Smart synergy strategy needed at SXSW


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SXSW's interactive portion is for everyone

The definition of a festival success story tends to come in the form of numbers: How much did distributors fork over for the grand jury prize winner? How late did negotiations go into the night? At Austin's South by Southwest, however, success comes in a far less quantifiable form.

"One of the most gratifying things that happens is when people come and make connections that lead to more work," explains SXSW festival producer Matt Dentler. "They meet and go on to make a project that's at the next South by Southwest. That means we're not just a venue to showcase creativity, but to spark more creativity for the future."

By that standard, this year's SXSW Film Conference and Festival -- which runs from today through March 15 (the Interactive Festival runs from March 7-11 and the Music and Media Conference runs from March 12-16) -- is already a success, thanks to Mary and Ronald Bronstein. Last year, Ronald picked up SXSW's special jury award, a Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his challenging "Frownland," a debut film that took six years to complete. In Austin, he and wife Mary met up with Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, whose "Hannah Takes the Stairs" (directed by Swanberg, who co-wrote the script with Gerwig) was one of the fest's most-talked-about premieres. A bond was forged, and a project was born: Mary's exploration of toxic friends, "Yeast," will premiere at this year's SXSW, co-starring Gerwig.

"'Frownland' was made in a vacuum environment," says Mary Bronstein. "(SXSW) was the first time we felt that we were part of an independent film community. I was inspired to make ('Yeast') after being down there and seeing all the great work people were doing."

As poster children for SXSW convergence, the Bronsteins are by no means alone. The Austin festival is all about synergies and partnerships of different types -- the tech nerds flow directly into the film fanboys who all really want to be rock 'n' roll stars -- and the atmosphere jostles more than just creative juices in its attendees. Virtually across the board, distributors, sponsors, registrants and execs call the festival "casual" and "manageable," along with "hip" and "cool" -- even if they don't call it a "market."

"It's the festival that everyone fights to go to because it's the most fun," says IFC Entertainment vp marketing Ryan Werner, who is bringing Harmony Korine's celebrity comedy "Mister Lonely" and Christophe Honore's musical "Love Songs" to the festival. "They've done a really good job at cultivating a community where people stay in touch, and there are a lot of great interactions with filmmakers you don't get at other festivals."

IFC also takes advantage of the synergies at the festival. Both IFC Entertainment and IFC TV are major sponsors, but this year, IFC TV has turned the volume up exponentially: It is world premiering two documentaries (the punk-band-focused "Heavy Load" and the exploration of capital punishment "At the Death House Door"), hosting a panel tying in with "Death House," sponsoring a party with live performances by My Morning Jacket and Yo La Tengo, and launching a broadband show called "The Lunchbox" directly from the festival.

"In a culture where independent music has become 30%-40% of all music sold, when independent films get almost all the nominations at the Academy Awards, SXSW is reaping the benefits," explains IFC TV general manager Evan Shapiro. "In March, Austin is the center of independent culture in the world."

And any number of films are looking to take advantage of the easygoing, ribs-and-beer-influenced atmosphere. Everything from Sony's card-counting film "21," which opens the festival, to New Line's "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay," to the virtual-world documentary "Second Skin" are looking for a platform -- either to woo a distributor or to woo key demo audiences.

"SXSW has a reputation as being one of the best entertainment parties of the year," explains "Harold & Kumar" co-director/co-writer Jon Hurwitz. "We have a movie best viewed in a packed theater of rowdy people looking for fun, and I think we'll find our crowd there."

That's the hope of indie distributors like ThinkFilm, too, which is sending Helen Hunt's directing debut, "Then She Found Me," and the World Trade Organization drama "Battle in Seattle." "Austin as an important hip movie market is worth our attention," says U.S. head of theatrical distribution Mark Urman. "It's the home of several key bloggers, and a lot of media descends on SXSW, and a lot of ground-floor observation emanates from there -- on an exponentially increasing basis."

David Modigliani's documentary on President Bush's adopted hometown, "Crawford," is tapped as a potential festival favorite, but Modigliani has a different goal than Hurwitz or Urman: "The festival has been increasing its profile, and there are more buyers and distributors there, but I don't think a lot of films are sold there. It's more of a great place to launch the film and follow up with buyers after that."

Documentaries have a special place in SXSW's heart, by reputation and according to Dentler: "It's a place where audiences see documentaries treated as well as features. Here, documentaries are equally so, if not more, successful than the features."

Which has no doubt led to the growth of music-related films in the festival, most of which are documentaries, including Grant Gee's "Joy Division," about the Manchester band whose lead singer was profiled in 2007's "Control"; VH1 Rock Docs' "The Night James Brown Saved Boston"; Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones docu "Shine a Light"; and "Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet," which actually hits the fest's synergistic trifecta: It's a film about music made from computers.

The SXSW stamp can open doors for films, too. David Garber, CEO of producers' rep/sales agent company Lantern Lane Entertainment, who will attend with the marijuana farmer comedy "Humboldt County," explains: "Once you've gotten in, distribution companies look on your films with more favor. Getting into Sundance and Toronto are important -- but I'd say SXSW is on par. SXSW is a well-organized festival and doesn't have the ego you have at Sundance."

But while the presence of studios and prebought films could slowly alter the mix of films at SXSW, there will always be room for green newcomers and the junior executives who, hopefully, love them. Writer-producer Victor Pineiro Escoriaza, who will be at SXSW with Pure West Documentaries' first feature, "Second Skin," is fielding calls from Disney Channel and HBO, but is waiting until SXSW "to get the whole distribution thing going."

They thought they'd hit the jackpot by just getting a world premiere at the festival, but following a little clever wrangling, they ended up with even more exposure, including an Interactive panel appearance and free passes to the film for Interactive badge holders. That's exactly why Pineiro says they most wanted to come to Austin.

"Since we first started looking at film festivals, SXSW was the one for us because of this Interactive segment," says Pineiro, who worked on the project for two years with producer Peter Brauer and director Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza. "First they gave us the screening, then the panel -- and now the free passes. It's going to generate (for) us a whole legion of new fans."