By now, the waves of event cancellations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have become so routine that they almost don’t merit mention. But it was scarcely a month and a half ago that the cancellation of SXSX — the first major domino in the festival calendar to fall — really brought the reality of the crisis home to many in the industry. Axed by the city of Austin just a week before it was scheduled to start, the move left countless films suddenly without a premiere or a way to get in front of buyers, and the festival organizers scrambling to salvage what they could, without any sort of a roadmap to do so.
Since then, SXSW’s director of film Janet Pierson has been trying to figure out how to give the films in the program what remains of the festival’s spotlight. The festival made sure that jurors were given remote access to films, and announced jury prize winners on March 24. Shortly after, distrib Oscilloscope and tech company Mailchimp offered to screen the fest’s shorts program for free. And finally, this week, the festival unveils an Amazon partnership which will allow films that opted to participate to stream for free on the platform from April 27-May 6.
“When we were shut down on March 6, the first thought was actually like, well now we don’t have to worry about potentially creating this health disaster in Austin, so that was kind of a relief,” Pierson remembers. “But then it was, oh my God, all these filmmakers who had invested so much love and energy and talent and years of their lives into this work, this was going to be this amazing moment for them. It was devastating to think about what this meant for them, and we immediately started thinking, could we do anything?”
She continues: “We told the filmmakers right away, ‘You are always an official selection of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, you can use those laurels forever,’ and then people are kind of on their make their own decisions about what they want to do going forward. And then Amazon called and we thought this was something really exciting to work together with, because it could be a really compelling, different kind of platform for films that wanted to get in front of a wide audience.”
Compared to the massive, multi-section lineup that was scheduled to unspool in Texas, the Amazon platform offerings are undeniably slender. Just seven full-length features are scheduled to stream – four narrative features, all international productions, and three documentaries – as well as more than two dozen short films and three Episodic selections. But the projects that remain offer plenty of interest, such as Guatemalan revenge tale “Gunpowder Heart,” comic French tech-dystopia compendium “Selfie” and doc “My Darling Vivian,” about Johnny Cash’s first wife. The shorts offerings include jury award winners “Dirty” and “Single,” and the Episodics inclusions include Mark Romanek’s “Tales From Loop,” featuring Rebecca Hall and Jonathan Pryce. A series of “at home” panel discussions and Q&As will also be unveiled throughout the period.
Pierson says she’s excited to see the participating projects “connecting with an audience that might not be the usual audience that they have access to” and stresses that a flexible, open-minded approach is the only real way to go forward.
“We’ve actually had inquiries from some of the films that didn’t opt in [to the Amazon program] saying, ‘hey can we just wait and premiere with you next year?’ and we’re very open to what next year will look like,” she says. “A lot of the films that we’ve programmed are going out in a lot of other ways. Some of them already had streamers attached, or already had distribution deals, there’s a lot of VOD stuff, there are a lot of films that have already made plans. But we’re completely open to it. It’s interesting to contemplate, too, with production shutdowns, with everything else… The only mistake right now would be to assume anything…about anything.”