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SXSW Film Festival Embraces the Weird

Richard Linklater’s 1991 film “Slacker” put Austin, Texas, on the indie film map. And while that movie’s motley crew of wayward dreamers, cafe philosophers and conspiracy theorists may have little to do with today’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, the spirit of “Slacker” and its director still resonates.

“Rick really did set the tone,” says SXSW film honcho Janet Pierson. “He’s a nice guy, he’s a great filmmaker and he’s always working.”

Indeed, no one can say SXSW is slacking off either. Last year, the event reached record levels of attendance (upward of 75,000) and premiered several breakout movies, including “Drinking Buddies” and “Short Term 12.” It’s just the stakes in Austin aren’t as high as in Park City, and the way of life, as Pierson says, “is down several notches from New York or L.A.”

While there is no such thing as a quintessential “South-by film,” Pierson admits filmmakers have an “instinctive sense of what makes sense for us. We like to take chances; we like stuff that’s out there sexually, politically incorrect or not glossy, and there’s a bias towards naturalism and authenticity.”

Hence, Austin’s filmgoers have largely embraced the lo-fi films of Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, the Duplass brothers and “mumblecore” founder Andrew Bujalski.

Austin is also a young city, filled with avid moviegoers, thanks to such destination theaters as the Alamo Drafthouse and Violet Crown, and tech-savvy tweeters and bloggers eager to champion or debate a movie’s value.

“The crowds are not only smart, they are also enthusiastic,” says Mark Duplass, who has come to SXSW as a director, actor and producer on dozens of projects. “I’d say if you have a film that ‘plays much better with an audience,’ you can’t do much better than SXSW.”

The youthful crowds also make it a perfect place to launch midnight movies. “I think the audiences are up for any kind of ride,” says Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, who sold last year’s hot title “Cheap Thrills” to Drafthouse Films and this year is repping Duplass’ “Creep,” a co-production with “Paranormal Activity’s” Jason Blum. “There’s obviously a lot of genre fans at SXSW, maybe more so than other festivals.”

Additionally Braun, who repped Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” notes the festival’s predilection for discoveries. For example, a movie like this year’s entry, “Fort Tilden,” he believes, shares the same lineage as Dunham’s film: “It’s a smart, scrappy original funny voice that you haven’t quite seen before,” he says.

Connections are key at SXSW, where the close-knit community of filmmakers widens and envelops more members. Rising talents cross paths, see each other’s work, then go on to collaborate in various ways.

Young starlets are born, go onto become sophisticated writers and/or directors in their own right, like Greta Gerwig, or this year’s SXSW veterans: Sophia Takal (“Wild Canaries”), Kate Lyn Sheil (“The Heart Machine”) and Amy Seimetz (“I Believe in Unicorns”).

What ultimately may set SXSW apart, however, is that ineffable feeling embodied by the city’s motto: “Keep Austin Weird.” As indie filmmaker and longtime fest attendee Christina Jennings says, “South by Southwest never takes itself too seriously. At the end of the day, it’s just plain cool, and as everyone knows, Austin wears cool well.

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