Texas two-step at SXSW

Fest is 'the next Toronto' for youth-oriented tastemaking

When producer Thomas Woodrow began debating the ideal launchpad for his movie "True Adolescents," he ran through the usual festival suspects: Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and Telluride.

But Woodrow decided to premiere his $1 million comedy featuring Oscar nominee Melissa Leo at South by Southwest, a fest that until recently was known as an afterthought to the powerhouse music event that runs alongside it.

Sure, "Adolescents" is music-oriented, aimed at the same young, hip audience that flocks to Austin each March, and its star, Mark Duplass, is well-known locally.

But more importantly, "the fact a golden handful of distributors who are potential partners are certainly going to be there made it the obvious choice," Woodrow says.

His decision to go with South by Southwest (SXSW or "South By," as it is known) reflects the increasing relevance of the fest heading into its 16th go-round, which begins today and runs through March 21.

Although hardly a busy acquisitions market, SXSW has become an important platform for exposure, buzz generation and even finding a distributor, especially for youth-skewing pics.

Last year at the fest, Magnolia acquired the pot dramedy "Humboldt County," Oscilloscope picked up the high school politics documentary "Frontrunners" and HBO bought rights to the docs "They Killed Sister Dorothy" and "One Minute to Nine."

Columbia used SXSW to launch its hit blackjack drama "21," as did New Line with "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" (the original "Harold & Kumar" premiered at the fest in 2004).

"In the last few years, South By is breaking out of the impression people have had of it as a regional event and is become a tastemaking festival," Woodrow says.

Among this year's 133 features (including 57 world premieres), Paramount is hoping to jump-start its Paul Rudd-Jason Segel comedy "I Love You, Man" with an opening-night screening, Warner Bros. is bringing its Seth Rogen comedy "Observe and Report," Universal has a rough cut of Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" and scenes from "Bruno," and Fox Searchlight is closing the fest with its July breakup comedy "(500) Days of Summer."

At the same time, SXSW faces growing pains amid a gloomy landscape for regional festivals. Organizers say a few sponsors have dropped out this year, but they are offering the same number of screenings, panels and events.

Unlike many regional fests, SXSW doesn't subsidize attendance by filmmakers or panelists. That keeps operating costs low, according to new festival director Janet Pierson, who took over when Matt Dentler left to join sales outfit Cinetic Media in New York.

Pierson, a 30-year film veteran whose husband John is a producers rep and film professor at the University of Texas in Austin, says her aim is to maintain the fest's distinct regional appeal while encouraging acquisitions and the industry cachet they bring.

"The goal is not to be a market per se," says Pierson, adding, "Of course, we welcome good things to happen to the films that premiere here."

That increasingly has been the case.

Last year, IFC picked up eight films, including Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy" and Joe Maggio's "Paper Covers Rock." IFC was so taken with SXSW that this year it created a multiplatform initiative in conjunction with IFC Festival Direct, which each month offers cable and satellite subscribers a half-dozen films on VOD drawn from top festivals.

Beginning with Saturday's world premiere of Joe Swanberg's "Alexander the Last," five other premieres will be available simultaneously on VOD, including Javor Gardev's "Zift" and Matthew Newton's "Three Blind Mice."

"Hopefully, the marketing and publicity that the films garner through the fest exposure will get more people to watch them and be interested," says Arianna Bocco, IFC vp acquisitions and productions.

IFC also will have an acquisition team at the fest led by Bocco, who says she typically sees three to six films a day.

"(SXSW) is not going to be for every distributor, but certainly for us it's a very fruitful festival as well as an opportunity to see new talents -- they showcase it very well, and they made their niche that way."

Filmmaker Brant Sersen chose SXSW to premiere his "Splinterheads," a $3 million romantic comedy revolving around a local carnival, and reach what he calls the " 'Harold & Kumar' crowd."

"Smart, savvy college kids come out along with the press, and they are great film buffs," he says. "Ain't It Cool News comes out of Austin, and I love that Web site. That's the type of audience I'm looking for."

Sersen came to Austin in 2004 with his first feature, "Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story," which won the SXSW audience award. "That just set us up, and for a year and a half we just played festivals all over the country and in Europe," he says. "We got amazing press. We made so many contacts. We had all the big agencies contacting us, asking about the directing of the film."

Ultimately, Sersen got "a great DVD deal, and the movie was profitable," he says.

But unlike success stories from Sundance or Cannes, filmmakers who bring their work to SXSW know better than to anticipate a splashy sale. Merely building buzz is seen as a victory.

"It's now similar to Telluride," says Andrew Herwitz, president of New York-based the Film Sales Co., which last year sold "They Killed Sister Dorothy" to HBO at SXSW.

Says David Fenkel, a partner in Oscilloscope, which last year acquired two docs, "Dear Zachary" and "Frontrunners," both of which received platform theatrical releases before going to TV and DVD: "SXSW is a great place to premiere, and you can get a sense of the audience reaction and critical reaction. It's not a big deal if it doesn't get bought at the festival."

The opportunity for exposure without intense pressure is what attracted Sebastian Gutierrez, producer-writer-director of "Women in Trouble," a comedy starring Carla Gugino, Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton.

"I do find that the anxiety level is a lot lower at somewhere like SXSW than it is at Sundance," Gutierrez says. "It's a much more relaxed festival. Toronto famously has very friendly audiences for movies, but now Toronto has become really big business. So I think SXSW has become the next Toronto as far as a place where you can show the movie to like-minded people and not have it be all about cell phones and deals."

It also has become a place for emerging filmmakers to connect with one another.

"There is this kind of indie-film diaspora across the United States that remains in touch," Woodrow says. "Then they gather together at South By, and this is one of the types of glue that holds them together."

So despite the recent uptick in film-sales activity, the value of SXSW still might be in its perception as a hipster launching pad.

"It isn't a place where you expect a film to premiere and two days later be sold to a distributor," says Josh Braun, president of Submarine, the New York-based sales company handling "Adolescents." "But if you go with a film that has that sensibility, you can have great success, because when you come out of SXSW with great buzz, you will find champions at various companies."