South by Southwest attendance rises 40%

AUSTIN, Texas — While top North American film fests from Sundance to Toronto rely on high-profile world preems to keep up their reputations (and balance their ledgers), other fests, such as Telluride, try to steal sneak peeks at hot pics, leaving the rest of the regionals to fight for relevance.

Austin’s South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival, meanwhile, has quietly forged an edgy, slow-building model.

Organizers of the fest, which has seen this year’s attendance rise 40%, have cleverly devised a way to keep a regional fest humming by running it alongside a tech fest that has taken off to become a prime destination for bloggers, Webheads and geeks of all stripes.

The film and tech events also butt up against the SXSW music confab, one of that industry’s hottest dates for discovering new talent and breaking bands.

Holding three separate but nearly simultaneous confabs relieves the financial pressures that plague so many regional fests, allowing SXSW’s film programmers to pepper a lineup with a few big titles but concentrate on more obscure, arty regional cinema. There is also an abundance of docus with plenty of geek appeal.

But one wonders if the somewhat sleepy SXSW even realizes what it has created, as the relationship of technology and film overlaps like never before – not just at the indie level, but behind the gates of Hollywood studios and Gotham media congloms a world away from Austin. Perhaps it’s all by some anti-design; typically, it’s a place, unlike Sundance, where the parties mostly have no guest lists.

Embodying SXSW’s loose, fuck-it attitude, two pics opened the fest this year on Friday, Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” from New Line/HBO venture Picturehouse, and a docu called, simply, “Fuck,” an exploration of the expletive by helmer Steve Anderson.

“I think we are definitely at the point where we are being really responsible about how we present ourselves,” said film fest producer Matt Dentler of not wanting to attract too many attendees or overt piggybacking sponsors. “The music side has been a great inspiration for us. They are the biggest event for that industry in North America, and we have learned a lot.”

While SXSW brass point to a number of convergence panels that can be accessed by film and tech people alike, the two fests remain largely segregated. If a film type deigns to wander close by an aisle at the Austin Convention Center that houses an online event, the seemingly laid-back, dyed-and-pierced badge checkers suddenly turn into a goth Gestapo unit. They’ll turn him away and shoo him back to the film aisles without ever mentioning that one can upgrade one’s badge to Gold for an extra few hundred bucks and attend both events.

The bags given to film registrants contain no information enticing them to the tech side, not even scheduling info. (Then again, traveling free-for-all fests, from Gen Art to Resfest, that combine all sorts of mixed media into one logjam that can also be difficult to figure out.)

“It’s quite deliberate that (tech and film) run at the same time, while music takes the latter half, at a time when new media and film have so much overlap,” said Dentler. At the time the fest began, “The idea of new media and film (together) was really foreign. This year is the one where all that is bubbling up and we are seeing these worlds coming together.”

But in a year that saw niche pics from mini-majors dominate – at the same time debates over shifting distribution windows and podcasting became hot-button issues for fringe players and studio execs alike – the divide between techie ideas and filmmaking has never been narrower. The developments make SXSW’s 13-year-old, three-pronged approach that much more visionary, even if neophytes don’t realize they can be a part of all three worlds here if they just go for the $875 Platinum Badge.

“Digital distribution, digital filmmaking and the Internet are breaking the chokehold of the majors,” said Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart during a one-on-one talk Saturday morning. He was pointing out to the host, AP reporter Christy Lemire, that the digital front now offers opportunities analogous to those available to innovative filmmakers in Hollywood during the 1960s and ’70s.

“It’s a great moment to capture,” he added. “But it would be unfortunate at this moment, when the doors are opening for new voices, that the new voices aren’t there to fill it. Are we too sleepy and sedate to express ourselves the way we can?”

Bart said that, based on the success of indie pics over the past few years, he sees a more “bifurcated Hollywood” emerging between studio tentpoles and pics budgeted below $20 million from their ramped-up niche divisions.

“There has been a whole rediscovery of what we in Hollywood call ‘specialty’ or ‘niche’ pictures,”‘ he said. `”But can the studio-owned units, with all the suits looking over their numbers, nurture an interesting program of films?”

Other hot-topic film panels this year included `”A Landmark Business,”‘ which explored Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s ideas about changing the way films are distributed, as well as “Blogging About Film” and “Remixing Business for a Convergent World.”

Away from the theoretical, SXSW is still not covered by the industry’s top execs and agents, and most banners send their junior players to keep an eye out for emerging talent. Some gems have been plucked here, including the breakout doc “Spellbound,” whose success a few years back transformed indie banner ThinkFilm into a nonfiction specialist.

However, the fest is a prime place to launch projects, particularly those that will open within a couple months of their Austin preem.

“You can premiere here if you are about to open in a month,” said Picturehouse head Bob Berney, who had two pics playing the fest: Altman’s “Prairie” and “The Notorious Bettie Page.” “But it depends on the film.” Berney decided to bring “Prairie,” which opens June 9, here as a North American preem after its Berlin berth, because the pic is “music-oriented,” fitting into Austin’s Americana music tradition.

Sony Pictures Classics brought to Austin Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking,” as well as “Friends With Money” and “L’Enfant,” citing the effectiveness of making a press launch here. Unit also recently bought “American Hardcore,” which was slotted to play SXSW, but pulled it upon deciding on a fall rollout date.

With a distinct lack of wheeling and dealing, there are still a few power players who move about at South by Southwest, preserving the fest as a secret fave on the calendar for schmoozing. And barbeque sauce runs deep: Michael Barker, co-head of SPC and a SXSW vet, said relationships forged here can run deeper than those begun at other, more harried confabs. When execs wave to each other knowingly along the Croisette in Cannes, there can be an Austin connection underneath, forged over shared talk of movies and ribs.

But despite any potential, SXSW seems to have little ambition to become an heir apparent to the once hip but now overrun Sundance, a place where as much ink is devoted to crowd control and vulture-like marketers as to the films. “We are maintaining our ability to play a lot of things that are really obscure,” Dentler said.

Some vets see the landscape changing, however. One viewed a new Starbucks kiosk in the convention center, along with a 45-minute wait for a badge and a lack of street parking, as signs of things to come. Two hundred people were turned away from funnyman Andy Dick’s directorial effort “Danny Roane: First Time Director” when it preemed at the 500-seat convention center’s cinema.

SXSW runs through Saturday.

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