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SXSW Preview: Film Fest Keeps Its Irreverent Attitude With Biggest Lineup Ever

Texan fest is determined to keep its irreverent attitude

With 145 total films on tap, including 100 world premieres drawn from a record 2,385 feature-length submissions, SXSW Film is offering a massive slate in 2015, with selections ranging from big studio comedies to microbudget indies, music docs, political docs and episodic TV.

It’s almost too bad that wasn’t the plan.

“We were not intending to increase the number of films,” says SXSW Film head Janet Pierson. “We were literally trying to do the opposite.”

Arriving midway between SXSW Interactive and SXSW Music, the Austin, Texas, film fest has always been both enriched and complicated by the frenzied atmosphere surrounding it.

The fest has served as a launchpad for a plethora of films ranging from “Short Term 12” to “Chef,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Bridesmaids,” “Monsters” and Oscar-winning docu “Undefeated.” But with nearly infinite distractions around town — including the countless peripheral events unaffiliated with SXSW proper — simply making sure that the films on display get the proper love can be an uphill battle.

“There’s plenty of audiences, but you want the films to be able to get attention,” Pierson says. “I’ve seen all the films, but if you come here to attend the festival for four or five days, you’re not going to be able to see 150 films, and you kind of want to give films their due and breathing space, you want them to get the attention they deserve. When you premiere a film (you want to) show it a few times through the festival, so people get excited about it and want to catch up. There are these cycles and rotations, and if you have fewer films you can increase the rotations.”

“Every time I go to SXSW inevitably I get engaged in this conversation with someone,” says director Guillermo del Toro of the fest’s explosion. “At the end of the day, I think the beauty of SXSW is that it has grown in size, and undoubtedly politically it’s more complex an animal, but the basic spirit is still the same.”

In the end, SXSW’s glut of worthy submissions is a problem most fests would love to have, and the lineup comprises a typically eclectic mix of first-timers and star power. The Sally Field-starring culture-clash comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” Paul Feig’s Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” and Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” all bow at the Paramount Theater, while the docu offerings include Alex Gibney’s “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” and Mitch Dickman’s legalized marijuana spotlight “Rolling Papers.”

Etan Cohen is one of the many debut directors present, though his CV couldn’t be more different from those of his fellow first-timers. A screenwriter with credits on “Tropic Thunder” and “Idiocracy,” Cohen is heading for his first SXSW with directorial debut — the Kevin Hart/Will Ferrell starrer “Get Hard” — in tow.

“SXSW has become an exciting platform for studios to launch things or put their toes in the water with new movies,” Cohen says. “Nick Stoller, who’s someone I’ve known since college, had a great time with ‘Neighbors’ there last year.”

“Get Hard” follows the well-trod paths of not only “Neighbors” but also “Knocked Up” and “Bridesmaids,” which played the fest as works-in-progress. (Judd Apatow returns to the festival this year with a rough cut of his Amy Schumer starrer “Trainwreck.”) SXSW is one of the few major fests that can be relied upon to serve up mainstream studio comedies among its more off-kilter selections, a tendency Pierson attributes to the fest’s “fun-loving” music roots.

“We didn’t start as a save-the-world documentary event, we started as a music event,” Pierson says. “We show very serious films and very important cinephile fare, but we’re aware that people come here wanting to have a good time, and we don’t shy away from that.”

As Cohen notes of his film: “It’s definitely an edgy comedy that’s working at a smart-dumb level, which is the sort of thing they seem to appreciate there.”

With a studio budget, “Get Hard” couldn’t be fiscally further away from first-timer Shannon Sun-Higginson’s documentary spotlight entry, “GTFO: Get the F% Out,” which was largely financed via $33,700 raised on Kickstarter. The docu, which examines the struggles faced by female videogame developers and gamers in the era of GamerGate, follows several hot-button docs that have played the fest on years past (including last year’s abortion rights doc “Vessel,” which won the jury documentary prize).

Sun-Higginson says “GTFO” received acceptance letters from both SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival within a week, but she opted to take it to Texas thanks, in part, to the natural overlap between the fest’s multiple fronts.

“It was a tough decision, especially since I’m from New York,” she says, “but I think SXSW makes a lot of sense to premiere a movie on this subject. (SXSW) has such a strong interactive component, and a strong gaming division, and I just feel like that audience sort of gets this issue.”

Sun-Higginson will be speaking on a panel at SXSW’s Interactive hub just hours before her film’s premiere, and she’s not the only one to take advantage of the synergies. Comedian Russell Brand is both a scheduled speaker and the subject of SXSW Film opener “Brand: A Second Coming,” and underground experimental music legends the Residents will be performing as part of the music programming alongside documentary “Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents.”

Pierson acknowledges that her team programs with an eye toward the other goings-on around town, but notes that they’re hardly slaves to cross-pollination.

“There are probably 2,000 bands playing, but we’re certainly not showing 2,000 music films,” she says. “I know there are a number of featured speakers at Interactive who had films that they would have loved to have presented in tandem with their speaking that we didn’t accept.

“We purposely program a diverse lineup. We like having a couple big studio films, and we like having films that were made with chewing gum, literally nothing but people sitting in a room and somehow you’re excited about what happens between them.”

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