SXSW Honors '04 Winners; Also, Two Emerging Texas Outfits: 2929 and Burnt Orange
by Eugene Hernandez
Brant Sersen's narrative feature "Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story" and Christopher Browne's documentary feature "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" won the audience awards at the 2004 SXSW Film Festival. While the festival continues with screenings throughout this week, organizers announced the prizewinners last night, on the eve of the annual SXSW Music conference, which kicks off here in Austin, TX today. The comedic "Blackballed" is a paintball mockumentary, while "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" takes viewers inside the rebuilding pro bowlers tour and captures the drama of a race for the title.
Goro Toshima's "A Hard Straight" won the documentary jury award, selected by jurors Kirby Dick and Steve James, while the runner-up was Allison Berg's "Witches in Exile." Peter Wellington's "Luck" won the narrative jury prize, selected by jurors Sandra Adair and Bingham Ray, while the runner-up was Eric Schaeffer's "Mind the Gap."
Louisa Achille's "The Naked Feminist" won the audience award in the Emerging Visions section, while in the Lone Star States section the award winner was Tommy Davis' "Mojados, Through the Night" and Mocha Jean Herrup's "A Few Good Dykes" was the runner-up.
Among the other winners, Steve Collins' "Gretchen and the Night Danger" won the Reel Short competition, David Russo's "Pan With Us" won the animated short jury prize, Aaron Valdez' "Dissolve" won the experimental short jury prize, Tracie Laymon's "54 Seconds, Better" won the music video jury award.
"I don't think we were ever prepared for the quantum leap we made this year," said SXSW Film Festival Director Louis Black last night. The event has seen large crowds since it kicked off here Friday.
Who is Mark Cuban?
Near the end of Saturday's panel on the state of the independent film business here at SXSW in Austin, Texas, panelists were talking about The emergence of 2929 Entertainment, owner of Landmark Theaters, Magnolia Pictures, and other assets. A panelist referred to company partner Mark Cuban to which one audience member asked, "Who is Mark Cuban?"
Texas-based Cuban and his business partner Todd Wagner continue to emerge as players in the entertainment business and on Tuesday at SXSW, Wagner sat down for a one-on-one session with Film Conference attendees.
"There is no difference between me and you," Wagner told attendees at the start of the session. "The only difference that I bring to the entertainment business is that I come with a checkbook, I am learning just like you guys are learning."
That checkbook is tied to a large bank account. Cuban and Wagner sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion in the late '90s. While Cuban's passions have been to own a professional sports team (he purchased the Dallas Mavericks) and to develop a high-def TV network (he is growing HDNet), Wagner loves films and said that he is equally committed to his foundation that funds minority-owned businesses and urban schools.
"After what happened to us, there is one thing I know," Wagner said, "(That) is that Mark and I are two of the luckiest guys on the planet." Continuing, he added, "It was my dream to literally be able to read a script and see it up on the screen, I couldn't think of anything more fun than that."
Wagner discussed the three main elements of the his vertically integrated company at length -- production (the higher budget 2929 Productions and the digital film initiative HDNet Films), distribution (the HDNet cable outlet and theatrical distributor Magnolia Pictures), and exhibition (the leading art-house company Landmark Theaters).
2929 Productions has three movies under its belt, the upcoming "Godsend" by Nick Hamm from Lions Gate and Gregory Jacobs' "The Criminal" and John Maybury's "The Jacket" from Warner Independent Pictures, which Wagner called "more traditional Hollywood fare." The latter two films are being produced in partnership with Steven Soderbergh who Wagner said is an important ally to the company. Cuban and Wagner recently hired former Lions Gate executive Mark Butan to run the larger production company (they maintain an 8-percent ownership stake in Lions Gate). The HDNet Films digital production initiative, headed by Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente from Open City, has two projects that are about ready to go, he said that he hopes to announce those titles in the next few weeks. Cuban and Wagner are seeking input on their greenlighted projects from Eamonn Bowles on the distribution side and Paul Richardson and Bert Manzari on the exhibition side.
On the distribution side, HDNet will be an important element in the company's strategy. The HDNet digital films will fill the cable network's pipeline, while also receiving theatrical play. Wagner admitted that he and Cuban are exploring how they might narrow the window of time between a film's appearance in theaters to its debut on television or DVD.
"I hear a lot of (people say that) the theatrical drives the ancillaries," Wagner said. "I don't know that I will agree with that premise forever." He added that early HDFilms projects will help his company experiment with these aspects of distribution. Magnolia Pictures is an important part of the equation, Wagner noted. He said that the company is stepping up its search for art-house movies. He singled out the recent hiring of Tom Quinn from Samuel Goldwyn Films as a sign of its commitment to bolster that business.
With regard to Landmark Theaters, Wagner indicated that he and Cuban are exploring how they might upgrade those theaters to accommodate digital distribution. He said that over the next few months the company will make deals that set it down the path towards conversion. "There are no rules about how to do this stuff," he explained, citing the natural battle between distributors and exhibitors at the core of the issue, "We're studying it all." He added that money has already been allocated to begin working on the infrastructure of the theater chain and perhaps in new building.
"(Our) angle is (that) high definition and digital distribution are changing the way (films) get made, promoted and distributed," Wagner summarized. "If anyone understands the frustrations, if anyone understands the good and the bad I'd like to think I do," Wagner said, "Because I am an outsider as well."
The Third Coast
Here in Austin, while the Austin Studios have gained a lot of attention, the University of Austin is nabbing significant notoriety for a unique initiative that it hopes will distinguish it from competing film schools on the East and West Coasts of the country. The UT Film Institute and Burnt Orange Productions, here in what locals call "The Third Coast," have a launched a production company that will be making movies -- eight over the next three years and then three in each following year -- with budgets up to $3 million.
"The is an extremely radical, innovative idea," explained UT Film Institute head Thom Schatz during a session here at SXSW. "None of our competitors are doing it yet." Schatz explained that the institute is situated within the College of Communications at UT, it then owns the for profit corporation, Burnt Orange, that is run by Carolyn Pfeiffer.
Burnt Orange will make two types of movies, according to Schatz, one each year will be a co-production financed at up to $3 million, while two others made for up to $1 million will be financed in house. Students will apprentice on projects and money for the initiative has been secured from outside investors. The school plans to make the lower budgeted movies in HD, while the larger budgeted project may or may not originate on video. Zalman King is in the early stages of collaboration with Burnt Orange on one project, a movie that Schatz described as "a country musical."
"This will revolutionize the film school model," Schatz said.