×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW: Festival Clicks with Tech Pics

Napster doc, 'Computer Chess' cross interactive-film line

Of all the things that set South by Southwest apart from other sprocket operas, most significant is how it combines a world-class film festival with equally dynamic music and interactive media events. For years, the film programmers tied film and music together by booking a generous sidebar of rock docs. But who wants to watch the equivalent techie pics?

Turns out, there are a handful of pretty good interactive-focused options in the lineup this year, ranging from as-it-happens current-events lesson “TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard” to Andrew Bujalski’s eccentric nerd-history snapshot “Computer Chess.” Though plans fell through at the last minute, SXSW film fest director Janet Pierson had been hoping to bring Stephen Hawking to attend the premiere of the new doc, “Hawking.” It says a lot about the SXSW demographic that a theoretical physicist likely would have stirred more excitement among attendees than, say, Joseph Gordon Levitt (whose terrific directorial debut, “Don Jon,” deals with the way the Internet — and specifically online porn — affects modern relationships).

The genius of SXSW’s synergistic approach is that interactive-friendly events don’t end with film screenings, but tie in to panels and discussions with personalities like Shawn Fanning, a key figure in the Napster doc “Downloaded.” Speaking of downloading, as of this week, anyone can purchase the Pirate Bay doc on iTunes — and before that, savvy file-sharing samurais could find ways to get “TPB AFK” for free, since director Simon Klose posted the link on the controversial Bit Torrent site shortly just as the film premiered in Berlin last month.

Sadly, it’s not a very good film, mostly spent observing the core team of programmers (minus Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, who was off doing drugs in Cambodia) try to dig their way out of a massive legal battle. Considering all the brains it takes to set up and operate a site like the Pirate Bay, it’s astonishing how inarticulate these slobs are in person. They show up for court appearances in track suits and T-shirts, and rather than using the platform to spread their ideology, they instead reveal such selfish motives as working on the Pirate Bay simply because they wanted to be involved with the biggest website of all time.

One has the sense of watching a bunch of delinquent high school hobbyists run a disorganized club — but perhaps that’s the point, since the film dispels the myth that anyone’s getting rich running, as one talking head puts it, “a business based on other people committing crimes.” Faced with multi-million-dollar penalties, Frederik Neij does the math to show how little the site actually earns (selling four porn ads for $500 a week, his calculated revenue comes to roughly $104,000 a year).

Where the Pirate Bay guys are essentially glorified hackers, Napster was a different situation entirely, as portrayed in Alex Winter’s far more entertaining — and considerably more informative — “Downloaded” (directed by the same Alex Winter who starred opposite Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). Blending fresh interviews with Fanning, Sean Parker and the key players with terrific archival footage and a wide range of insights from artists, investors and future-minded thinkers, Winter helpfully puts the Napster story in the bigger context of the late-’90s file-sharing revolution. While the Napster innovators were trying to find a way to monetize their breakthrough, the world was changing, record labels were crying bloody murder and legal precedent was being set.

“This means the Internet is criminalized,” Neij says upon receiving the verdict against Pirate Bay in “TPB AFK.” But they can hardly claim to be the first such case in history. Napster, on the other hand, really did change the world — and “Downloaded” helpfully reminds that industries would do well to learn from its lesson, focusing on innovation and how to adapt to their consumers’ rapidly changing behavior before the next free-content breakthrough cripples them the way it did the record business.

It may not feel like it now, but the World Wide Web really is our generation’s version of the wild, wild West, and docs like these come about as close as it gets to the myth-building pulp novels that transformed Billy the Kid, Jesse James and their ilk into folk heroes. Seems only fitting that a festival as plugged-in as SXSW should be the place to get their stories out.

More Film

  • Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear

    Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear Ex'

    Netflix has added to its roster of Mandarin-language content with the acquisition of rights to Taiwanese dark comedy “Dear Ex.” The award-winning film will play out from Feb. 1. The story involves a recently bereaved widow and a gay man fighting over a dead man’s inheritance, with the woman’s teenage son caught in the middle. [...]

  • Audrey Wells

    Film News Roundup: Audrey Wells Scholarships Launched by UCLA, China's Pearl Studio

    In today’s film news roundup, Pearl Studio and UCLA start a “Say Yes!” scholarship in memory of Audrey Well; Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale are honored; and the “General Magic” documentary gets bought. SCHOLARSHIPS UNVEILED Related Film Review: 'The World Before Your Feet' Film Review: 'Galveston' China’s Pearl Studio has made a gift of $100,000 [...]

  • Honey Boy Knock Down the House

    Sundance Hot Titles List: 13 Buzzy Films That Have Buyers Talking

    There’s a good reason that much of Hollywood braves the thin mountain air each year to make the trek to the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not to check out the nearby ski slopes. The annual launch of the indie film gathering brings with it the possibility of discovering the next big thing in moviemaking. [...]

  • (L to R) VIGGO MORTENSEN and

    Will Oscar Nominations Give This Year's Contenders a Box Office Boost?

    With nominees like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “A Star Is Born,” the 2018 class of movies proved the Oscars don’t need a popular films category to recognize movies that also made bank in theaters. But now that the academy has selected this year’s crop of awards hopefuls, is there any green left to squeeze [...]

  • A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's

    Sundance: A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's Romance-Drama 'The Souvenir'

    A24 has bought the North American rights to Tilda Swinton’s romance-drama “The Souvenir – Part 2,” closing the deal on the eve of the Sundance Film Festival. “The Souvenir” is set to make its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 27, followed by playing in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival in February. [...]

  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

    Chiwetel Ejiofor Adds Authenticity to Directorial Debut by Shooting in Malawi

    When actor Chiwetel Ejiofor optioned the rights for the 2009 best-seller “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” penning the screenplay for a feature directorial debut that world-premieres in Sundance and then appears in the Berlin Film Festival before being released globally by Netflix this spring, colleagues floated the idea of shooting the Malawi-set film in tried-and-tested [...]

  • ally billboard a star is born

    Oscar Campaign Spending Reaches New Heights in Competitive Season

    The escalating cost of awards campaigning may reach an all-time high this season as heavyweights such as “Roma” and “A Star Is Born” battle for Oscar gold. The quest for an Academy Award has always been expensive, but Netflix’s hunger to nab its first best picture win, coupled with the presence of legitimate studio contenders [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content