AUSTIN, TX — Even after 15 years, the South By Southwest Film Festival is no threat to Sundance — but it is the festival Slamdance always wanted to be.
When SXSW, which opened Friday and ends next Saturday, began to draw national attention nearly a decade ago, there was a sense that the fest might gain enough traction to become a real industry event, with buyers blocking out a week in March with the same regularity as they do those 10 days in January.
That hasn’t happened. Asked if he expected to find any films to buy at SXSW this year, Magnolia Pictures’ president Eamonn Bowles shrugged and said, “Not really.”
Many of the films in this year’s SXSW lineup were submitted to — and rejected by — Sundance. And given its timing and location, Slamdance will always have the allure of executive access. Among filmmakers, however, SXSW is becoming the first among second choices.
Negin Farsad, director of the hip-hop documentary “Nerdcore Rising,” would not say where she first submitted her movie, but said, “South by Southwest is our first choice for this film. With the music, the interactive — these are our peeps.”
They’re also Hollywood’s: Last year, Universal launched Judd Apatow’s hit “Knocked Up” here. This year, U is debuting another Apatow production, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”; the Weinstein Co. and New Line Cinema are following suit with launches for “The Promotion” and “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” respectively.
SXSW can also claim credit for serving as a flashpoint for “mumblecore,” a modest film movement that has drawn coverage in the New York Times and Rolling Stone (and a vituperative rebuke from Amy Taubin in Film Comment).
The latest mumblecore movie, Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s “Nights and Weekends,” followed its Sunday night SXSW premiere with the announcement (first reported by IndieWIRE) that IFC had acquired the pic’s worldwide rights. Some of its associated filmmakers have also attracted Hollywood’s attention, including Andrew Bujalski (who is adapting “Indecision” for Scott Rudin) and the Duplass brothers, who are developing projects for Universal and Fox Searchlight.
Like Slamdance, SXSW Film probably would suffer as a discrete entity. However, while Slamdance is often accused of having a parasitic infrastructure, the SXSW conference offers three complementary, self-contained elements of music, interactive and film.
SXSW also offers another draw, albeit one that’s hard to quantify: It’s fun. While SXSW Film has some off years in terms of sales, attendance continues to grow (last year’s film headcount was 55,000).
“Sundance is filled with people who see films from a business point of view,” said Morgan Spurlock, who is screening “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” following its Sundance launch — the same pattern he followed four years ago with “Super Size Me.”
“It’s so much more relaxed here,” he said. “South by Southwest is filled with people who really want to see your film.”
However, down-home Austin is increasingly a place that also attracts the luxury-loving wealthy. Under construction downtown are a new W Hotel and a condo project in which homes run for $2 million. If and when that day comes when Hollywood decides to show up at SXSW en masse, Austin will be ready for them.