The 2014 SXSW Film Festival unveiled its lineup today — check out the full list of titles here. Among the announcements was the introduction of a new screening section: Episodic, dedicated to innovative small screen work, including television and digital series.
SXSW has been home to TV screenings before — after Lena Dunham’s two films premiered at the festival in earlier years, her HBO series “Girls” debuted there in 2012, and in 2013 the first episode of “Bates Motel” screened and was followed by a Q&A with showrunner Carlton Cuse. But Episodic is a new permanent program that reflects how the media landscape is changing — with TV getting more thematically complex and cinematic, with people crossing over more and more frequently from the feature world and with audiences readily consuming film and television on the same screens. This year “COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey” (Fox), “Deadbeat” (Hulu), “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” (El Rey), “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC), “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime) and “Silicon Valley” (HBO) will all screen at the festival.
SXSW Film head Janet Pierson said that they’re “completely excited” about the new section, which is something they’ve been mulling over for a while. “There’s always been this question internally — of course we want to recognize exciting work that great creators are making. This is a fruitful, growing place with a lot of interesting people working this format.” What had to be sorted out was more how it would work to introduce this new medium into the festival, with Pierson noting the 2012 introduction of the Digital Domain section to accommodate web series, transmedia projects, apps and other boundary-pushing interactive content.
Pierson explained that the issue wasn’t just whether there was enough good work for the programming team to present in a new section, but that there were series that fit the festival: “We look for specific voices with something different about them, or something that crosses over with the interactive people or music, or something with edginess or subversiveness. It was very easy this year. Among all of these submissions there were these six quality shows that made perfect sense to us.”
Five of the six series will be making their world premieres at the festival. Each will have a single screening accompanied by an extended Q&A with the creators. Most of the series will be screening one episode, though “Silicon Valley” will screen two. Many of the series have film connections — “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” finds Robert Rodriguez revisiting and reworking his 1996 cult film, which “Silicon Valley” comes from “Office Space” director Mike Judge and “Penny Dreadful” is created by “Hugo” screenwriter John Logan — and Pierson said this both was something that spoke to them and is indicative of how much crossover there is between the media these days. “You’ve got wonderful filmmakers all over working in the format — there’s a lot of opportunity and there’s a lot of audience for it. Mike and Robert, we know them as filmmakers, as Austin-based filmmakers too.”
Networks have been interested in and submitting work to SXSW for a while now, and have seized on the festival as a whole as a marketing platform, from HBO putting a replica of the Iron Throne in the Austin Convention Center for photo ops to Syfy building a shipping container village in the middle of downtown to promote its TV series/game “Defiance.” Pierson said that most of the six series came to them, but added that she did pursue “Silicon Valley” (“What a perfect subject for Mike — I couldn’t wait to see it”) and is always in conversation with Rodriguez, who among other things hosts the festival’s filmmaker welcome lunch.
TV events have in the past been scattered between the film and interaction portion of SXSW. When asked about whether the introduction of Episodic meant that it would be pulling more toward the film section in the future, Pierson said that for SXSW, “the trend is absolutely more toward convergence.” She pointed to SXsports, launching this year, as well as Comedy, Entertainment and Immersion section, Gaming and the aforementioned Digital Domain as examples of convergent programming spanning different parts of the festival: “We add value to each other. I’m not as hung up on the lines.”
As for any fears that the introduction of TV to the festival’s lineup will mean more things to compete with films, Pierson noted that seeing Episodic programming wasn’t going to be a priority for industry people there to see films in the same way that the bigger premieres of features already with distribution wouldn’t be. And she pointed out that SXSW has always been a very busy event, which is something she discusses with filmmakers. “There’s a lot going on, there’s competition for eyeballs at every moment. It’s challenging, but the upside is very high — there are people across all spectrums that get very excited about what you’re doing.” And while the six series in Episodic this year are all from established networks, she sees potential for independently produced fare. “We’re open, we’re not set in stone. Each year we feel our way through — how can this be better next year?”