risky business

SXSW boots perfect fit for movie buff Dentler

Oh, to be 27 and running a rising film festival! For the fourth year, South by Southwest Film Festival producer Matt Dentler is enjoying doing what he seems born to do. Nothing makes him happier than hearing Austin audiences applaud a movie that he discovered. Although lucrative industry job offers keep coming, the tireless film booster recognizes that he's having more fun programming his own show in Texas than working for any corporation. "I love what SXSW is too much," he says. He has time.

Founded in 1993 by alternative weekly Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, publisher Nick Barbaro and music promoter Roland Swenson, who also created the gigantic annual March SXSW Music Conference in 1987, the SXSW film fest has since emerged with its own identity. Even in a global cinema village more and more jammed with competing film festivals, it has managed to thrive and grow in its crowded springtime slot. This is partly a testament to Dentler's aggressive luring of quality indie films and filmmakers.

That's because Dentler puts in serious time building relationships and contacts inside the film industry. "I said, 'Let's cultivate filmmakers and have a great time showing their work,' " he says. "My focus is on using SXSW as a great opportunity. It's not about overnight deals. Our mantra is a program of the best-quality films and best people, which increases the quality of the experience for everyone."

A glut of indie product has meant that the fest, which unfolds March 9-17, gobbles up rejects from January's picky Sundance Film Festival lineup like the 2002 documentary "Spellbound," which helped put SXSW on the map.

But the rise of New York's high-profile Tribeca Film Festival in April has added unwelcome competition. "Matt has gone much further in terms of attracting films and selecting certain titles," says John Pierson, a film professor at the University of Texas at Austin, whose seminal behind-the-scenes industry primer "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" helped to inspire Dentler's career choices. "But he's not Superman; he can only go so far. Tribeca throws its weight around. The Los Angeles Film Festival is more fluid, but everybody who wants a make a name wants exclusive titles. Everybody can't just get along."

Even so, after Dentler took over the festival in 2004 at the tender age of 23, SXSW has continued to build momentum. Attendance, which breaks down 50-50 between locals and visitors, was up 40% in 2006 compared with 2005, and Dentler expects that trend to continue.

This year's program of public showings (there are no industry screenings) includes 110 features and 100 shorts, culled from 3,200 submissions. And the fest isn't just movies. It's back-to-back panels, ranging from film financing and video on the Web to the psychology of avatars and blogging. About 250 international media representatives are accredited to cover it.

Miramax Films offered Dentler writer-turned-director Scott Frank's debut film "The Lookout" as a possible opening-night film this year. "It speaks to the identity of the festival," Dentler says. "Similar to 'A Prairie Home Companion,' it fits the vibe, it's entertaining. It's a bank-heist thriller. We screened 'Blade II' and brought Guillermo del Toro here. We're screening Judd Apatow's 'Knocked Up.' We're not above any choices if it's a strong film. Our audience is film fans and industry folks

looking for stuff that's accessible to the mainstream. Austin is a young, loud, rowdy town, and the festival reflects that."

Among the higher-profile titles screening this year are Mike Binder's "Reign Over Me," starring Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, and the closing-night film from Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook Park, "I'm a Cyborg, but That's Ok." Eli Roth will unspool footage from "Hostel: Part II."

Among the docus are Red Envelope's "Steal a Pencil for Me," about a New York man who ended up in a concentration camp with both his wife and his lover. The man later married his lover and the couple, now in their 90s, are attending the festival. "Manufacturing Dissent," which examines Michael Moore's filmmaking methods, has already generated controversy. "Super-Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock produced "What Would Jesus Buy?" which examines the commerciality of Christmas.

Dentler grew up in the Texas border town of Brownsville in a family full of musicians and movie buffs. He remembers watching videos as a small kid with his parents, who would rent one for him and one for them. He'd watch both. By age 9, his favorite movie of all time was "Sunset Boulevard." He loved to watch his grandfather run a Houston restaurant. Always a go-getter, Dentler started a radio station and a newspaper at his high school.

Although he was accepted by several top-tier film schools, including New York University, he decided to go to the University of Texas at Austin because, as a 17-year-old matriculating freshman, he might do better in a smaller pond, he says.

He was right. At Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, Dentler soon realized that filmmaking wasn't for him, and that first November he volunteered at the film festival. Over the next few years, he swiftly worked his way up through the SXSW hierarchy. (He also wrote music reviews for the Daily Texan and the Austin Chronicle.) By the time he graduated, he had a full-time job at SXSW.

Among Dentler's arsenal of skills, people who know him say, are a boyish, self-deprecating charm, the ability to problem-solve and a politician's intuition about how to help people. He knows how to defer, make himself useful, and yet he gets things done.

He inspires people to want to help him, partly by communicating his enthusiasm. For example, at this year's Sundance, when one reporter arrived on the scene at Cinetic Media's annual party at Zoom, Dentler swiftly filled her in on every piece of action in the room. "He does his homework, he knows what he's talking about," says Janet Pierson, who brought Dentler onto the Austin Film Society board two years ago to provide a more youthful perspective. "What's great is he's a sponge; it's what he does with what you give him."

One advantage for SXSW is its location in a hip college town with an active filmmaking community. Austin Film Society founder Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, Robert Rodriguez and Ain't It Cool News mogul Harry Knowles are based there. Linklater runs a small studio; Rodriguez keeps thousands of film professionals employed every year at Troublemaker Studios, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy. He'll be promoting his upcoming "Grindhouse" at the fest this year.

Starting out as a "party fest where you could see some movies that had been shown at Sundance and Slamdance and get good barbecue and beer," says Dentler, SXSW shifted into higher gear after a widely publicized 1997 panel including locals Rodriguez, Linklater and Judge, plus imports Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith. "Having all these guys sharing war stories was our tipping point," Dentler says. "It showed there was a viability on the film side, with people respecting it and caring about it."

SXSW had to endure a few rough years in 2001-2002, after the dot-com crash and Sept. 11 attacks, but it cinched its belt and came out strong on the other side. Last year, Dentler's coup was to open the fest with Robert Altman's "Prairie Home Companion."

Dentler's peripatetic lifestyle leads him to trawl the world's film festivals for movies. Many of them invite him to participate on juries for free. Dentler also promotes the festival by tirelessly sending out MySpace bulletins and filing items on his Indiewire blog.

As he girds up for the next go-round, Dentler plans to repeat his annual ritual before he goes onstage at Austin's Palace Theater on opening night. He says a little prayer.

Anne Thompson can be reached at athompson@hollywoodreporter.com and www.reporter.blogs.com/risky.