AUSTIN, Texas — In 2002, “Spellbound” bowed at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival to rapturous response. Not that it mattered: ThinkFilm waited until the documentary screened at the Toronto Film Festival before buying the title. SXSW might have been a bellwether, but it wasn’t a call to action.
Things have changed.
As SXSW celebrates its 12th year, ThinkFilm is flirting with comedy docu “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.” Seventh Art Releasing picked up world rights to “The Aggressives,” a doc about six lesbians in New York who live like men. And buyers are sniffing around “Stagedoor,” a documentary about a Catskills theater camp; horror pic “Reeker”; and another comedy doc, “The Comedians of Comedy.”
Even before the fest ends March 19, SXSW already has earned seals of approval from the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s upcoming New Directors/New Films, which has programmed the feature “Our Brand Is Crisis,” and Karen Cooper’s venerable Film Forum, which plans to put doc “The Boys of Baraka” on its fall schedule. Both titles are SXSW world premieres.
Another SXSW premiere, the ultra-low-budget thriller “Cavite,” drew former film rep John Pierson out of retirement. Now a professor at the U. of Texas’ Burnt Orange film school, he’s selling the film with the help of his advanced producing class.
The initial growth of SXSW was fueled by the charm of a city known for its barbecue and chile con queso as much as its well-educated and enthusiastic film audiences. Flying to Austin in March was less a strategic decision than a plausible excuse.
Today, SXSW is a destination fest and mainstay of the independent film calendar.
“It’s a great place to discover new talent,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who utilized the fest as a regional launching pad for “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Layer Cake.” A U. of Texas graduate, he’s been one of SXSW’s long-term supporters. “It’s attracting more people, and more important people, from all areas,” he said of the fest.
Making appearances here were Brad Simpson, Leonardo DiCaprio’s partner in Appian Way; Mark Johnson, producer of the Wilson brothers’ “The Wendell Baker Story”; and Killer Films’ Christine Vachon, who was the subject of a career retrospective. Vachon’s also shooting the Truman Capote biopic “Every Word Is True” in Austin.
While SXSW has yet to charm the studios’ specialty divisions, every true indie distrib is here and accounted for. In addition to Lions Gate Films, Roadside Attractions, Magnolia Pictures, ThinkFilm, Newmarket Films and Wellspring Media, fest is also hosting reps from HBO Films and Miramax Films.
Rave reviews for fest
“I’m having a great time,” said Cinetic Media’s Micah Green, relaxing outside the new Alamo Drafthouse theater after a screening of “The Puffy Chair,” one of five pics he’s selling here with John Sloss. “The audiences are terrific, and everything has been so well organized.”
Much of that credit goes to the festival’s preternaturally calm director, Matt Dentler, but SXSW also benefits from a local infrastructure unmatched by any film festival in North America.
Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez are more than points of civic pride. Linklater is the founder of the Austin Film Society, which manages the 4-year-old Austin Studios. Based at Austin’s old airport, it’s brought in more than a half-billion dollars in economic activity since launching in 2000.
And Rodriguez has his own Troublemaker Studios, where he’s able to do much of his own production and post-production on films like the “Spy Kids” franchise and the upcoming “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl” and “Sin City.”
Could get big boost
Local film production — and, by extension, SXSW — could receive a further boost this fall if the Texas Film Incentive bill passes in the current state legislative session. And it doesn’t hurt to have Mark Cuban, owner of HD Net, Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Pictures, based in Dallas.
All of this leaves SXSW poised to be saddled with the label of Next Big Thing, the strategically timed spring festival that does what Slamdance set out to do — catch the pics that Sundance misses and attract a few more besides. But that’s a weight SXSW would rather not bear.
“We’re definitely trying to have our cake and eat it, too,” said Dentler. “But we’re really fortunate in that we have (the SXSW Music Conference) to lead the way. They’ve already gone through this. That’s our model.”
For SXSW, success comes out of following its own eccentric logic. It has no problem with scheduling four documentaries devoted to brilliant but obscure musicians suffering from mental illness — a sensible decision in a town where bumper stickers plead “Keep Austin Weird.”
Other hot titles were docs about whistling (“Pucker Up”), a cowboy matchmaker (“Cowboy del Amor”), Girl Scouts with moms in prison (“Troop 1500”) and U.S. soldiers in Falluja, Iraq (“Operation: Dreamland”). Elijah Wood and Claire Forlani starred in soccer thug comedy “Hooligans,” which was praised for its brutal action sequences, but auds voted with their feet on “Drop Dead Sexy,” a local production that featured semi-marquee names of Crispin Glover and Jason Lee. SXSW doesn’t have much love for films that look better on the red carpet than they do on the screen.
In any case, there are no red carpets at SXSW. The week’s only press line came at the Austin Film Society’s annual Texas Hall of Fame awards Friday night. With guests that included Thomas Haden Church, Marcia Gay Harden, the Coen brothers, Joe Pantoliano, Forlani, Wood and George Lopez, this strange brew of imported celebrity and local pride serves as the festival’s unofficial kickoff. Those in from New York or Los Angeles wore jeans; local members of Austin society preferred sequins and tuxedoes.
Sometimes it works, as when Billy Bob Thornton inducted his “Alamo” co-star Dennis Quaid. Sometimes it doesn’t, as when a former Texas governor inducted Lauren Bacall for starring in the 1956 Douglas Sirk melodrama “Written on the Wind” — a film set in Texas, but shot on a soundstage.
“I hope I’m not killed on the way out because I’m not a Texan,” said Bacall.