Austin city limits
South by Southwest has plenty to tantalize the acquisitive distributor, but for filmmakers, it's the audiences that really count.A romance that springs up between an embalmer and a recently deceased beauty queen who returns to life, "Elvis and Anabelle" might be the definition of quirky indie. And as it filmed and offlined in Austin, it also might be the very definition of what kind of film the organizers at the 14th annual South by Southwest Film Festival want as their gala Saturday night world premiere. Yet, its filmmakers had to make a decision once it was complete: Send it home to Austin, or try to make a splash amidst the ruckus of the Sundance Film Festival, held six weeks earlier?
Distribution wasn't a question: Goldcrest Films International is set to release "Elvis" theatrically later this year. In the end, says producer Nick Quested, it was about generating buzz from SXSW audiences. "You have two options," he explains. "You can be one of many films that goes to Sundance, or you can be a big fish in a small pond. We thought long and hard about the strategy for the film, and we couldn't think of a better place to show it."
Quested isn't alone. SXSW, which runs this year from Friday-March 17 (it overlaps in part with the city's more senior music festival), has gained prominence as an event dressed for film fans that also can cater, when necessary, to film buyers -- with plenty of barbecue for all.
"It's driven by people who are not obsessed with the industry. They're obsessed with film," explains SXSW co-founder and director Louis Black, who also is co-founder of the Austin Chronicle. "There was a period of time when we would have more distributors and indie people than most festivals, (including Picturehouse's) Bob Berney (and Sony Pictures Classics') Michael Barker. (Cinetic's) John Sloss is always down here because he works with (Austin-based director Richard)
Linklater. There was always an incredible amount of heavy-hitters, but they weren't as interested in picking up films. They wanted to see a lot of films and hang out with each other."
With so many executives on hand, perhaps it was only a matter of time before SXSW evolved into something of a de facto market. This year's 50,000-plus expected attendees -- 2006's attendance jumped 25% from the previous year -- will come to see 110 features and 100 shorts, including 61 world premieres. Their numbers will include any number of rabid film fans, plus a slew of primarily newer acquisition executives sent to size up the competition and make sure nothing slips by. Last year, ThinkFilm picked up the SXSW Competition Award winner "Live Free or Die," for example.
"It looks like just about every indie distributor in New York and almost every mini-major in Los Angeles comes down looking for films," festival producer Matt Dentler says. "We want to keep it worth their while; it helps our purposes if they keep coming. That makes the quality of films we're able to debut that much higher because people know they'll have an audience with distributors."
Magnolia Pictures co-founder and CEO Bill Banowsky has a home office in Austin, and virtually the whole company relocates for the duration of SXSW. "We treat it as our own retreat," head of acquisitions Tom Quinn says. "It is, by far, my favorite festival both personally and professionally. It's an important place not only to see films but also see them with an audience that is important to the U.S. marketplace in general."
Others seem to agree. Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg says that "it's a great festival to continue building word of mouth for independent film," while ThinkFilm vp acquisitions Daniel Katz notes that attendance at SXSW now is "mandatory."
IFC Films, meanwhile, not only sponsors the festival, but the company has a whole slate of business to conduct there. IFC's upcoming release from director Mike Mills, "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?" a documentary about the rise in antidepressant use in Japan, will have its world premiere at SXSW, and the distributor also will podcast daily interviews and other festival coverage at IFC.com.
"One of the good things about a place like SXSW is it's one of the best festivals in terms of meeting filmmakers," IFC Entertainment vp acquisitions and production Arianna Bocco says. "It's meeting people and networking but also having an opportunity to see films that I may have missed somewhere else. We're going to finally have a chance to see (those films), but you get to see them with an audience instead of on a DVD."
Writer-director Eli Roth credits SXSW for cluing executives at Lionsgate into the potential of his 2002 low-budget horror film "Cabin Fever," which had a special screening at the festival early on. "It's a marketplace, but more importantly, it's a great place to start buzz for your movie," says Roth, who will preview several minutes of his planned June release "Hostel: Part II," which will be distributed through Lionsgate, at this year's event. "It used to be, if you won Sundance, that's what mattered. Now, there are so many films that if you get into Sundance, people look at your film differently. That's what South by Southwest has become. Before, it was a fun festival in Austin -- but mainly for the music. Now, there's so much competition to get in that it's a big deal for filmmakers."
Among the films and filmmakers making it a big deal this year are Scott Frank's Miramax crime-thriller "The Lookout," which will make its world premiere as the festival's opening-night film; the Morgan Spurlock-executive produced "What Would Jesus Buy?" Rob VanAlkemade's documentary about the commercialization of the Christmas holiday; and a spotlight premiere of Judd Apatow's planned June release "Knocked Up," for distrib Universal, which technically debuted at Internet guru Harry Knowles' Austin-based Butt-Numb-a-Thon in late 2006.
Between screenings, attendees can attend any number of panels -- including one discussing sex on the screen, hosted, appropriately enough, by John Cameron Mitchell, the director of last year's controversial "Shortbus."
"What shows up at the festival is a decision based on a combination of what we like and what we think our audiences will like," says Dentler, who compares programming the festival to making "a mix tape. We don't want our program to be known for just one thing, so we try to make it as diverse as possible."
To that end, Dentler has no problem programming films that already have played at other festivals, including Sundance: Robinson Devor's Park City sensation "Zoo," which ThinkFilm acquired out of the January festival, will make the trek to SXSW.
While Dentler is pleased that the festival is enjoying a higher industry profile and more widespread respect, he's adamant that he does not want his event to become too acquisitions-focused. Black, too, positively gets hives at that idea. "We don't really want to be a market," Black says. "When people say, 'You're the next Sundance,' it makes me shiver. You want stuff to do well out there, but I do not want to be Sundance."
That should come as a relief to Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d'Arbeloff, whose company wound up acquiring Jay and Mark Duplass' microbudgeted indie "The Puffy Chair" after the film received a rousing reception at SXSW in 2005. "We looked at the results there as a litmus test to see how the younger audience would respond," d'Arbeloff says of "Chair." "Knowing it had such an enthusiastic response, and it won an award there, really helped (with the purchase)."
Nevertheless, d'Arbeloff says the last thing the industry needs right now is another market. "What's more needed," he says, "is a quality film festival that has an editorial approach, especially with small movies. All of these films that would get lost at Sundance -- at South by Southwest, they can be the star. And that is a hugely important thing for the industry as a whole because those people are going to go on and make the stuff we ultimately end up seeing at the multiplex."