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SXSW Grows Its Biz Profile

Fest with growing biz profile opens with 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'

Austin — As “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” opens South by Southwest Friday with a comic flourish, hundreds of bizzers — including the fest’s largest-ever buyer contingent — begin the real SXSW trick of balancing screen time with face time.

South by Southwest has grown increasingly relevant as a market for new American cinema: By next weekend 133 features, including 78 world preems and 76 from first-time helmers, will have unspooled. But in an atmosphere where closing deals swiftly is not the focus, SXSW has proven the ideal place for junior execs and emerging producers to meet and learn the ropes.

“Beyond the distribution connections, equally important are the working relationships that come out of the festival — that’s why people love it,” says Snowfort Pictures’ Travis Stevens, who produced last year’s “The Aggression Scale” and this year has midnight titles “Cheap Thrills” and “Big Ass Spider.” “We were aiming at SX, and its influence definitely affected our creative.”

Producers Brion Hambel and Paul Jensen had a festival crash course last year with Robbie Pickering’s jury and aud prize-winning “Natural Selection,” and were hell bent to return this year with the feature bow of Kevin and Michael Goetz’ “Scenic Route.” World-preeming tonight, the roadtrip-turned-dark two-hander is written by Variety 2011 TV Scribe to Watch Kyle Killen, with thesps Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler working way out of their comfort zones.

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“There’s business to be done but what I love about SX is feeling that I haven’t been talked up and down about a film,” says Arianna Bocco, IFC Entertainment and Sundance Selects SVP of acquisitions and productions, who bought two SXSW award-winners: Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” (2010) and Adam Leon’s “Gimme The Loot” (2012).

“Both films were set up so well because they premiered at SX,” says Bocco, adding, “People make films under the radar then show up here — some of these filmmakers we know, and we’re excited to see their new work, but it’s really about discovery.”

Buyers’ skeds include world-preeming pics like SX vet Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies”; Todd Sklar’s brother tale “Awful Nice”; Daisy Von Scherler Mayer’s “Some Girl(s)” (penned and produced by Neil LaBute); Vincenzo Natali’s ghostly chiller “Haunter”; Chris Eska’s Civil War-set “The Retrieval”; Butcher Brother Mitchell Altieri’s “Holy Ghost People”; Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” starring Brie Larson; and Jacob Vaughan’s “Milo,” starring Ken Marino in a potential breakout perf as man with a demon baby wrecking havoc in his colon.

Slightly under the radar but registering heat are world-preeming feature bows of helmers with a track record in film or TV — pics like Carlos Puga’s “Burma,” Eric Heisserer’s “Hours,” Walter Strafford’s “Kilimanjaro,” Vincent Grashaw’s “Coldwater” and Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ “Zero Charisma.”

SX sales vets like Submarine’s Josh Braun, bringing his largest ever slate to Austin, have a proven eye for fest gems. He’s high on “Licks,” writer-director Jonathan Singer Vine’s feature bow about a young offender who returns to his Oakland hood after time served. Submarine’s slate also includes six docus, Jeffrey Swartz’s “I Am Divine” and Ryan White’s “Good Ol’ Freda” among them.

This year the SX docu mix ranges from sports pics like Josh Greenbaum’s “The Short Game” and Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart’s “Medora” to LGBT-themed titles like PJ Raval’s “Before You Know It,” Malcolm Ingram’s “Continental” and Lily Keber’s “Bayou Maharajah” to a slew of music-themed films including Doug Hamilton’s “Broadway Idiot,” featuring Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong.

“There’s a greater hunger in the marketplace now for single-character documentaries that audiences walk away from with a much fuller sense of a person’s life,” says Film Sales Company topper Andrew Herwitz, feeling buyer traction for Brian Spitz’s feature bow “Unhung Hero” (world-preeming tonight), which follows the globe-trotting quest of a young man asking the age-old question: Does size matter?

When it comes to budgets, it doesn’t — at least not for the prolific multi-hyphenate Swanberg, who bowed his 2005 feature “Kissing On The Mouth” at SX and has preemed a pic here almost every year since. His flirty workplace friendship story “Drinking Buddies,” starring Olivia Wilde and Jake M. Johnson, world-preems Saturday night. He’s also on SX screens in Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” and Zach Clark’s “White Reindeer.”

“I wasn’t connected to any film scene when I came here in 2005,” recalls Swanberg. “That year I met so many people who are still my filmmaking friends and collaborators — Ti West, the Duplass brothers and I can name another 50 people. … So I just made SX part of my yearly calendar, it’s like a second home and a natural place to premiere my films — it’s like a band that tours. Every time you come back to the city, hopefully there are more people at the show.”

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