Sale hoists SXSW spirits

Could mark shift to 'buyer's fest'

When it kicked off March 7, the South by Southwest Film Festival wasn't necessarily in line for a watershed moment. The easygoing, jeans-and-beer atmosphere that dissipated with the fest's end Saturday made for a casual set of films, interactive panels, a trade show and several raucous days of concerts.

But 2008 will long be marked as the year in which SXSW took a giant step forward because it was the year an acquisition was made during the festival.

"Nights and Weekends," the sexually explicit story of a relationship breakup assembled by so-called "mumblecore" mavens Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, landed a deal through IFC Entertainment, ratcheting up the excitement level throughout the Austin Convention Center.

True: IFC had picked up the duo's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" the year before. Also true: A deal with IFC is not the same as a deal with a major studio; some insiders mutter that it's the haven of last resort.

Nevertheless, the sale improved the festival's credibility.

"Any festival needs to evolve and grow, and with the IFC sale it's growing toward being a buyer's festival," said Picturehouse vp acquisitions Lindsay Crain, who says she's taking several films she viewed at SXSW home for consideration. "Traditionally the films coming out of SXSW are a slow burn. Someone buys them later and they gain momentum, but I think that's going to change."

Other films likely to see deals in the coming weeks include the docu "Second Skin," a look at relationships formed within computer games; the feature "Humboldt County," a voyage of discovery via hidden Californian pot fields; and the docus "They Killed Sister Dorothy" (which took home two SXSW prizes, the documentary grand jury feature and Audience Award for documentary feature) and "In a Dream" (which won the Emerging Visions Audience Award).

"Dream" director Jeremiah Zagar premiered his film at SXSW, remarking that it wasn't completed until the day before the festival. "Seeing the reaction from people here, we know the film is marketable," he said.

Fellow docu winner Greg Takoudes, the director of "Up With Me" who won the special jury award for ensemble cast for a film he co-wrote with at-risk Harlem teens, made a different kind of connection at SXSW — he'll now be working to initiate a similar teen-made film program for the Austin Youth Action Committee.

Still, one acquisition does not make a festival, and there's no sense that the SXSW handbook is being rewritten.

What remains in Austin to draw buyers and filmmakers has not changed. It's the atmosphere that often lends itself to future collaborations like Takoudes' or that of "Nights' " Gerwig, who met with first-time filmmaker Mary Bronstein at the 2007 SXSW. She ended up starring in Bronstein's debut, "Yeast," which premiered here this year.