By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 22, 2011 at 4:44AM
SXSW celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, but the essential elements remain unchanged: It's still 10 days of movies and music and new media experienced by masses of people with reckless energy. It also means many things to many different people, but here's a few notes about what the latest edition meant to indieWIRE.
Austin Still Makes a Difference
The party atmosphere, heavily enhanced by the liberal consumption of alcohol and late-night excursions, sometimes makes SXSW seem like an off-the-rails madhouse. "Bellflower" landed distribution with Oscillioscope back at Sundance, but stepped up its visibility at SXSW with a rambunctious (and incredibly disgusting) live cricket-eating contest following the first SXSW screening (a supremely inebriated Alamo Drafthouse co-founder Tim League, fresh from attending the "drunk panel," effortlessly took first prize). At the Convention Center, the provocative documentary "Kumaré" -- which questions the authority of religious leadership -- hosted a tongue-in-cheek prayer circle. And audiences competed in a post-screening Dance Dance Revolution contest at the Highball after viewing the absurd Hollywood cliché send-up "The FP." You'll get many memorable things at Sundance and Telluride, but insect consumption and videogame competitions aren't among of them.
Studios Still Love It
SXSW continues to be a launchpad for certain larger movies with challenging commercial propositions. Summit brought opening-night selection "Source Code" and the late-festival screening of Mel Gibson vehicle "The Beaver." Both were well received enough to establish word-of-mouth several weeks ahead of their openings, as was Universal's work-in-progress screening of the Judd Apatow-produced "Bridesmaids." That studio also brought "Paul," which premiered a mere week ahead of its theatrical release.
It's a De Facto Genre Festival
The third year of the SXFantastic midnight sidebar continued to please genre crowds, while the SXSW midnight titles programmed by Jarod Neece maintained virtually the same momentum. Joe Cornish's alien invasion story "Attack the Block" generated instant buzz and controversy, with many viewers frustrated to hear rumors that American distributors had been scared off by the heavy accents. (It won an audience award, perhaps to prove a point.) Xavier Gens' utterly wild, marvelously expressionistic entrapment narrative, "The Divide," drew mixed reviews but enthusiastic crowd reactions, enough for it to land distribution with Anchor Bay. The similarly constrained Argentinean horror-comedy "Phase 7" also garnered positive buzz and will likely find a buyer in the near future.
The Not-So-Best-Kept Secret is Emerging Visions
"Weekend," the gentle, chatty story of a fleeting gay love affair, won an audience award and distribution with Sundance Selects -- but on the first day of the festival, nobody was talking about it. The British feature from up-and-comer Andrew Haight was buried in the Emerging Visions section, which this year contained even more promising work than the main competition. Other intriguing discoveries included Kyle Smith's smart youth comedy "Turkey Bowl" and the provocative sexual thriller "Green," as well as Sundance entry "Septien." Just as Lena Dunham's "Creative Nonfiction" played in this category before she returned to the festival with the breakout hit "Tiny Furniture" in 2010, all of these filmmakers will be back.
Alternative Distribution Strategies Were Everywhere
The amusing behind-the-scenes documentary "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" is coming soon from several directions, with a multiplatform distribution plan that includes a theatrical release through Abramorama and Magnolia in addition to exclusive availability to AT&T's U-verse subscribers. On a totally different scale, the deadpan black-and-white comedy "Surrogate Valentine," which stars San Francisco musician Goh Nakamura as a modified version of himself, arrived at SXSW with a self-distribution plan in place. And the YouTube premiere of Sebastian Gutierrez's comedy "Girl Walks Into a Bar" was synchronized with its first Austin screening. If SXSW has turned into a marketplace, it's also a unique venue for kickstarting experimental release strategies. That being said…
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SXSW is the Big Marketplace for Small Movies
In addition to "Weekend," "The Divide" and "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," buys announced at the festival included "Kill List" (IFC), the football documentary "Undefeated" (Weinstein Co.) and "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" (Kino Lorber). Meanwhile, several titles such as prize-winner "Natural Selection," "Kumaré" and Ti West's "The Innkeepers" have generated enough attention to secure major buyer interest. Last year, "Tiny Furniture" sold to IFC after the festival concluded; expect to see history repeat.
The Awards Really Matter
The top jury prize winners had very low festival profiles before last Tuesday night's ceremony. The skateboarding documentary "Dragonslayer" came to SXSW sans publicist or sales agent (although it did have Christine Vachon as executive producer), but its triumph will propel it forward. "Natural Selection," which won a total of seven prizes, had a whopping five post-award screenings, most of which were full. You'll hear more from both of these titles soon.
Here Comes Everybody, Or: Why the Crowd Sucks
Since SXSW Interactive coincides with SXSW Film, the first few days of the festival have the same energy -- and bodies per square inch -- as Times Square in summertime. With thousands of badge holders out to network and promote, you couldn't walk two feet without running into another advertisement. Overcrowding also meant everyone waited in long lines, whether those queues led to screenings, panels, parties or any of the Convention Center bathrooms. People were especially ticked when the content appeared to be a waste of time, as when a panel occasionally contained clueless mouthbreathers or when audiences were confronted by a movie that just didn't work.
Do the Publicists Need Elbow Room?
SXSW has long prided itself on egalitarian design. A press badge and a non-pro badge provide identical access; the festival doesn't schedule press screenings. However, as the festival becomes more meaningful for the industry, more films arrive with publicists, which strongly suggests that filmmakers want to be discovered by the industry as much or more than the moviegoers. Current policies can make it hard to do that, as small movies scheduled at difficult times risk getting lost in the shuffle.
Organization Hides Behind the Chaos
SXSW only makes having fun look easy. While every facet of the SXSW Conference -- from the business-dealings to the movies and the hundreds of concerts that take over downtown -- has a playful exterior, it's guided by a team that includes about 300 staffers and a whopping 3,000 volunteers. As SXSW co-founder Louis Black told indieWIRE during a public Q&A last week, he and his cohorts enjoy their ability to make money off the festival, but that's not why they started it in the first place. The non-professional passion to do what you love has proven infectious since the festival's inception in 1987.
[Additional reporting by Brian Brooks, Christopher Campbell, Dana Harris, and Bryce Renninger.]
Catch up on all of indieWIRE's SXSW 2011 coverage here.