sxsw 2013 film guide

Upon returning from the constantly evolving confab of everything tech and media that is SXSW, I was asked by a friend to describe in one word what attending the festival was like. Without hesitation I uttered, “spam”.  SXSW is a little bit of everything. This is both what continues to make it a viable event and also its Achilles heel.

For those who have never been, here’s are some quick facts on what differentiates the festival from other major fests in the US (Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride, LAFF, etc):

SXSW is a FOR PROFIT.  Filmmakers pay their own way to attend (though badges are comped).

There are no press and industry screenings and there is no formal sales market. You either have a film badge or you don’t and it’s first come first serve. This means you could go to a screening and 20 people are there or the line could wrap around the block.

Not only are films screened, but they have a comedy festival, a music festival, a tech conference and it all overlaps with the film festival. They fill the fest with literally hundreds of panels and discussions on just about every topic you could think of.

What makes the festival work is its completely open atmosphere. People who otherwise might be closed off to a filmmaker are not only accessible but they are often willing to talk. At the SXSW closing party you had shorts filmmakers rubbing shoulders with Brie Larson while local college students conversed with distributors over shots. It was truly a sight to  see.

I have been going to the festival for a few years now and this year’s crop was a real eclectic and fresh bunch of films. The documentary slate was WAY, WAY stronger than the past few years, but there also wasn’t a clear stand out. To my mind, it was also the gayest year on record with no fewer than a dozen docs that prominently feature LGBTQI+ story lines.  Even the non queer films I saw like Unhung Hero were packed with gay men enjoying a virtual tour through a Penis garden in South Korea (literally).

I would also like to personally applaud the filmmakers of those docs for supporting one another. It was great to see how many of the producers/directors showed up to one another’s screenings. This is yet another distinction from the festival standard. Filmmakers at SXSW find the time to go see a few films from other filmmakers (honestly I have no idea how with so much going on, but the point is that they do it).

Which brings me to the one constant theme that I heard from people during the fest. It is just too many things going on at once. Sometimes fewer choices is beneficial. I will attest that creating my schedule for SXSW took me 3x as long than creating my schedule for Sundance. While SXSW had about 25 or so fewer world premieres, they actually screened almost 20 more films in total. They also do not start film screenings till 11:00 AM so you have one less screening slot per day.

But even if there were no films, there is still the tradeshow with hundreds of vendors, mock casting sessions, panels, meet ups, over 3000 bands performing, parties on each corner, sponsored stations, and dozens of brand new startups. In fact, one of the most rewarding things during the festival that I did was go to a meet up of new film oriented companies.

The fest this year extended more premieres into the second half of the festival (when the much larger music festival often results in a mass exodus from the film venues) and it did seem to help. Attendance was clearly up during the second half of the festival. In some cases, films were even able to fill up which I would not have imagined possible judging from previous years

The deals this year have been a bit slower than in year’s past, but expect them to trickle down in the coming months. Interestingly, the two of the three distributors (Drafthouse and Magnolia) that have acquired world premieres from the festival have deep ties to the state of Texas. Drafthouse Films bought the midnight film Cheap Thrills and fellow midnight entry Haunter was acquired by IFC Midnight. Gross out horror comedy Milo was bought Magnet (The genre arm of Magnolia) and indie darling, Joe Swanberg, sold his film Drinking Buddies to Magnolia.

Other films to announce deals at or just before the festival include audience award winning docs The Punk Syndrome (GoDigital) and A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films). Fellow doc, These Birds Walkwent to Oscilloscope.  Sundance breakout Muscle Shoals was acquired by Magnolia who clearly had a busy festival. It is worth noting that the producers have chosen to donate all profits to two different music organizations.

SXSW has solidified its place as the younger, hipper, indie version to Sundance. The films tend to skew more towards genre fare, there are plenty of comedies, the docs go more human interest than overtly political, and often what the films lack in polish they make up for in gusto. This is the festival that has recognized some of the freshest voices in indie film like the Duplass Brothers, Amy Seimetz, and of course Lena Dunham.

In talking with filmmakers, it is clear a lot more are willing to take matters into their own hands and pursue DIY. There is very little of the big producer ego permeating through the festival and for filmmakers who attend, they can see what will be the norm in the next two-three years by embracing the new tech companies whose presence, while a distraction, is also part of the charm.

I also would like to applaud the festival for staying true to its Austin roots. There were a large amount of Texas based films that made it into the festival. Austin is an indie film pioneer and playing with the big boys of NY/LA. The commitment to championing their own is admirable, but the truth is these films by and large are as good (if not better) than fellow entries from the larger and more typically thought of film hubs.

While SXSW still has work to do in shaking off the image of being the second choice to Sundance, the fact is they are growing at a rapid pace and the quality of films is constantly improving.   Since it takes place after Sundance and Berlin, it will never be able to equal their heights on the sales front, but if distributors were smart, they would intentionally hold out for a SXSW film or two to add to their slate. Especially if they have a good VOD/Digital operation in place.

Finally, I can’t in good conscience finish this post without mentioning that I won $70 in gift cards from Fandango by twice stumping their guru on 80’s film trivia. Thank you Fandango and I look forward to using the gift cards to see more of the films from SXSW as they enter into the theatrical marketplace.

March 23rd, 2013

Posted In: Film Festivals

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