckily most of the submissions were just what I was looking for and some of the filmmakers even used their own names (or each others).

Next, J.R. Fritsch and I disguised my little Toyota mini-van as the mobile projection booth and took photos of it. We set up two 16mm projectors on a stand inside the van, hooked up to a public address system wired to a loud speaker on the roof. Outside the van we hung a large banner reading "Son Of Sam Dance—Park City’s Only Outdoor/Mobile/Guerrilla/Upstart Film Festival". We covered the license plate with a sheet of paper reading, "S.O.S. Dance, Utah". Using my van in the photos worked nicely as an inside joke; anyone who knows my van knows it might not make it out of Baltimore much less to Utah.

I turned the photos and film synopsis’ over to Scott "Unpainted" Huffines, who designed and set up a webpage for the festival. Then I made the flyers for posting and postcards for mailing out to the press, each sporting the van photos, the festival "explanation", and the web page address. I was ready to go.

Mere hours before my flight to Utah, an email message came in through the web page. It was from Chris Gore, editor/publisher of Film Threat Magazine and Film Threat Weekly. It read simply, "Is this for real?". He was onto us. I had originally wanted to let Film Threat in on the joke from the start, as well as Filmmaker Magazine and IndieWIRE (a daily online trade magazine), and leave the rest of the media open to victimization. Since I respect and subscribe to those three publications, I certainly did not want to make enemies with them over a silly little media prank. I had not made this clear enough to Scott who, proud of the fine job he did on the webpage, had already sent out announcements about the festival. Wouldn’t you know it—IndieWIRE immediately reported on the Son Of Sam Dance Film Festival. Now there was no turning back.

I arrived in Park City armed with flyers and a staple gun, only to find out that I wasn’t the only new upstart festival this year. A local paper ran a story about Sleazedance—a porn fest that no one knew when or where was happening. Perhaps Sleazedance, like Son Of Sam Dance, was just another media prank. Throughout the week though, the real upstart fests began popping up. I saw flyers for SoulDance, NoDance and UnDance—a competitive one-film festival courtesy of "South Park" associate, Jason McHugh. I heard jokes about ScumDance, SquareDance and LapDance. I kept waiting to hear that someone somewhere would be showing Flashdance or show a quadruple feature of Wild Style, Beat Street, Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and call the whole thing BreakDance. The most legit upstart fest, though, had to be Slamdunk—held in the local Elks Lodge and showing films by the likes of George Hickenlooper (Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade) and Ken Burns (PBS' Civil War series). Slamdunk made headlines by adding Kurt & Courtney, the documentary about Kurt Cobain that Sundance had pulled for fear of legal problems. But the biggest blows to my corner of the upstart festival scene had to be, first, VanDance—essentially the same thing as S.O.S. Dance except, from what I heard, they actually did it (though another source told me that too was just a joke), and second, two guys armed with a video projector, a small generator, a bed sheet and two c-stands projecting their film for people waiting in lines for Sundance films. My fest was no longer "Park City’s Only Outdoor/Mobile/Guerrilla/Upstart Film Festival", especially since it didn’t really exist, but at least it had become apparent that anyone with any sort of guerrilla mentality could still show their films in Park City regardless of whether Sundance or Slamdance deemed them fit to program.

Nevertheless, I persisted in hanging up flyers whenever possible all the while keeping my little secret that my festival would be impossible to find. Chris Gore wound up replacing Alexander Rockwell as a Slamdance juror and I decided to let him in on the joke, which resulted in Film Threat immediately becoming an official S.O.S. Dance sponsor, who even covered the festival regardless of being in on the joke. My biggest obstacle became my lack of flyers and free time, since I was very busy at Slamdance. But that didn’t stop S.O.S. Dance from getting coverage. One Canadian news crew ate it up, as did local TV and cable crews. Sundance, on the other hand, finally dropped their negative attitude towards the upstarts and said nice things to the press... though I do not think S.O.S. Dance was ever recognized individually, which was the goal in the first place.

On the final night of Slamdance, I couldn’t keep my little secret any longer. I began letting the cat out of the bag to my festival coworkers who thought it was pretty funny. I don’t know whether to consider the Son Of Sam Dance Film Festival a success or a failure, yet I’ve toyed with the idea of making it a yearly un-festival. Each year I could "program" a new set of fake films submitted throughout the year and make new flyers... maybe even branch out into merchandising—T-Shirts, hats, etc. Everyone would already know it was a joke, but would hopefully look forward to seeing what fake films get programmed each year. I figure this little stunt will eventually destroy any chances I have of ever getting any of my films programmed at Sundance, so I might as well make the most of it. Besides, Sundance isn’t the only game in town anymore.

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