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by Eugene Hernandez
March 13, 2006 3:59 AM
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DISPATCH FROM SXSW: Big Talk and Even Bigger Crowds During Opening Days in Austin

Big crowds and even a few heated panel discussions marked the opening weekend of the SXSW Film Conference and Festival here in warm Austin, TX. Film festival producer Matt Dentler told a full house crowd at the Paramount Theater Sunday night that the event is seeing attendance figures that are 50% higher than last year (on a weekend in Texas that felt a bit like summer, with temperatures in the 90s). One of the hot topics at SXSW is the increased emphasis on the indie blockbuster and the impact that shifts in the business are having on smaller, independent movies that debut at popular film festivals like SXSW.

"The number of people who have been consuming (independent films) has remained very strong," explained John Sloss, head of Sloss Law and Cinetic Media at a Saturday afternoon panel discussion, but he cautioned, "I witnessed something at Sundance this year that gave me pause...the advent of a hit driven mentality for specialized distributors." Sloss emphasized, "The specialized blockbuster, that's really what they are going for. Films that gross $4, $8, or $10 million are no longer of interest to specialized distributors and as someone who sells films it has been a bit distracting, actually."

Sloss was perhaps referring to films, like "Quinceanera," which faced some trepidation among buyers who saw it as a tough sell, despite being warmly embraced by audiences, critics and jurors alike at Sundance this year. Over the weekend, news emerged regarding Sony Pictures Classics' deal for the movie. He explained that the caution among bigger specialty outfits would probably be good for smaller distribution entities that remain focused on art house fare. "The eyeballs are as healthy as ever," explained Sloss, "But the middlemen who choose whether a film goes to theaters or home video are in flux."

Talking about such distinctive differences in the movie business today, Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart explained during a separate session Saturday that there is a "new bifurcated Hollywood" in which specialty movies are made for adults, while the studios make "CGI movies" for kids. "Can these new units," Bart wondered about the specialty companies, "which are controlled by the majors -- with all the suits looking over the numbers -- nurture (films and talent)?"

Touching on a key topic that came up again Sunday during a session with Todd Wagner and the team from Landmark Theaters, Magnolia Pictures, and HD Net, Bart sharply criticized the company's move to collapse distribution windows by implementing a day and date release strategy. "I hate the idea," Bart said, "I think it will have a terrible impact on the theatrical business...at a time when this niche business is just starting."

During Saturday's session, Sloss cited a recent JP Morgan study that said, although distribution would cut box office by as much as 50%, it will increase enough revenue from DVD sales to offset any box office drop.

Despite the view that theatrical distribution may be a tougher path for indie films, theater owners who screen independent, foreign language, classic and documentary films in traditional venues expressed optimism.

"What sells movie tickets is word of mouth," reminded Tim League, from the popular Alamo Drafthouse mini-chain of movie theater/bar/restaurants, emphasizing that distributors are still better off undertaking a theatrical release before releasing a movie on DVD.

(indieWIRE will have more on the day and date debate in the next dispatch from Austin.)

Honoring Texans

Friday night in Austin, while the SXSW Film Festival kicked off with the North American premiere of Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," over at the Austin Studios, Richard Linklater's Austin Film Society held its annual Texas Film Hall of Fame fundraiser, honoring Texans for their work in film.

Maggie Renzi and John Sayles at Friday's Texas Film Hall of Fame event at Austin Studios. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

The event started off on a bit of a somber note, just days after regular annual host Ann Richards, Texas' outspoken former governor, announced that she is suffering from cancer. Treatment forced Richards to back out of hosting the event, leaving honorees to offer tributes in her absence.

"May all our love and prayers go out to Ann Richards as she faces her newest challenge," said Cybill Shepherd, on stage Friday night while accepting the prize honoring "The Last Picture Show." Richards sent word that the setback is simply, "another chapter in a fun-filled life..."

Director John Sayles, who is in town to celebrate SXSW's salute to "Lone Star," introduced honoree Kris Kristofferson on Friday night. The actor in turn praised Sayles, thanking him, "not just for reviving my dead acting career...but for having the courage to do the work he does." Concluding he added, "I have always been round to be a Texan."

The big star of the night was Matthew McConaughey, a popular figure here in Texas who was introduced by longtime friend S.R. Bindler, director of the doc, "Hands on a Hardbody." In a lengthy, but highly amusing acceptance speech, McConaughey had high praise for Linklater, who gave him is big break in "Dazed and Confused." He said, "There was nothing more collaborative that that film, working with those people." The role came as the actor was finding his way into the business, after a period of trying many fads and hobbies. Smiling broadly on stage as he accepted his award, McConaughey reiterated his personal mantra, "just keep living," or as he puts it, "J.K. Living," calling it his "creed, compass, prayer, t-shirt, even a bumper sticker..." Concluding, he echoed advice once given to him by his father, telling the crowd, "To all of us, may we not half-ass it. Just keep living."

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