Growing SXSW hasn't lost its indie cred

Many filmmakers start journey to sell their pic at Texas fest

AUSTIN, Texas -- Distribution deals were never the point of the SXSW Film Festival, and that's still true at its 17th edition, which began this weekend.

But for filmmakers, actors, independent film aficionados and yes, sales executives, it's a laid-back Lone Star love-in.

"Audiences are more relaxed here," says Ron Yerxa, who with Albert Berger executive produced Jacob Hatley's "Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm," which held its world premiere Saturday afternoon. "Screenings at the Alamo Draft House have almost a party atmosphere, which is what I always thought festival screenings should be."

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Wedged as it is between Sundance and Tribeca, SXSW has continued to grow and draw a wider spectrum of North American and world premieres. (The sublime mid-March Texas weather may have something to do with that.) Though this has contributed to greater attendance, the festival remains a less pressurized destination for film fans and industry folk to get a look at a new crop of films without the pressure of marketing concerns.

There have been the rare SXSW acquisitions, including IFC's pick up of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's "Nights and Weekends" in 2008 and Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" the year before. But while 15-20 reps from potential buyers Apparition, Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, IFC Films, Roadside Attractions and Paramount's new low-budget initiative have circulated at premiere screenings this year, not much sales activity is expected to coalesce at the festival.

"It's a great place to start on the road to sell a film," says Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, who first came to SXSW in 2002 with the documentary "Spellbound," which THINKFilm turned into a mini-phenomenon after its SXSW premiere.

This weekend, Aaron Katz's drama "Cold Weather" was stirring positive response after its premiere Saturday night at the Alamo Draft House Ritz. And Mark Landsman's documentary "Thunder Soul" fielded a strong premiere screening at the Paramount Saturday morning.

Continuing a trend from the previous year, several films opted pre-emptively to cut a deal with the new IFC Films/SXSW on Demand platform, which, much like Sundance Selects, premieres festival entries simultaneously on VOD. "Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee," directed by Shane Meadows, and "The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights," directed by Emmett Malloy, took that path.

Filmbuff, the VOD label of Cinetic Rights Management, picked up David Bond's "Erasing David" and Justin Molotnikov's "Crying with Laughter" for VOD release and availability on iTunes and Amazon VOD before SXSW kicked off this year.

Unlike at Sundance, most buyers' reps have left town by a film's second screening, which can leave sellers scrambling to organize screenings outside of SXSW to capitalize on whatever momentum a film has acquired before everyone's attention is pulled away by the next festival.

On the other hand, SXSW has drawn an ever more potent mix of flashy buzzed-about films ("Kick-Ass," "Drag Me to Hell," "Bruno") and world premieres as it's become more polished and lost a smidgen of its "ragged edge," as Braun puts it. That, along with its overlapping interactive and music fests, accounts for the swelling with interest from fans and filmmakers. It's grown from 700 registrants for the music fest in 1987, to roughly 29,000 for the music, film and interactive events last year. No one seems too concerned that the fest is getting too big for its boots, at least at this point.

"It certainly has grown," says filmmaker Steve James, who has escorted three films to the festival: "Stevie" (2003), "At the Death House Door" (2008) and "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," which had its world premiere Sunday morning. "They have more venues, they're showing films a lot more frequently. The screenings are more crowded and sold out, but it's a sign of great growth and success."

Sunday afternoon, audiences were looking forward to the world premieres of James Franco's "Saturday Night," Bernard Rose's "Mr. Nice," Joseph Infantolino's "Helena From the Wedding" and Sebastian Gutierrez's "Elektra Luxx," which CAA is repping at the fest.

Wes Orshoski and Greg Olliver's "Lemmy" and the mainstream Rogue Pictures comedy "MacGruber" are part of Monday night's agenda at the Paramount.
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