The night before the SXSW Film Festival got under way, Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, defended his communal love of film in theaters. “In pursuing the new future, we cannot decimate the past,” he said in his acceptance speech as one of the honorees at the Texas Film Awards, the annual benefit for Richard Linklater’s now 30-year-old Austin Film Society.
Watching the Sony Classics reel, the crucial art films I grew up on over the decades sped past. From Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” and Merchant/Ivory’s “Howards End” to more recent Oscar-winners “Blue Jasmine,” “Alice” and “Son of Saul,” I felt a twinge of loss. SXSW is all about change, and forward motion. But in our rush toward digital immediacy, we lose something too.
While Barker and partner Tom Bernard’s Sony Classics remains the very model of a theatrically driven and adaptive studio specialty subsidiary, the world is changing around them. 35 mm is no longer a viable exhibition format, directors have to fight to shoot with celluloid, and distributors are increasingly challenged to lure consumers away from mobile and home-viewing options in favor of a theater.
Also fighting the good fight is Linklater. He announced construction on the Austin Film Society’s new two-screen theatre, “showing repertory, international and arthouse films every day of the week,” which will boast a 35 mm projector. Meanwhile, more local exhibitors are turning to alternative content like TCM Classic Movies to grab their customers—most of whom are well over 30, if not 60.
Linklater has enjoyed an enviably idiosyncratic career since his pre-SXSW 1991 Sundance breakout “Slacker” (picked up by Barker and Bernard). He’s moved through a wide range of budgets and subjects, from animated “Waking Life” and the walking and talking “Before Sunrise” series to “Dazed and Confused,” which Alphaville’s Sean Daniel and Jim Jacks made with Universal chairman Tom Pollock. Universal couldn’t figure out how to sell a Texas coming of age film with a young indie filmmaker and no-name cast (including Ben Affleck and Matthew “all right, all right” McConaughey) at the box office; “Dazed and Confused” eventually emerged as a cult homevideo classic.
After Linklater made commercial hit “School of Rock” in 2003 at Paramount, the studio developed the 1980 Austin film that became “Everybody Wants Some!!” And, as he said at his New York pre-SXSW party, it was still tough to get it made. The film took a decade to go into production, just as “Boyhood” hit big and headed for awards contention. However, it may be deja vu all over again: Cast with unknowns, the movie is hugely entertaining, shot with the same “Dazed and Confused” aesthetic (and many of the same crew, including long-time Linklater editor Sandra Adair), and Paramount is hedging its bets: “Everybody Wants Some!!” will go out via platform release April 1.
It’s a struggle that speaks to why, these days, emerging film directors tend to find more work in television, from SXSW stars the Duplass brothers, who keep their film budgets low, to director-actress Amy Seimetz (“The Killing,” “The Girlfriend Experience”) and Lena Dunham, whose HBO series “Girls” launched SXSW Film’s move into television premieres. These are now major draws, from “Broad City” panels to the outdoor preview exhibit “Welcome to Annville,” which ties to AMC’s supernatural comic-book drama, “Preacher” (November) starring Dominic Cooper (from executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg); that will premiere at SXSW March 14.
As for the movies at SXSW, buzz has started as film buffs spread the word on opening-night titles like Joey Klein’s bleak romance “The Other Half,” starring real-life couple Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen. But it can be tough for the film side of SXSW to grab attention from the rest of the festival — even after President Obama had left town.
At SXSW 2016, everyone hovers on street corners searching for their Uber or Lyft drivers. Downtown Austin resembles San Diego’s Comic-Con with its countless showrooms, meet-up tables, and brand marketing opportunities like the “Mr. Robot” ferris wheel, Capital One House, and pedicabs bedecked with HBO’s “Game of Thrones.
As at Comic-Con and Sundance, the noise of the corporate world trying to nab a piece of the smart digital-driven demo at SXSW has gotten a lot louder. Interactive was SXSW’s growth engine for four years, but attendance stabilized in 2015 and 2016 (2015 attendance included 30,000 music, 33,000 interactive and 20,000 film participants). “‘Twas the night before SXSW and all through this hotel lobby bar there are Interactive nerds drinking wine talking about Macs and Minecraft,” tweeted The Daily Beast’s @jenyamato.
SXSW attendees lined up around the block to get into fashion and lifestyle site Refinery29‘s opening night high-school-themed “The School of Self Expression” party, serving miniaturized high school snacks on molded cafeteria trays to guests including Kate Bosworth.
“SXSW is about youth and the future,” eight-year SXSW veteran and Refinery29 cofounder Philippe von Borries told me. “It’s forward looking, but it’s a dude-centric world. SXSW events used to attract diehard geeks who love technology. It then became about big marketing events, as brands started coming in. That’s blown up in the last few years. Now there’s a much larger female presence, more style, more creativity in the air.”
Targeted to millennial women, Refinery29 lures 150 million visitors a month with content ranging from horoscopes to in-depth interviews with Hillary Clinton, pushed out via social platforms like Facebook and Instagram. “It’s about self-expression and empowering women, bringing content from incredible female voices from around the world: style, fashion, beauty, global issues, health, wellness,” said Von Borries.
And it may be companies like Refinery29 that will shape the future of SXSW. Video is driving Refinery29’s next evolution; at Sundance, it announced the “Shatterbox Anthology,” a 12-part series of shorts directed by women. Produced by Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler, it will debut this spring with “Kitty,” the directing debut of actress Chloe Sevigne. And Von Borries is proud of Jill Soloway’s darkly irreverent six-part comedy series “The Skinny,” about a young woman with an eating disorder, which “goes to places other media companies are not going.”