South by Southwest 2012

When it comes to North American film festivals, there’s Toronto, there’s Sundance, and then there’s everything else. But even without a market, South by Southwest makes a strong case for the continent’s next most relevant sprocket opera, vying with fests such as Tribeca, New York and Telluride for that coveted third place.

For SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson, now in her fourth year at the helm, it’s satisfying to see the event grow in significance within the industry, but her primary concern is putting together the best possible lineup. These days, even Sundance, which occurs just six weeks before SXSW and typically gets first choice of what’s available, doesn’t have room to show all the exciting films available to programmers.

“The operative answer is there really are plenty of great films being made,” Pierson says. “We’ve got 132 features, including 74 world premieres, and we’re really into them.”

Last year, Oscar doc winner “Undefeated” wasn’t ready in time for Park City; with its high school football subject, the pic was a great fit for SXSW.

“It sold there the night of our premiere (to the Weinstein Co.), which was not the expectation going in,” co-director Dan Lindsey says. “We just thought it would be a great place to premiere the film. I think the lesson we learned out of this was just take your time to make the best version of your film possible.”

SXSW has long been strong in the nonfiction department (especially rock docs), but in recent years, the fest’s identify has taken clear shape as a showcase that’s friendly to comedy and genre films (“Bridesmaids” screened there in 2011, and “The Cabin in the Woods” opens the fest this year), open to daring visions from established artists (Jodie Foster brought “The Beaver”; now Matthew Lillard makes his directorial debut with “Fat Kid Rules the World”) and eager to spotlight undiscovered talent.

“It’s really become a festival where you go to find new voices,” says Ryan Werner, senior VP of marketing and publicity for Sundance Selects/IFC Films, which acquired “Weekend” and “Kill List” there in 2011.

The previous year, Phase 4 picked up frat-hazing-gone-wrong thriller “Brotherhood” two months after its SXSW premiere. That discovery motivated Phase 4 president and CEO Berry Meyerowitz to attend the fest for the first time in 2011.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” admits the exec, who is planning an event to launch the company’s Kevin Smith Presents label at SXSW this year. “The participants, the people wearing badges, seem much younger than at other festivals. I found the audiences were very enthusiastic about the movies.”

“There’s more industry every year,” says Werner, who’s been going for longer than he can remember. “Now it’s impossible to get a hotel room in Austin. It’s a really fun festival to attend. They start the screenings later. I would say that’s a big part of why there’s such a community of filmmakers that has emerged from the festival. There is still the ability to socialize.”

Still, SXSW doesn’t cater to industry the way other festivals do. There’s no special-access badge for bizzers, and everyone attends the same screenings.

“When it was established in 1987, pre-Internet, the whole point of SXSW Music was to connect independent Texan artists to the music business,” Pierson says. “So SXSW Music’s roots are clearly as an industry event. For film, that already exists with Sundance.”

Prior to Pierson’s arrival, Matt Dentler (then SXSW Film honcho, now at iTunes) managed to reinvent the fest, once a premiere-lite regional showcase in the vein of Seattle and Miami, as a forum for fresh American filmmakers who were being overlooked by Sundance and others.

“I always feel immense gratitude to Matt for handing me something that was ascending in quality,” says Pierson, whom industryites credit for making a smooth transition and continuing to champion exciting new voices — voices like British writer-director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), who says he deliberately chose SXSW to launch his film.

“I’d only been aware of (the fest) for three years,” Haigh says. “Because ‘Weekend’ was a gay-themed film, I didn’t want it to be seen strictly as that. Instead, I saw my film along the same lines as the kind of films that were coming out of SXSW, American mumblecore-type films by Joe Swanberg and Aaron Katz.”

“Weekend” premiered on opening night, screening at the same time as “Source Code,” but Pierson made sure the right people were in the room. By the end of the fest, the film had attracted incredible word-of-mouth, ultimately winning the SXSW audience award.

“What people love about SXSW is that it’s a kinder, gentler place to hang out,” says Pierson. “Every single year, the films get better.”

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