film reporter

Dentler keeps SXSW fest headed in right direction

In the decade before Matt Dentler jumped into the South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival's driver's seat, the event was little more than an afterthought to Austin's popular SXSW music fest. But in just five years, he has transformed it into one of the few top U.S. destinations for film buyers and major studios.

It still has a long way to go. The mostly low-wattage lineup is one reason SXSW hasn't birthed even one film acquisition during the fest. It runs just days before New York's much bigger Tribeca Film Festival, making Dentler's attempts to get world premieres in Texas even more challenging.

Ironically, SXSW has more frequently been overshadowed by Dentler's work as a senior programmer at another Austin event, the Fantastic Fest, which hosted the first public screening of "There Will Be Blood."

Tribeca has been Dentler's main competition, though he says this year they've had fewer battles for premieres than ever. It's to his credit that he has helped make Austin a film destination with a fraction of Tribeca's budget and staff. But Dentler had the base of an established music fest and wasn't building an event from scratch in a post-Sept. 11 disaster area.

SXSW has premiered a few films that have gone on to be successful acquisitions — among them such documentaries as "The Boys of Baraka" and the Oscar-nominated "Spellbound" to ThinkFilm — but there have been no immediate sales in the heat of the event, as with the Tribeca premieres "Transamerica" to IFC/Weinstein Co. or "Driving Lessons" to Sony Pictures Classics. Dentler is trying to boost the SXSW acquisitions climate with the new Global Doc Days, featuring several documentaries without distribution.

What SXSW lacks in buys and big names it makes up for in street cred. Dentler is credited with taking one of the few new film trends — microbudgeted, neorealism-inspired Mumblecore films — from a whisper to a scream in recent years, fueled by word-of-mouth from Austin's less pretentious version of hipsters.

That crowd of tastemakers is bringing in studios happy to shine next to tiny indies. Universal's "Knocked Up" had its first public showing there in the summer with just an unknown named Seth Rogen on the poster.

SXSW is upping the ante this year with the first festival appearances of four studio films: Paramount's war drama "Stop-Loss," Columbia's true gambling caper story "21," Universal's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (from producer Judd Apatow, with his popular acting ensemble) and New Line's eagerly anticipated "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay."

These films are likely to push attendance up from last year's 55,000 and 2006's 50,000, but they're not Dentler's primary focus. Ask him to name his favorites during a top film festival and chances are he'll be the first one talking about it. One of his most vital roles might be to the indie acquisitions crowd he hangs with. His heads-up — even on films he can't snag — helps them target under-the-radar gems. In turn, they've helped steer him to some indies that have given SXSW more buzz.

All this raises a question about his ultimate ambitions. He's the executive producer of PJ Raval and Jay Hodges' upcoming docu feature "Trinidad," and he's been courted by at least one indie distributor.

"I feel like I've got the best job in the world," Dentler says. "I don't think I could work at any other festival. It's so unique here, and I'm spoiled." He also notes that "as technology continues to develop and exhibition continues to evolve, the lines are blurring between exhibitors, distributors and programmers."

Press him further and he insists he has no plans to leave, but, he adds, "I'm only 28 years old."