SXSW Growing Pains: Can the Fest Retain Its Unique Flavor?
With the film festival set to start March 9, recent discoveries mean an influx of agents and buzz that both scare and seduce Austin's alternative tastemakers.
Programmers selected Lena Dunham's wispy, literally homemade comedy Tiny Furniture to screen at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival because of the filmmaker's original voice. Neither they nor Dunham had much reason to believe that more than a few people beyond the festival would ever hear about it. But then the film won the narrative grand jury prize, was picked up by IFC Films, won a Spirit Award and prompted Judd Apatow to develop and produce the upcoming HBO series Girls with Dunham.
Suddenly, SXSW was the place to make a great discovery. As a result, filmmakers and industry reps are putting a much more intense focus on the funky hybrid music, film and interactive festival, whose 19th edition with all of those elements starts March 9. Now, the question is whether the film component can retain its unique flavor, or does it risk becoming overrun with industry players, like Sundance and Toronto?
Clearly a pattern has been established, for Dunham's success at SXSW was not unique: That same year, Gareth Edwards debuted his genre film Monsters, which Magnet acquired, and that led to a gig directing Warner Bros.' reboot of its Godzilla franchise. Then, at the 2011 fest, both Robbie Pickering, whose drama Natural Selection won seven awards, and Joe Cornish, whose low-budget sci-fi comedy Attack the Block had its premiere, got the kind of attention that put the two on the studios' lists.
"People have begun to realize that it is a great venue for a lot of young talent," says UTA agent Jenny Maryasis, who began building a relationship with Dunham before the director's film played at SXSW and now represents her. "People are seeing it as an opportunity. The Lena Dunham example, or Gareth Edwards or Robbie Pickering, of a small movie leading to such bigger opportunities is inspiring to other agents and managers."
Discovery is the great hope of every agent, filmmaker and moviegoer who attends a film festival. But in an entertainment world saturated with buzz and pre-fest coverage, it has become harder to find that pure pop of the unexpected at major festivals like Toronto and Cannes. In that company, SXSW's second-tier status is less a liability than a strength because the fest draws a lot of unknown filmmakers who do not yet have representation or a deluge of preemptive hype.
So while Dunham will be back in Austin with Apatow on March 9 at the Paramount Theatre to premiere the first three episodes of Girls, which bows April 15, any number of agents, acquisitions execs and filmmakers will be swarming the town looking for the next potential breakout to follow in her footsteps. "SXSW is becoming a good breeding ground for these filmmakers," says WME agent Rich Cook, who signed Edwards out of the fest in 2010. "More and more people are going down there to sign."
Filmmakers have taken notice. Submissions were up 7 percent this year despite an earlier deadline, and the courting already has begun. "I have friends who have had movies at SXSW, and their experience is already different from mine in the sense that there has definitely been a lot of agency querying," says screenwriter Jordan Roberts, whose second film as a director, Frankie Go Boom, is playing in the Narrative Spotlight section. "I'm getting phone calls that they didn't get two or three years ago. I'm getting a lot of attention for having my film there."
The scouts will have to cover a lot of ground among the various sidebars, where films (broken down by category) could serve up new talent:
Last year, Anchor Bay picked up rights to Xavier Gens' vicious The Divide for seven figures, one of the biggest SXSW sales, out of this genre-heavy section. This year, several titles already have distribution, but other filmmakers and films are waiting to be discovered: Among them are Ciaran Foy's Citadel, which grew out of the director's own experiences with agoraphobia, Austin Chick's Girls Against Boys and Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man, which has Jessica Biel in its cast.
Pickering's Natural Selection played in the narrative competition and wound up with an armful of awards. This year, other new filmmakers -- such as Adam Leon with Gimme the Loot, Martha Stephens with Pilgrim Song, Sean Baker with Starlet and Megan Griffiths with Eden -- are hoping for a similar reception.
Undefeated, from directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, one of the first acquisitions of the 2011 festival, scored the Oscar for best documentary for its uplifting story of a volunteer coach and an inner-city football team. Docs The Central Park Effect, which surveys New York City's birds and its even more eccentric bird-watchers, from Jeffrey Kimball; Welcome to the Machine from Avi Zev Weider; The Source from Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos; and Jeff from Chris James Thompson are among those competing this year. The separate Spotlight documentaries lineup includes Ben Shapiro's Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Neil Berkeley's Beauty Is Embarrassing and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.
Narrative Spotlight and Emerging Visions
These sections cater mostly to new, low-budget filmmakers, with Marc Evans' Hunky Dory, Brian Savelson's In Our Nature and Jonas Akerlund's Small Apartments screening. Matthew Lillard, recently seen opposite George Clooney in The Descendants, will premiere his directing debut, Fat Kid Rules the World.
And so the great SXSW talent hunt is on.
BIG HOLLYWOOD MUSCLES IN: The potential for wired word-of-mouth is catnip to studios that bring midbudget spring releases to Austin, but it doesn't always work.
21 Jump Street (2012) The Jonah Hill-Channing Tatum comedy from Sony hits theaters a few days after its South by Southwest premiere March 12, and Hill, a SXSW regular, will be in Austin to stump for it.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Lionsgate needs the fest's pop-culture-saturated film geeks to deluge social media with strong endorsements for the long-delayed Drew Goddard-Joss Whedon horror pic starring Chris Hemsworth, which premieres opening night, March 9.
The Beaver (2011) Summit wanted a nonjudgmental place to unveil its dark Mel Gibson drama, and it found one in SXSW. Even so, the Jodie Foster-directed film failed to clear $1 million at the domestic box office.
Kick-Ass (2010) The festival's high interactive-nerd quotient made it the best place for Lionsgate to launch its everyday-high-school-kid-as-superhero flick, which nonetheless kicked its way to only $48 million domestically.
I Love You, Man (2009) John Hamburg's bromantic comedy starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel used the fest to premiere a week ahead of its release, and the Paramount/DreamWorks comedy attracted $71 million at U.S. theaters.