SXSW film fest faces challenge

Many attendees were turned away from nearly all screenings

AUSTIN -- Is the SXSW film festival getting too big for its boots?

There are worse problems for a fest to have than excessive demand. It means programmers are making strong choices, the venues are attractive and the regional vibe welcoming.

But as the curtain comes down on the 2010 edition, which featured crowds of badge and ticket holders turned away from nearly every screening, it's clear that organizers have some hard decisions to make.

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"This is No. 1 on the list of challenges to tackle," said festival director Janet Pierson, who's still in the midst of this year's event. "We're aware of it; we're sorry about it. It's something that we're really going to have to sit down and look at from every angle."

It's a delicate balance between increasing access and respecting logistical constraints -- a dilemma festivals such as Sundance and Toronto have wrestled with but which SXSW complicates with its overlapping interactive and music festivals. Take over more venues to increase the screening count, and you risk angering the locals; limit badge and ticket sales to cap demand, and you risk undercutting SXSW's populist credibility.

The music festival was launched in 1987, followed by the film and interactive fests in 1994. All three overlap during 10 days in March, with attendees free to buy entrance to one, two or all three. As of last year, music remained the most popular, with more than 15,000 participants, including media; interactive had about 12,000 and film about 8,000.

Based on anecdotal evidence and unofficial figures, this year's total for all three ran closer to 50,000, with interactive interest potentially surpassing music for the first time. Although official figures won't be available for another week or so, Pierson noted that film registrations were up, as were hybrid gold and platinum passes.

"This is a new problem," she says. "We're still in it. You don't know what the growth is until you experience it."

SXSW -- as well as Austin, which fields its own smaller film festival in October -- is attractive in part because of its laid-back, egalitarian vibes and the charms of a hyper-hip town that is home to the sprawling University of Texas. College students and indie types mingle at the fest, downing mozzarella sticks and beer while filling up on film fare.

But that folksy nature comes with limits. Other than the Paramount, which seats 1,500, and the G-Tech, which holds 450, most of the fest's theaters hold 150-250. Pierson said SXSW tried to reserve more theater space this year at the Alamo Lamar, for instance, and couldn't secure it (the fest was able to commandeer three screens).

With higher-profile projects invited to launch at SXSW during the past few years ("Kick-Ass," "Drag Me to Hell," "Predators"), the presence of industry people, media and other special guests has increased to the point that they crowd venues to the exclusion of many badge holders, let alone locals who are sold standby tickets only to be shut out of everything big, like "MacGruber."

Even the festival's day-of SXXpress Pass offerings, begun last year, have had limited effect because there are so few per screening and they are snatched up immediately. Additionally, a handful of relevant screenings are opened up free to attendees with interactive and music badges, which could come at the expense of film registrants.

Possibilities for next year could include building a new venue or devoting more space at the convention center to screenings, as fest organizers did this year with the G-Tech. And the screening library could be expanded. Right now, it only has six monitors with 90-minute time limits that often are booked as soon as the day starts. Last year's event saw 769 members of the press on hand; making the library screenings more available is one option for siphoning media from the main venues.

But Pierson said all options will be on the table.

"We're going to sit down and hammer it out," she said of her team, which includes features programmer Jarod Neece, co-founder Louis Black and press/publicity director Rebecca Feferman. "We're going to sit down and look at the numbers and say, 'OK, what are we going to do here?' "