Film fest kicks off

Kristofferson, Lovett, Williams honored

AUSTIN — It’s rare that on a film fest’s opening night – one which manages to draw showbiz types including Matthew McConaughey, Richard Linklater, John Sayles and Lawrence Kasdan – an emcee would point out with equal enthusiasm that the state’s agricultural commissioner, deputy secretary and favorite college football coach are in the house. Welcome to South by Southwest, where equal doses of hometown boosterism, freewheeling parties and indie pics mix.

“It’s particularly sweet to be honored in your home state,” said Hall of Fame inductee Kris Kristofferson, who thanked presenter Sayles for “reviving my dead career.” “I’ve always been proud to be a Texan.” Other acceptance speech quips for the evening – at the Austin Film Society’s Texas Hall of Fame Awards, which has become SXSW’s unofficial, more glitzy kickoff – included “not a day goes by that I don’t dream about Texas barbeque” and “he knows how to wear the boots.”

The event — which also gave awards to Lyle Lovett, JoBeth Williams and the cast of “The Last Picture Show” — began with a raucous charity auction, co-hosted by “Access Hollywood”‘s Maria Menounos. The evening, according to those in the know, has gotten bigger, and more interminable, than in past years, perhaps taking a cue from Hollywood awards shows. One observer muttered “the red carpet gets bigger every year,” as they entered, and a boisterous local TV reporter yelled into his camera “Holy crap, y’all, it’s Lyle Lovett!” to begin his interview.

Held on an unair-conditioned soundstage, the jamboree quickly turned into a business-attire sauna, with noisy fans grinding from all sides in a failed attempt to cool off the crowd, (which included Variety‘s Peter Bart, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles and indie film guru John Pierson).

Many of the high level execs in Austin over the weekend have some sort of ties to this town: Pierson teaches here, Bowles’ Magnolia has an office here, and Barker went to school here, as did Picturehouse distrib Bob Berney whose “A Prairie Home Companion” was officially starting SXSW across town. Berney felt that the ornate Paramount theatre, an old-timey movie palace, would be a prime setting for “Prairie”‘s North American preem. And star John C. Reilly was on hand to pump the pic.

Following the Hall of Fame awards, the sweaty throng headed to the “Prairie” party, thrown at the lavish downtown home of a local mogul. The sprawling, luxe bachelor pad – complete with a rooftop pool that flowed to a bathroom waterfall one floor below — made the evening look like something out of a fictitious reality series, “The Real INdie Film World.”

Following these first two fetes, the egalitarian party scene over SXSW’s first weekend was relatively star free. Hottest ticket in town was a party for “loudQuietloud,” a docu about seminal indie rockers the Pixies. Event drew a cadre of press that was told by the film’s flak that the band might be playing the party, which also doubled as the launch of Beauty Bar, an Austin outpost of the trendy Gotham spot that mixes manis and pedis with martinis. But upon arrival, only two out of four Pixies were present, leaving the bash as a fun mixer for media types, a group desperately in need of free drinks and cuticle repair.

Fetes were also thrown for the docu “Darkon,” which follows nerds who take Dungeons and Dragons-like role playing to elaborate extremes, and another docu “Before the Music Dies,” which lined up Erykah Badu, the Roots’ ?uestlove and onetime Prince subjects Wendy & Lisa to play the Austin Music Hall.

Back to the films, one deal went down, with indie distribber Anthem Pictures acquiring “9 1/2 Weeks” helmer Zalman King’s “Crazy Again.” Mainly a DVD label, Los Angeles-based Anthem is seeking a theatrical partner on the pic.

But most filmmakers here say that they actually appreciate the lack of competish, as opposed to Sundance and Toronto, even if more deals would likely be heartening.

“It’s not about competition,” said Randy Walker, at a private dinner for the film he wrote and helmed with Jennifer Shainin, “Apart From That,” which mixes professional actors and regular folks in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s more of a melting pot for creativity.” “It’s rare to get to meet filmmakers that have a lot of the same ideas,” added Shainin.

Meantime, whoever bid $11,000 for two tickets to the Los Angles preem of the Keanu Reeves-starrer “A Scanner Darkly” back at the Texas Hall of Fame dinner was no doubt booking their flights.

SXSW runs through Saturday, March 18th, 2006.