South by Southwest gets serious

Culture confab spurs attendance with Lone Star 'tude

Amid ever-increasing competition on the film festival circuit, regional confabs desperately, and many times unrealistically, try to fashion themselves into hotbeds of acquisitions, or places where big pics will preem. But South by Southwest has always succeeded by keeping its cool.

As a sister festival to the world’s biggest music confab, where “the next big thing” in rock is anointed annually, the Austin, Texas-based event has enjoyed a certain cachet since launching in 1994. SXSW has managed to cast itself as a hipster haven for movie buffs, whereas so many other fests outside the biggies are — let’s face it — vacation destinations with projectors ‘n’ directors.

But as competition among festivals intensifies, programmers and their confabs are increasingly suffering from identity crises, and SXSW has had to focus itself to rise above the fray: With more competish than ever for organizers to bag big titles, and few to go around, the challenge lies in creating a personality for a regional fest as a serious place for movies.

“You need something that stands out in a sea of film festivals that’s incredibly crowded,” says Matt Dentler, producer of the SXSW conference and festival. “If you are not Sundance or Cannes or Toronto, you need something dynamic.”

Dentler adds that the fest’s music roots have helped give the film side credibility, but that the festival has also had to fight over the years to convince studios it’s also a place where big preems can pay off.

Gambit has largely worked. This year, SXSW is hosting galas for screenwriter Scott Frank’s directorial debut “The Lookout,” as well as helmer Judd Apatow’s latest comedy “Knocked Up” and Chan-wook Park’s “I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK.”

Fest also recently negotiated to bring in the Adam Sandler starrer “Reign Over Me” and is wangling to have Sandler and Don Cheadle make appearances.

Apart from the galas, SXSW has hit upon an interesting formula that also will set it apart this year: If you can’t get a high-profile movie to preem at your festival, what about part of one?

Fest had been in talks to reel in screenings of Eli Roth’s “Hostel II” as well as Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino’s “Grindhouse” but was unable to, since both pics are still feverishly wrapping up in post-production.

Instead, SXSW inventively invited Roth to just show off exclusive footage from his upcoming slasher sequel during a discussion dubbed “Panel of the Dead: Horror Films of Today.”

And Rodriguez, an Austin native, will show up to host “Grindhouse 101,” where he’ll unveil rough scenes from the film.

Though the fest is showing off such genre fare this year in Austin — after all, it’s the home of Ain’t It Cool News — organizers are quick to point out that SXSW isn’t for fanboys only.

“We’re not trying to become a Comic Con-y event,” Dentler says. “But (sneak footage) adds some value. Last year, we did something similar where we had a last-minute screening of Richard Linklater’s ‘A Scanner Darkly.'”

Away from the blood-spattered or sci-fi scenes, highlights this year will be in the documentary section, an area that many fests have been using to bolster programming, as nonfiction work becomes even more widely accepted by auds.

“Manufacturing Dissent” is one preem that should gain keen attention from press and industry types. Pic, by co-helmers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, turns the camera on Michael Moore to look at the director’s practices as a documaker.

SXSW brass says that while the pic could be misconstrued as “some right-wing propaganda,” it’s anything but. Indeed the helmers corralled talking heads including Noam Chomsky, Errol Morris, Ralph Nader and Christopher Hitchens to discuss Moore’s polarizing technique.

Whether that pic and any other of the 60 world premieres unspooling are snapped up by distributors remains to be seen.

SXSW has wisely never banked on being a hot spot where films will find homes overnight, a la Sundance. Other regional fests have found themselves snakebit by pinning hopes on buys and overpromising, only to be dubbed as falling short by the media when bidding wars don’t materialize.

“You have to be realistic about what a film festival can provide,” Dentler says. “Never once have we made any promises of an overnight pickup. The industry just doesn’t work that way. And success can be found in a glowing review in a national publication. Or a filmmaker meeting their future agent, or someone they’ll collaborate with to make a bigger and better movie.”

A handful of notable companies do dispatch teams to cover the fest, although execs on the scene tend to be lower-level staffers reporting back tips and tidbits to bosses in Los Angeles or New York.

But the fest — through an Austin movie mafia of sorts — always has bigger, notable names trolling theaters, as well as the many parties, bars and barbecue joints. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, who attended the U. of Texas, is customarily seen hitting screenings in his cowboy boots. And Picturehouse’s Bob Berney, another UT alum who owned a movie theater in town, is a frequent fan of the fest as a place to help launch pics, as he did last year with “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Also usually on the scene is Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia Pictures, which has an Austin office. And indie film guru John Pierson teaches at UT.

While SXSW has been able to leverage its laid-back ‘tude and its lead-up to the musical festival as much as its film lineup, the fest has continually been honing in on taking itself to the next level.

Sundance once had a magic formula that marketers and distribs were looking for: a core, coveted demo of cool, younger adults that could help launch a pic or product. But Sundance has increasingly been inundated as another stop for socialites, stargazers and civilians vying for gifting suites or celeb sightings.

Picking up the slack, SXSW — a place where parties don’t have barricades or clipboard-toting bouncers outside — is still seen as a locus with an undiluted, captive, youthful, tastemaking audience.

“Sundance, bar none, has the best programming of any festival in America,” Dentler says. “But it is hard to navigate. We have a degree of programming and organization where we want to include the filmmaker, the film industry and the film fan. That’s the family tree we want to keep growing without an elitist vibe.”

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