Once an addendum to the overlapping music event, the SXSW Film Festival solidified itself in the top tier of U.S. film events in the mid-2000s after specialty distributors made it an annual mainstay. And they have been coming back.
SXSW’s not-so-secret trump card may be its overlapping music and tech-centric Interactive events. The throngs of people who attend all three big events certainly exacerbate the annual challenge of finding hotel rooms, making flight reservations and even getting a place to eat in downtown Austin, but the energy of thousands who come to the city has not only been a boon to the festival’s bottom line (it is a for-profit enterprise), but it has developed a creative dynamic that is rarely matched. And clearly so-called Indiewood and beyond have embraced the festival.
“(SXSW) almost always has the most recent innovation and all of a sudden, in the post-Twitter blow up, there were huge groups of people who had never been there going to these three siblings, Music, Film and Interactive,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of new Weinstein Company label Radius. “On any given night it’s hard to tell what is the lifeblood, but from a distributor POV it’s fascinating to see.” Quinn first attended SXSW eight years ago as an exec at Magnolia Pictures, picking up sci-fi feature Monsters at the festival in 2010, one of a number of watershed moments that has kept the event on the map.
“The year that Magnolia bought Monsters, I didn’t go and I realized I had to go back,” IFC Films acquisitions exec Arianna Bocco told Deadline. Last year Bocco picked up genre title Kill List and British drama Weekend out of the festival and plans to hit the pavement this year for more. “There are some new filmmakers we’ve heard things about or through our own research that we’re interested in seeing,” said Bocco hinting at what IFC may target this year. “There’s some instinct though that if we do buy something it will come out of left field. I’ll be there a whole week and I’m going to try and watch as many films I can.”
Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun has been selling films at SXSW since going with Oscar-nominated doc Spellbound back in 2003 and and has continued making the trek from New York City every year. This year he’s attending with Gimme The Loot (which he says already has a good amount of distributor interest), Sean Baker’s Starlet and three docs: The Central Park Effect, genre-oriented Jeff and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters.
“We’ve sold films there every year. We don’t necessarily sell films every year at the festival itself and we don’t always see it as that kind of festival but it’s becoming more so,” said Braun. “But as long as we have films that are sellable playing there it’s a great place. Films generally are of a quality that they’re going to find distribution and distributors do go there.”
Braun said the festival can be a challenge because of the number of screenings and other distractions at any given hour and even promising titles may have to wait before a deal comes around. “It’s about finding that buyer and getting the deal that’s right,” he said. “The interactive people people dig films and every screening is packed. And at any festival that’s the best way for films to be seen by buyers. It’s a festival that buyers are loyal to, so most every company is there. And there aren’t that many festivals that have that kind of attendance from the industry and this kind of general enthusiasm.”
“I’d say over the last couple of years it has started to flourish. More sales are happening, more agents are attending and more distributors are going than ever,” ICM’s Jessica Lacy noted. She is attending for the second year in a row and will be selling two films: Bandito Bros.’s doc Waiting For Lightning and sci-fi feature Extracted by Nir Paniry. She noted her agency’s literature and talent departments will also be in town scouring for new talent, something the festival says it takes pride in fostering and the general perception is that it is succeeding. “Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture was a hit movie out of SXSW and there have been several others. For us, the festival is a place to find new talent and it’s a target for distributors. And there are more mainstream ones attending.”
SXSW does not offer up its industry attendees as a rule and in fact says it does not track that information specifically, though one insider said most of the studio’s specialty divisions will have key people in town this year in addition to boutique distributors as well as HBO, UTA, WME and Cinetic. “They’ve sustained themselves by having a distinct personality,” said Bocco. “They don’t kowtow to the industry, but they do court it. It’s an embrace, but it’s not ‘we’ll do anything for you.’ Year after year, the reason I keep coming back is that I trust them.”
“Did we used to go for the great food and tequila? Yes! But we’ve bought a movie there almost every year we’ve been going,” said Quinn who predicts Radius will nab a title or two this year. His Radius partner Jason Janego will be in Austin on the look out, while Quinn takes this year off continuing to set up shop at the new TWC label. “There are great high profile genre films, but also small documentaries and dramas too,” he added. “And on the flip side, SXSW is also a great place to premiere a film as a distributor. I think we’ll always try and have one of our films premiere there in the future.”
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