The 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival was set to be a career-making moment for many creators, and a particularly bright spotlight for women, as 70% of the films in competition were directed or co-directed by female filmmakers.
But when the 27th edition of the Austin-based festival was canceled on March 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of those filmmakers were left wondering what would happen to the projects they poured their hearts into crafting.
As SXSW announced the recipients of its 12 jury awards on Tuesday, festival director of film Janet Pierson shared the organization’s sympathies for the creators: “When we curated and announced our slate for the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, filled with an array of wonderful films we were excited to share with our unique audience, we had no idea of the unprecedented impact that coronavirus would have on all our lives. Our hearts were broken for all the filmmakers who invested so much time and talent in their work, hoping for a transformative experience at our event.”
This year’s festival was originally scheduled for March 13 through March 22, and Variety checked in with seven filmmakers on what would’ve been the day their films premiered at the festival. Here are their stories.
|Courtesy of John Frager, Lindsay LaVanchy and Brian Berardo|
March 14 // Lindsay LaVanchy
“Dembanger” Actor, Co-Writer, Producer — Midnighters
This weekend would’ve been “Dembanger’s” coming out party, and you bet your britches we were ready. Ready to celebrate our team’s hard work and big hearts; ready to learn from — in person — other filmmakers, innovators, thinkers; ready to partake in all of Austin’s southern hospitality. Our readiness is still alive and kickin’, though where it’s being expressed is now different.
While trying to find our radical film a pathway to audiences, this “social distancing” time is still one of opportunity. Personally, I now have an open, uninterrupted week to spend with Tennessee Williams, Walt Whitman, Elia Kazan, & Tracy Letts and many female voices I know intimately [family and friends], while writing my next screenplay. Already saved the funds to take off work for SXSW, so… glass half full!
Often we arrive at a crossroads, can’t see one step in front of us, and can no longer remain where we are if we want to progress. Tennessee Williams writes, “There is a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go.” We on “Dembanger” have departed from what could’ve been, and are willing to be surprised. I feel so fortunate to have worked on a damn good movie, with damn good intentions, with damn good people, that’s ready to be seen by many after this damn thing is over.
|Courtesy of Brian Frager Lindsay LaVanchy and John Berardo|
March 14 // John Berardo
“Dembanger” Director, Co-Writer, Producer — Midnighters
Tonight, I’d be wearing my Armani suit and watching the world premiere of my first feature at SXSW. Instead I’m wearing gym shorts, chillin’ in my loft with my pup, writing my next one.
March 14 // Brian Frager
“Dembanger” Producer, Co-Writer — Midnighters
Tonight, I’d be celebrating the culmination of a six-year journey, watching our first feature film debut to an audience of genre fans and technophiles. Instead, I enjoyed a long, reflective stroll along the LA coastline, ruminating on the journey itself. The overwhelming feeling is gratitude for the talents of so many artisans coming together in service of a vision, and for the invitation to have premiered at one of the best festivals in the world. I eagerly anticipate SXSW coming back stronger than ever next year to foster the sharing of ideas between people across industries. Those conversations will be deeply missed this year. Nevertheless, we are confident that our thrill ride of a film will find its audience, and that its message will give people pause — and we have a box full of chrome killer masks at the ready when that day comes. Onwards!
|Courtesy of Maureen Bharoocha // Portrait by Briana Lane|
March 15 // Maureen Bharoocha
“Golden Arm” Director — Visions
My feature was going to premiere at SXSW today. There was a party planned for stars Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro, the cast and crew attending the festival. It was supposed to be the night we celebrated all of our hard work and got to share our film with the world. But now, instead of waking up hungover, glowing from the SXSW debut, I’m finally going to tackle cleaning out my closets. But with the rapid pace of this pandemic, I’m incredibly grateful they canceled the festival when they did. The world feels like a different place even just a week later.
I was also set to pitch a comedy pilot with my brother Ahmed Bharoocha. Since the industry has come to a halt, we’re forced to pivot on how we get our show into the world. And I am writing a couple features with writing partners but we’re moving full steam ahead on those.
My life has gone completely online into the virtual workspace. FaceTime and Zoom are my new work tools. I’m taking this uncertain time in the world to do my best to stay motivated and create. Working on too many projects is my way of coping with the stress and anxiety that creeps in each day. If I can distract my mind with stories I want to tell and art I want to make maybe I can get through this somewhat sane.
I share an apartment with my sister and during our self-isolation, we’re figuring out the balance between the TV slothing area and our work space. Of course, I am worried about how to pay my rent and bills since my next gig is in limbo, but I know when production picks back up I’ll get back to work directing. I started in this town during the writer’s strike in 2007, but managed to find an alternate way in — from film school over a decade ago, to writing and directing shorts for Sprinkles Cupcakes, directing video content for The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and directing segments on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” for three seasons. My logical brain knows we’ll get through this but as the days bleed together and the fear from impending doom looms, my greatest fear is for my parents and the elderly. I’m having chest pains even writing that.
I’m not sure what the future holds on a professional or personal level, but the thing that gets me through this difficult time are my incredible family and friends. Everyone calling, texting, emailing or FaceTiming each other is comforting. Continuing to be creative and getting inspired by others also helps. If there’s one silver lining about this pandemic, it’s the love and support flowing out from people. Sometimes the worst of times shows us the best of humanity.
|Courtesy of Iram Parveen Bilal // Portrait by Alia Azamat|
March 16 // Iram Parveen Bilal
“I’ll Meet You There” Writer/Director — Narrative Feature Competition
It has always been my dream to premiere in competition at an A-list festival. After 12 years in the independent film world, that dream was going to be realized March 16 at 2:45 p.m. at SXSW.
This was to be paired with a Getty Images photo shoot, and a few television interviews. I was given 50 complimentary tickets for my premiere. And between my family, friends, cast, crew, press, agents, buyers and investors, all were spoken for. A sold-out show with a fabulous after-party to cap off the fairytale. Just the way I had envisioned my passion film, “I’ll Meet You There,” being unveiled to the world. Instead, I sit here cooped up with my newborn, also to be revealed at the premiere, trying to inspire myself to write in a rainy Los Angeles.
There is no time to grieve over the lost monumental moment of SXSW. Instead, I anxiously await a distribution update from my sales agent and seek whatever press we can get in the tsunami of a global pandemic.
In this situation, one also wonders how appropriate it is to follow up with leads on meetings and pitches. As for the film, we have an LA premiere in May where we hope to announce distribution news. I also plan to travel with the film to major cities globally as it continues its roll out. What gives me hope and heart is my rigor and persistence as an indie filmmaker, for this career isn’t for the faint-hearted, and this storm too shall pass.
|Courtesy of Brea Grant and Natasha Kermani / Portrait by Briana Lane|
March 16 // Brea Grant
“Lucky” Writer, Star — Midnighters
I have an 80-year-old father with Alzheimer’s who is in a memory care facility here in Los Angeles. Self-quarantining when sick has been a part of my life for the last eight years because he is part of my life. I haven’t seen him now in two weeks. This is what we do as members of a society. We sacrifice for the greater good. We stay home so other people can have a chance.
Just two weeks ago, I was in a very different place. I had two different films in two major film festivals. “Lucky,” a film I wrote and starred in, directed by Natasha Kermani, was set to premiere at SXSW. “12 Hour Shift,” which I wrote/directed, was to premiere about a month later at Tribeca. These would have been my first two feature film credits as a solo writer. I won’t deny that I was disappointed. We worked hard to get here.
My dad can’t follow the plot of movies anymore, but he used to love them. He would’ve hunkered down just like the rest of us watching Oscar-winning war movies and old westerns. I take a lot of solace about my career choice when I see people turning to movies, TV and books during this time. When humans are faced with a crisis, we turn to each other and to art. Always. Art is a catharsis, a virtual human connection and entertainment all rolled into one.
I write next to a window at home and a few months ago as I was getting excited about festival madness, I put up a bird feeder on a lark. My step-dad told me the birds would magically find it. They didn’t. For two months, it sat empty. But in the last week, I suddenly have had an influx of finches. It’s been a wildly entertaining turn of events for our quarantined household as I toil away on my next script. I’m borderline obsessed with the comings and goings of these birds. The complete absence of birds and then sudden presence of them is a weirdly apt metaphor. Like the birds, we can be absent for a little while and then come back full force. We can be little beacons of hope and entertainment. Hopefully, we will all come out of this realizing our value to society in dark times, ready to infuse art into a world that feels a bit lost right now.
March 16 // Natasha Kermani
“Lucky” Director — Midnighters
When it was finally confirmed that SXSW had been canceled, I felt myself suddenly adrift: filmmakers’ schedules move in concert with their films, the time for production and post production suddenly giving way to months of travel and celebration as you journey on the festival circuit. It’s one of the more joyful aspects to a movie’s lifespan and SXSW would have been, by far, the largest platform that I would have experienced for a film’s launch. That loss was felt, deeply.
It soon became apparent, though, that what the world is experiencing is far bigger than a single festival. And as a filmmaker who makes the bulk of her “bread and butter” income from commercial and branded content production, the next few months will most certainly involve significant financial hardship. It’s a hard pivot that is being felt across industries.
My thoughts and concern now lie mostly with my family members and friends who work as medical professionals — including my father, an ER physician, and my cousin who works in Intensive Care. These are our modern-day heroes who are working on the front line and they need our support and cooperation. In that spirit, I’m practicing social distancing and working entirely from home: taking meetings via video chat and setting up a mini-writing-studio on our dining room table in our one bedroom apartment in Los Feliz. I’ve become vividly aware of the movement of light through the room as morning stretches into evening.
While it is tempting to mourn what we’ve lost and the disruption that’s rippled through our lives, I do think this is an opportunity to reflect on what it is that we want out of our community and our work. Without the arts, our society’s spirit dies — eventually, we will go back to work, because we must! And when we do, I hope we do it with increased mindfulness. ‘Til then, I’ll be focused on writing new work and a full rewatch of “The X-Files.”