If you can look past the cultural chaos that is SXSW, there’s another kind of spectacle that takes place in the space between— where the movies that are bigger than anything a SXSW competition filmmaker could imagine, but smaller, stranger, or riskier than almost everything else that comes from the studios. This is the sweet spot that defines SXSW premieres, and they tell us a lot about where the movie industry is going.
Megan Ellison had a good SXSW. She not only had a 10-minute one-on-one interview with President Obama just before his opening day keynote, but her Annapurna Pictures also backed the well-reviewed opening night film, "Everybody Wants Some!!," making it possible for "Boyhood" writer-director Richard Linklater to finally make his long-gestating ode to a college baseball team, which Paramount will release April 1.
It’s a classic case of a movie that might not have gotten made without her. But it was developed and stalled and finally greenlit (with Annapurna financing) at a studio that is starved for product, and there’s no knowing whether the film will do more than break out its cast of unknowns, or build strong word of mouth in theaters before it eventually goes to VOD.
Clearly, Ellison wants more control of this process. She’s had legendary battles with Harvey Weinstein, her partner on "The Lawless," "Killing Them Softly," and Paul Thomas Anderson’s "The Master," and now she’s hired veteran distribution executive Erik Lomis after five years of service to the beleaguered Weinstein Co.
Like many billionaire producers before her (remember "Crash" financier Bob Yari, who didn’t get to accept the Best Picture Oscar?), she’s willing to go all in on distribution. While she has impeccable taste for picking A-list filmmakers, knowing how to build a distribution machine is a complicated business, even if you do hire people who supposedly know what they are doing.
Why? Because, to paraphrase William Goldman, no one knows anything right now. Look at Broad Green, which is burning cash as they pile up employees and so far has released a slew of small movies with modest returns —with the notable exception of breakout Sundance comedy "A Walk in the Woods" ($29 million). ("Knight of Cups," their latest from Austin filmmaker Terrence Malick, won’t reach those heights.) And Alchemy is struggling, following a long list of similar companies that bet big on movies. The difference with Annapurna and Broad Green is that they have deep enough pockets to sustain failure.
Ellison had another premiere at SXSW, writer-producer Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s R-rated CG-animated work-in-progress "Sausage Party" (Sony, August 12), which fits right into the SXSW market launch wheelhouse of commercially accessible indies like Open Road’s 2014 sleeper hit "Chef," which played in theaters for months before hitting $31 million, and Universal’s smash Judd Apatow comedies "Bridesmaids" (2011) and "Trainwreck" (2015).
Keegan-Michael Key also had a good SXSW, as he flew in for the midnight premiere of "Keanu" (Warner Bros., April 29), another broad comedy, co-starring his "Key & Peele" Comedy Central partner-in-crime, Jordan Peele, which played great to the raucous Austin crowd. (Critic Eric Kohn suggests that the trailer, below, is as good as the movie.) And Key joined the superb improvisation ensemble led by Mike Birbiglia in the writer-director’s "Don’t Think Twice," which is poised to follow up 2012 Sundance/SXSW hit "Sleepwalk With Me."
The $2.3 million success of "Sleepwalk" confounded IFC when it opened well in a limited number of second-tier theaters on its way to VOD. However, standup comedian Birbiglia and his producer, radio mogul and personality Ira Glass ("This American Life") promoted the film with their version of the roadshow Q & A model followed by others such as SXSW keynote pioneer Joe Swanberg and "Twenty Feet from Stardom" director Morgan Neville and his backup singers. Birbiglia and Glass’ many fans and followers showed up at theaters, especially when they did their dog-and-pony show around the country. (They also hosted Indiewire’s own taco house party Monday night.)
Another indie distributor, New York-based The Orchard, is building on its music business know-how and riding high off the Oscar-nominated "Cartel Land." The nimble multi-platform distributor threw an opening night party at the SXSW Film Festival (and does its music bit on March 18), to launch its new slate of pictures, including Sundance and SXSW hit "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" (June 24), starring Sam Neill as the cranky foster uncle of a defiant city kid (breakout Julian Dennison). Also on the schedule are Joachim Trier’s Cannes competition entry "Louder Than Bombs" (April 8), a tense family drama about parents (Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne) and sons (Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid).
On the doc side comes Tribeca 2015 documentary "Almost Holy" (May 20), a portrait of Gennadiy Mohknenko, a Ukrainian pastor fighting against child homelessness, followed on June 10 by another Morgan Neville music doc, "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble," which debuted last year at TIFF, and Roger Ross Williams’ Sundance directing prize-winner, A & E Indiefilms heart-tugger "Life, Animated" (in theaters July 8) about a family raising a lovely autistic man, which will be later available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
Warner Bros. came into town to launch another small movie stateside following its world premiere in Berlin, Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ "Midnight Special." While the movie may steer a tad too close to its forebears, Steven Spielberg’s "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.," Nichols is a strong shooter with a gift for building tension, and his terrific ensemble—Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst as parents trying to care for their spookily gifted kid (Jaeden Lieberher) and their ex-cop accomplice Joel Edgerton—deliver the movie, along with Adam Driver in the Peter Coyote sympathetic scientist role, who reminds us how charismatic he can be. Nichols, to his credit, believes in not explaining everything, leaving the audience to speculate, he told the Paramount crowd: "I want you to go out with whoever you’re with and talk about it all night long!" That’s a good thing.
At the afterparty attended by Ellison and the star of Nichols’ last film "Mud," Tye Sheridan, who will star in Steven Spielberg’s "Ready Player One," there was much talk about whether Warners could deliver the goods on a small release. Marketing exec Sue Kroll has been down this road before, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Inherent Vice," which played the New York Film Festival. "Midnight Special" is a far more accessible movie. Warners and critics will push it—the publicists on hand were delighted to work on a real movie with some meat on its bones. And my bet is that audiences will come.
Studios don’t do enough of these mid-range movies. Paramount’s Megan Colligan is another marketer eager to show her mettle with movies that mean something, like "Everybody Wants Some!!" It’s up to audiences to take the buzz from SXSW and show up in theaters. And as always, studios want to stay in business with A-list filmmakers — even if it might mean losing money on their movies.