SXSW Comedy Festival Becoming Film and TV Launchpad

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

Regular attendees say that part of the draw is the unique mix of film executives, tech entrepreneurs and musicians who gather at the event each year.

While at SXSW Comedy in 2012, Judd Apatow participated in a live taping of a podcast from up-and-coming comedian Pete Holmes. Kumail Nanjiani was also on the show that night, two years before he would break out on HBO's Silicon Valley

In the six years since, Apatow has talked about how the event introduced him to two future collaborators. He would go on to executive produce Holmes' HBO comedy Crashing and produce The Big Sick from Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon, which was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar this year. 

For many longtime attendees of the annual comedy festival, which occurs as part of the larger tech, film and music confab that takes over Austin, Texas, for two weeks every March, Apatow's experience sums up why they keep coming back year after year. 

"It's not all about what happens onstage. It's not all about what happens off. It's both," says TV producer Evan Shapiro, former head of NBCUniversal comedy streaming service Seeso. 

It may not have the brand recognition of Montreal's Just For Laughs or the local chops of Moontower Comedy Festival, another Austin event, but SXSW Comedy has become known for its ability to connect up-and-coming comics with a who's who of Hollywood. In its tenth year, festival programmer Charlie Sotelo has curated a lineup that includes a night of music and comedy hosted by Nick Offerman and featuring Jim Gaffigan, James Adomian in character as Bernie Sanders and the return of Matt Besser's improv4humans podcast. 

"We're generally looking to introduce people to the wider media," explains Sotelo, who has been programming SXSW Comedy since its first iteration in 2008. "We're putting up people who we think are fantastic, who we think are special in some way, and just trust that others will see it if they're on our stage." 

Regular attendees say that part of the draw is the unique mix of film executives, tech entrepreneurs and musicians who attend SXSW each year. It's what Comedy Dynamics' Brian Volk-Weiss, who regularly buys independent comedy films at the fest, describes as "the Oscars meets E3 meets Woodstock meets Burning Man. There's nothing else like it."

The result is the type of exposure that most young comedians dream of. While a deal might not be struck in Austin, Sotelo says he regularly sees relationships formed at the fest turn into collaborations in the future. And often, comedians return to SXSW even as their careers take off.

Amy Schumer, whom Volk-Weiss remembers seeing at SXSW when she wasn't yet a household name, premiered the comedy Trainwreck during the SXSW Film Festival in 2015. Nanjiani and Apatow brought The Big Sick to SXSW last year. 

"There's so much overlap between comedy and film and television that it's just such a natural fit," says Sotelo. "It's creating a full ecosystem." 

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As the first weekend of SXSW kicks off Friday in Austin, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at the highlights from the film, television and interactive lineups: 

FRIDAY, MARCH 9

John Krasinski directs wife Emily Blunt in the film fest opener A Quiet Place; HBO's Bill Hader comedy Barry kicks off the episodic television lineup.

SATURDAY, MARCH 10

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris sits down with CNN’s W. Kamau Bell to talk race, comedy and storytelling in the Trump era; Darren Aronofsky keynotes; Lena Dunham plumbs authenticity in media with Glamour’s Samantha Barry; the Westworld cast joins showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy ahead of the drama’s season two premiere; Kay Cannon marks her directorial debut with the premiere of the Leslie Mann comedy Blockers.  

SUNDAY, MARCH 11

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins keynotes; Arnold Schwarzenegger talks with Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere about the future of American politics; Uber chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John shares tips; the finale of Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It screens ahead of a master class with director Spike Lee.

MONDAY, MARCH 12

Apple senior vp Eddy Cue faces questions about the tech giant’s original content plans; Lena Waithe chats with the cast of her Showtime drama The Chi; Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and producing partner Ram Berman take attendees to a galaxy far, far away.

TUESDAY, MARCH 13

This Is Us' Pearson family, including Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, join the NBC show's creator Dan Fogelman for a talk one day after the season two finale; Ethan Hawke discusses his new movie Blaze; YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki closes out the interactive festival.