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How SXSW Charmed Hollywood’s Major Studios and Stars

“Furious 7” roared into last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival with a secret midnight screening that left crowds cheering and weeping, and Universal confident it had a global blockbuster on its hands.

It was a sign of the seismic shift at the Austin-based event, once best known for music and digital, with only a minimal interest in film and television. Those movies that did score a berth tended to be scraggly, micro-budgeted affairs.

But over the past five years, SXSW Film, which this year kicks off March 11, has undergone a facelift that’s left major studios, TV networks and big stars viewing the festival as a destination for premieres, panels and keynote speeches. Even the president and first lady of the United States are making a stop there.

In fact, SXSW is steadily gaining on Comic-Con at a time when executives privately complain that the San Diego fanboy gathering is too crowded, difficult to navigate and far too expensive.

Take producer Neal Moritz. He’s the one who cooked up the idea to have Universal screen “Furious 7” at SXSW, based on the festival’s track record for launching tentpoles. He’d had a good experience at the festival with the 2012 comedy “21 Jump Street,” which grossed $202 million worldwide, and was thrilled at the reception for his latest film.

“When I got to the theater and it was playing with an audience, I was like, ‘Thank God we did this,’ ” recalled Moritz, adding that the Austin crowd represents an appealing demographic of diverse movie buffs.

This year’s slate again has plenty of high-profile titles: Richard Linklater’s dramedy “Everybody Wants Some” (from Paramount); the Jeff Nichols drama “Midnight Special,” starring Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst (Warner Bros.); and “Sausage Party,” a raunchy animated comedy for adults with the voices of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and James Franco (Sony Pictures Entertainment).

New studio STX Entertainment will be making its debut appearance at SXSW with Ilya Naishuller’s action film “Hardcore Henry,” which it acquired in a heated bidding war at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival. The picture, starring Sharlto Copley, will premiere Sunday night.

Netflix is getting into the SXSW movie game for the first time by rolling out the red carpet for its original feature “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” starring Paul Reubens and produced by SXSW recidivist Judd Apatow. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s kitty caper comedy “Keanu” will screen, as a work in progress.

Fans will also get to see Jake Gyllenhaal, who brings his latest drama, “Demolition,” to Austin after it bowed at Toronto. It’s a timely platform, given the film’s April 8 theatrical release via Fox Searchlight. And there could yet be another secret title (or two) announced.

“A lot of people were knocking on the door,” said Janet Pierson, the festival’s programmer, of this year’s selection process. “They are impressed by our successes.” Pierson added that studios, normally wary about showing anticipated titles weeks (if not months) early in the Twitter and Facebook world, favor the SXSW crowds because they are smart and passionate. And getting a stamp of approval from Austin can help build buzz. “People come to SXSW to find out what’s next,” Pierson said. “It’s a creative melting pot.”

Although SXSW is still a venue for indies that are under the radar even for Sundance — such as Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” or Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” the star-making vehicle for Brie Larson — the festival is continuing its courtship with Hollywood. Last year, the fest not only featured Will Ferrell in “Get Hard,” it landed three blockbuster studio releases: “Spy,” “Trainwreck” and the aforementioned “Furious 7,” which all played in a six-hour period in the same theater on the same night. It felt like a game-changing moment for a quirky and hip festival that suddenly had more glitz than Hollywood Boulevard.

But small movies remain the festival’s bread and butter, and SXSW continues to grow on that front, too. It now outmaneuvers Tribeca as the spring festival with the biggest discoveries. Last year’s slate proved the point thanks to Roadside Attractions’ $1.75 million sale for the Sally Field comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris” and A24’s acquisition of “Krisha,” the family drama that later made a splash at Cannes and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where it recently won a prize.

After a Sundance that left many distributors underwhelmed in their search for strong product that wasn’t snatched up by Netflix or Amazon Studios, buyers say they are eager to get a look at the SXSW lineup. And producers are optimistic about what the festival can do for a movie’s profile and ticket sales.

“SXSW is a great place to launch movies because of its timing and the consumer-facing nature of the festival,” said Jason Blum, CEO of Blumhouse Prods., who has three films at this year’s fest: “In a Valley of Violence,” “Hush” and “Alive and Kicking.” “After the frenzy of acquisitions at Sundance and awards season, SXSW is a moment to exhale and take a beat to think about your upcoming slate,” Blum added. “It’s really a great dividing line.”

Along with the A-list casts from this year’s standout films, the Austin festival also landed its biggest stars yet: Barack and Michelle Obama, who are giving separate keynote speeches. They’ll be speaking as part of the interactive and music — not movie — sides of the fest, but the president will certainly create ripples throughout SXSW. Said Pierson: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if he went to a movie?”

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