AUSTIN, Texas — On Saturday night, the world premiere of the Karl Rove doc “Bush’s Brain” and Sundance award winner “Super Size Me” each sold out the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater, enough of a feat for Austin’s 11th annual South by Southwest Film Festival to declare itself a success.
However, the real testimony to the festival’s clout could be found elsewhere.
On Saturday morning, Jonathan Demme ate at the counter of Las Manitas, famous for its breakfast tacos and cinnamon coffee. He was in town to show his documentary “The Agronomist,” about Haitian journalist Jean Dominique. Meanwhile, Spike Lee’s producing partner, Sam Kitt, paid his check at the register after eating with a local screenwriter to discuss a new Malcolm Lee project at Touchstone Pictures.
Then there’s “Seabiscuit” co-writer and director Gary Ross, who came to town for a 90-minute “A Conversation With” panel. A three-hour flight seems a lot to ask from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker with no movie to promote or even a personal connection to the city. However, Ross’ assistant, a former SXSW intern, sang the praises of the festival and the city so convincingly that Ross agreed to attend.
The state capital is the festival’s not-so-secret weapon. Over the last decade, the city’s charm has been the frequent subject of travel stories and annual surveys of America’s best places to live. As a result, traffic on I-35 now achieves Los Angeles proportions.
However, by some miracle Austin itself has remained relatively unscathed. With the state university and the state government as the city’s biggest employers, Austin is blessed with a concentration of well-educated, creative residents who are both laid-back and entrepreneurial. The result is a city that appreciates the good life and good ol’ boys in equal measure, and a place the film industry has no problem stopping by to visit for a spell.
“SXSW could not exist in any other city,” festival producer Matt Dentler said. “People come for Austin first, SXSW second. We’re selling the festival to offer a good film experience and (make people) feel like they’re getting away but able to do some work. We just hope to fulfill their expectations for the city.”
On this weekend, expectations of sunny Texas weather were dashed by showers ranging from intermittent to torrential. However, the wet didn’t dampen attendees’ spirits. At the Austin Film Society Hall of Fame awards Friday night, a program at Austin Studios that honored Ethan Hawke, Forest Whitaker, Judith Ivey and screenwriter Edwin “Bud” Shrake for their contributions to Texas filmmaking, guests hopped over puddles that collected on the red carpet and avoided any leaky spots in the cocktail tent.
The rain might have inspired crankiness at a Westwood premiere, but here it was almost a refreshing reminder that no matter how many celebs show up, Austin remains its own creature. Emcee and former Texas governor Ann Richards reminded the crowd that at previous editions of the awards dinner (held in a warehouse, where there were no leaks), they’d had to suffer through the hosting skills of Quentin Tarantino (“a real weapon of mass destruction”) and Rip Torn who, she said, “performed Shakespeare as directed by Jack Daniels.”
Exex, celebs show up
In addition to the honorees, celebs who braved the weather included Crispin Glover, Christina Ricci, Adam Goldberg and Janine Turner, along with New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, Magnolia Pictures’ Eammon Bowles and “Spike Mike Reloaded” author John Pierson.
Among the companies that sent scouts to the fest were ThinkFilm, Miramax, Fine Line, Trio, Sundance Channel and HBO.
Industry luminaries like these ensure that SXSW continues to be a draw for filmmakers. There’s also the ongoing synergy found in the Austin film community, a favorite for both independent and studio shoots.
Jason Lee and Glover became familiar SXSW sightings because they were shooting “Drop Dead Sexy” in town, while local Robert Rodriguez could be seen with Frank Miller as they prepared to shoot “Sin City.” Imagine Entertainment’s “Friday Night Lights” also is in production in the area.
“It’s impossible for us to become bureaucratic,” Dentler said. “We’re one of the few bigger festivals that is wholly independent. A lot of people wonder why we’re not run by some nonprofit institute. We make up the rules year after year. We can do whatever we want as long as it’s in the best interest of the filmmakers and the audiences.
“Film festivals are pretty simple,” Dentler added. “It’s really just having films that connect with audiences and business contacts.”
‘League’ of their own
Among the films that connected were the bowling doc “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen,” Eric Schaeffer’s “Mind the Gap” and Bryan Poyser’s “Dear Pillow.”
It remains to be seen whether SXSW will have another breakout this year, like the one it had with spelling-bee doc “Spellbound” two years before. That film had its world premiere at SXSW and became a major hit for distrib ThinkFilm.
“We’ve been lucky — and that’s the word for it — that films have come in that have been popular,” Dentler said. “I think people are responding to that more and more. Studios hate to play catchup.”
The festival also held a midnight screening Sunday of Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Columbia Pictures release “Hellboy.”
Del Toro, it turns out, used to live in Austin, too.