Ronnie Bronstein’s SXSW 2007 premiere, Frownland, won the Gotham Award last night for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” This amazing and striking debut feature is the reason why awards such as this exist. Ronnie’s movie is a tough sell but it has developed a devoted following of major fans. And rightfully so. For me, Ronnie’s win is especially nice. It was almost precisely a year ago that I fished Ronnie’s film out of the submissions, put it on, and was instantly hypnotized. For all those filmmakers out there who feel you have to have “connections” and “legacy” to get attention or noticed, Frownland is proof against that.
There’s still hope for first-time filmmakers who want to make a daring and prickly film on their own terms. A film that may not find a theatrical release around the country, but can receive recognition and acclaim that almost transcends that. I’d never met Ronnie before he arrived at SXSW. I remember when I phoned him to invite the film, I said something along the lines of “I think you’re going to feel very comfortable at SXSW.” My hope and goal was that some of the right people would see Ronnie’s film (which was easy to manage) and that they would have the same reaction I did (much harder to predict). At Sundance last year, during an informal condo party, a couple of people asked “Who’s gonna be the next Katz/Swanberg discovery at SXSW this year?” My reply was, “Well, there’s this guy named Ronnie Bronstein and he made a film called Frownland.”
Prior to SXSW, no one I knew outside of the staff, had seen Frownland. How would people react? It could have been a huge disaster. I told Joe Swanberg to see it. I told Scott Macaulay to see it. I crossed my fingers that people like this would, at the very least, appreciate it. I introduced Ronnie and the film, and decided to stay for the first 15 minutes to see how it went. Five minutes in… three people got up to leave. Then, all of sudden, laughter. And more laughter. Uneasy, for the most part, but laughter. Days later, both Swanberg and Macaulay would become big supporters and fans of Frownland. So much so, that Joe is making a Web series starring Ronnie and his wife. Macaulay picked Ronnie as one of “the 25 New Faces of Independent Film” for his Filmmaker Magazine. So, it worked. So far.
Ronnie’s film won a special jury award at SXSW, but the rest of its festival tour was mixed. There was the infamous “booing” argument during a Q&A at Cinevegas. But there was the Maryland Film Festival, where acclaimed filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan would see the film and become a champion. Then there was also the Munich Film Festival, where Frownland would secure a distribution deal for France, as well as a new fan in fellow Munich guest Richard Linklater. The Gotham win this week is not even the end of the road. The film will compete for an Independent Spirit Award this February and even sooner, Ronnie and the film will be in Austin this weekend for a screening. I have a feeling there will be fewer walk-outs this time around.