In 15 years of covering film festivals, SXSW 2012 is the first one where, frankly, I'm more interested in what's going to happen to these films on VOD than what they may do in theaters.
Not because SXSW premieres won't get theatrical releases; theatrical distributors are here in force. No one wants to miss another "Undefeated," which won the Oscar for best documentary, or "Weekend," which was slotted opposite 2011 festival opener "Source Code."
This year's SXSW breakouts have yet to reveal themselves, although early response is good for films such as Amy Seimetz's noir drama "Sun Don't Shine," found-footage drama "King Kelly" from "Darkon" co-director Andrew Neel and atmospheric New Orleans doc "Tchoupitoulas."
However, if and when the SXSW deals go down, odds are it's VOD where these films will have the chance to make their biggest impression.
Companies scouting for VOD content include IFC, Magnolia, New Video, Indiewire parent SnagFilms, Gravitas Ventures and iTunes. And that doesn't include the theatrical buyers who are now fully apprised, however recently, of the value that can come from VOD.
Deals made at Sundance put us on notice: For many acquisitions, the films' theatrical lives will be less important for box office and more valuable for what it triggers: review consideration, market awareness and, finally, the all-important feature slot on iTunes or in the VOD folder.
Two months later, VOD at SXSW has both timing and culture on its side. Renowned for top-notch Film and Interactive panels that celebrate hacking your way to success, SXSW is the only major film festival where you might see filmmakers sell DVDs at their screenings -- as the producers of "Daylight Savings" have been doing this year. (They're looking for a VOD deal.)
And while VOD has long carried the weight of being for films that Just Weren't Quite Enough, the format is starting to look less like an honorable mention and more like "Moneyball." Rather than seeking only those precious few high-capacity titles, or the ones that have shiny names, you can build a slate out of films that are good at just one thing.
It's easy to envision the VOD life for Jonas Ackerlund's "Small Apartments." Like his 2002 speed-freak drama "Spun," this SXSW Narrative Spotlight premiere has the built-in marketing hook of kinetic visuals and a familiar cast. (This one includes Matt Lucas of "Little Britain" kitted out in blue knee socks and tightie-whities, Johnny Knoxville as a eyeliner-wearing Sunset Strip burnout and James Caan as a cranky neighbor.) Coherent? Not really -- but it's made for the barker slot.
However, I'm more interested in what VOD could do for a movie like SXSW Emerging Visions premiere "The Last Fall." The directorial debut of Matthew A. Cherry, it's a semi-autobiographical romantic drama about a just-cut NFL player who faces retirement at 25.
"The Last Fall" is a first-timer's film and often feels like it -- but the NFL angle is both powerful and unique, while the African-American audience is notoriously underserved. On VOD, it's possible that this tiny film, partially financed with life insurance from Cherry's late mother (the film is dedicated to her), could outstrip "Apartments" with its chorus line of name talent.
One distributor here dismissed the vision of VOD's new world order; he's scouting for "real" theatrical releases. "For the VOD guys, SXSW is great," he said. "There's a ton of stuff for them."
And for most festival films, that's where the real story begins.