Filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado were holed up in a studio Friday at Skywalker Ranch, putting the finishing touches on the sound mix for their film “We Are As Gods,” a documentary about the environmentalist Stewart Brand. The two men were scrambling to get everything ready for the film’s March 15 premiere at South by Southwest when they saw the news. For the first time in its 34 year history, the Austin, Texas-based film festival was cancelled amidst fears of the coronavirus outbreak.
“There’s no words,” said Alvarado. “To have labored on a documentary for three years and then find out the festival was cancelled on the same day you’ve finished — it was just devastating.”
Now, like so many filmmakers impacted by the SXSW cancellation, Sussberg and Alvarado are trying to figure out how to sell their film to a studio without the boost that comes with a high-profile premiere. They’re planning to bring it to Copenhagen Film Festival and other film gatherings, but they’re worried that those festivals will also be cancelled or delayed as coronavirus continues to spread.
“We’re stuck in this limbo,” said Sussberg. “This has never happened before, so we’re left without a playbook.”
It’s not just an emotional ordeal. Other filmmakers are scrambling to cancel Airbnb reservations and to get their flights refunded. Some report that they are out hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
“It really depends on the venue,” said Caleb Johnson, the director of “The Carnivores,” a dramedy about a couple dealing with a dying dog that was supposed to premiere at SXSW. “Some are very gracious and do everything they can to help and others are fighting tooth and nail to keep every cent.”
Many of the movies that hit SXSW come looking for distribution. With the festival called off, these filmmakers are trying to come up with novel ways to get their movies seen by potential buyers. They’re having their sales agents send digital links or hosting DIY screenings for tastemakers and executives. The team behind “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” a documentary about the “Scream” star’s attempts to become a pro-wrestler, set up a make-shift premiere at Arquette’s Los Angeles home over the weekend. Roughly 60 people attended.
“It took a little sting out of the disappointment,” said David Darg, the film’s co-director. “We always wanted David to see it for the first time at SXSW, so this was a chance to show it to him.” It was also, Darg said, part of a new strategy to get the film in front of as many people as possible. “We need to pivot now,” he said.
Some filmmakers left stranded by SXSW’s cancellation are hoping that the festival can find a way to share their films digitally with ticket buyers or industry ambassadors.
“I love the idea,” said Darg, who notes that the festival attracts a huge presence from the tech world which might make it easier to pull off that kind of plan. “I’m all ears to hear about anything the festival could do like that. There’s a lot of South By orphans looking for adoption.”
Others aren’t convinced that’s such a good idea.
“I don’t just want a digital release,” said Jasmine Batchelor, the star of “The Surrogate,” a drama about an egg-donor that was set to debut at the festival. “There’s a reason that Netflix and Apple TV and HBO Max have in-person premieres. They want people to be there, connecting to one another. I would miss the community of being surrounded by other artists and sharing our reactions.”
Jeremy Hersh, the director of “The Surrogate,” was more open to the idea, but wanted to make sure that it was done in a thoughtful manner.
“I wrote the first draft of this five years ago,” said Hersh. “So though we’re eager to get this out into the world, we can wait a bit longer to make sure the it’s done in the right way. We don’t need to rush.”
Filmmakers said they understood that SXSW had no choice — the city of Austin forced the festival to cancel the event because of public health concerns. However, that decision has had a terrible domino effect. It has left businesses scrambling to shoulder the revenue shortfall: hotel rooms will go unoccupied, bars and restaurants won’t be as crowded, houses won’t get rented to directors and their crews. It’s also put a financial strain on SXSW, which laid off a third of its staff on Monday.
“Hopefully it survives and is able to chart a course forward,” said Kevin Ford, director and producer of “The Pushback,” a documentary about progressive activists in Texas. “There are only so many places that champion independent film. We need to keep SXSW alive.”