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When the early tracking for Steven Spielberg’s big-budget Ready Player One came out early on the morning of March 8, the news for the Warner Bros. release wasn’t promising. It put the film’s domestic opening at a ho-hum $30 million to $35 million. But just four days later, the movie’s prospects began to look at lot more hopeful — that’s because on March 12, Spielberg showed up at SXSW, making his first visit to the annual music, tech and film festival in Austin, Texas, where he introduced a surprise screening of Ready Player One. The film subsequently popped on tracking before scoring a four-day debut of $53 million over Easter weekend.
Though Ready Player One appeared to get a boost from SXSW, it was hardly an unknown property. The festival has arguably proved to be even more valuable for studios looking to create awareness for original properties. Universal’s R-rated comedy Blockers, which also was unveiled at SXSW this year, exceeded expectations by collecting $21 million when it opened this past weekend. But the weekend’s biggest breakout was John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place, which opened this year’s edition of the fest and debuted to $50 million over the weekend. Buoyed by the buzz that was first ignited in Austin, it was one of the biggest starts ever for a horror title.
“I think SXSW was the most valuable thing for the movie,” says producer Andrew Form of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which produced A Quiet Place for Paramount. “The buzz that we were able to generate from the screening before 1,200 people and critics really launched the film.”
Combined, Ready Player One, A Quiet Place and Blockers have already earned nearly $500 million at the worldwide box office. And while various factors came into play around the three films, it’s not lost on Hollywood that SXSW has becoming increasingly prominent as a spring launching pad, especially for films that are positioned to make use of word-of-mouth-building social media.
The most recent films are only the latest in a long string of wins for SXSW, which began its life 25 years ago as a music festival before adding tech (Twitter made its debut there), movies and television to its lineup. While SXSW Film became its own event in 1995, for the film side, 2007 was a defining year, thanks to the comedy Knocked Up. The fest has a strong populist bent, and the lineup of studio films that have played at SXSW include Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bridesmaids, 21 Jump Street, The Cabin in the Woods, Neighbors, Sausage Party and even Furious 7. Trainwreck played as a work-in-progress in 2015, and last year, Baby Driver first gunned its engines at the festival.
SXSW benefits from falling squarely between the Toronto Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, both of which also are used to screen major upcoming studio releases — this year, Han Solo: A Star Wars Story will play at Cannes, for example. But SXSW is ideally positioned to introduce spring and early summer releases.
Brad Fuller, also of Platinum Dunes and a producer on A Quiet Place, says the SXSW audience is incredibly valuable for its social media footprint, among other things. “The audience is the right audience. It’s not stuffy. They aren’t scared to emote,” he says.
Pierson says SXSW is unique because of its multitiered focus on music, tech and film/television. And while the film festival may screen upcoming studio titles, it is also intently focused on discovering new voices. Past discoveries include Lena Dunham, Gareth Edwards and Barry Jenkins. And SXSW’s lineup has included such indie titles as Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Ex Machina, The Big Sick, Atomic Blonde, The Disaster Artist and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which is currently in theaters.
“The way I like to put it, we are very democratic and egalitarian. We don’t have separate press and industry access,” says Pierson. “What excites us is being representative. The idea is to do business while having fun. We embrace having fun, and we exist to help creative people achieve their goals. We were the first festival to devote time to TV shows, for example. We don’t mind being populist.”
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