Over the past decade, South By Southwest has become 10 days of hand-to-hand combat between media and technology. Nestled within that war zone is a film festival — this year, 125 features screen at the SXSW Film Festival, including 51 from first-timers. Most come to town without distribution, and they may never see a bigger audience than this one.
The film festival is a solid platform for discovering new filmmakers; if you want to explore the connective tissue of contemporary American cinema, few other places offer such a fertile arena. Unlike industry heavyhitter Sundance, it’s not a fast-paced marketplace — but the SXSW conference is still one of the biggest windows into the future of the movies because so much of it has nothing to do with the movies at all.
This year, SXSW Film’s marquee titles duke it out with the TV shows in the Episodics section. (Among its premieres are two episodes of Netflix’s “Dear White People,” adapted from a movie that broke out at Sundance three years ago.) Panels on technology and convergence usurp much of the chatter during the first weekend of SXSW, while the film scene keeps to itself. And on Monday, the music festival begins and the whole spectacle gets steamrolled. For those eager to be swept up in the activity, SXSW can be a wondrous, visceral immersion. That’s why I adore it, despite the labyrinthine schedule, crowded streets, and drunken revelers. It’s a marathon illustration of modern times, even if the movies don’t always get the spotlight.
But the movies have undergone a significant evolution at the festival. Ten years ago, SXSW directors like Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) and Aaron Katz (“Quiet City”) premiered microbudget character studies light on plot and heavy on naturalism, contributing to a loose aesthetic lumped under the dubious label of “mumblecore.” Now Swanberg and Katz are premiering new works that reflect how they’ve grown up with the changing times.
Swanberg’s “Win It All,” a crowdpleasing comedy co-starring Jake Johnson and Keegan-Michael Key, shows a storyteller who’s more keen on traditional plot mechanics than his earlier films would suggest. Johnson, who co-wrote, plays a reckless gambler who gets his hands on a mysterious money bag and decides to risk it all. It’s an arc that has more in common with a Frank Capra story than the “Slackavetes” label often applied to Swanberg’s early works. More than that, the movie was produced by Netflix, which will make the movie available worldwide less than a month after its festival premiere. “Win It All” will unquestionably find an agreeable crowd at the Paramount Theater when it makes its SXSW debut, but it will also be one of the biggest to see it in a theater outside of the living room.
“Win It All” is one of three original titles that Netflix will premiere at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, alongside true-crime biopic “The Most Hated Woman in America” and the dark drama “Small Crimes,” which was notably co-written by Macon Blair — director of Sundance 2017 grand jury prize winner “I Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore,” which was produced by Netflix and released on the platform with no theatrical release a week before SXSW. Netflix is a force that has traditional distributors large and small entranced and furious in equal measures, but there’s no questioning its dominance. Swanberg, once a marginal figure whose movies were readymade for the VOD dumping ground, now seems ideally suited for the current industry paradigm.
Katz has seen a bumpier road. His earlier movies were elegant character studies dominated by complex tonal shifts: “Dance Party, U.S.A.,” “Quiet City,” and “Cold Weather” found critical acclaim but not wider audiences. “Land, Ho!” (co-directed by Martha Stephens) managed some broader recognition for the way it borrowed the familiar tropes of a road-trip comedy. Now he’s back with “Gemini,” a playful L.A. noir that reflects a filmmaker who moved to Hollywood and hit a few walls. The discursive detective story stars Zoë Kravitz and Lola Kirke (the first name actors to surface in Katz’s work) in an alternately eerie and amusing murder mystery about the travails of fame, social media, and the vapidity of the film industry. They’re pertinent themes for a filmmaker who has wrestled with these issues and has yet to discover his role in the midst of it all.
Such is the state of American movies made outside studios: Either they’ve settled into a new paradigm or they’re drifting through purgatory. Plenty of tiny productions at SXSW that could wind up generating excitement around their visions and voices. Last year, it was Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha;” other memorable breakouts include Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12.” But for the overwhelming majority of SXSW films, their future hovers in uncertainty unless they arrive with distribution plans in place.
At a gathering ahead of this year’s SXSW, one hungry buyer singled out just five movies of potentially commercial titles from the lineup, including the Bill Pullman western “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” the edgy black-and-white Kieran Culkin comedy “Infinity Baby,” and Katz’s “Gemini.” But even if those movies generate sales, most of the news out of SXSW film scene is likely to emphasize more self-evident focal points, from the opening-night fervor surrounding reclusive Austin local Terrence Malick and his new film, “Song to Song,” to the Sony-produced crime caper “Baby Driver,” from genre maestro Edgar Wright.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It’s a refreshing contrast to the rest of the country, where “KONG: Skull Island” seems like the only movie dominating screens, but it also speaks to the overarching challenge of piercing through an increasingly fragmented industry that’s unsure of its next moves.
Austin itself provides a fine illustration of the way film culture can thrive on a local level. In a heated auction dinner for the Austin Film Society, held the night before the launch of SXSW 2017, the organization’s top executives eagerly anticipated a new theater that would allow more room to showcase much of the local talent it has fostered over the years. Over the course of the evening, the film society raised more than $689,000, in part from a fierce bidding war for hot items such a walk-on role for Richard Linklater’s upcoming feature “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” starring Cate Blanchett.
Bids came hard and fast; with Linklater in the audience nodding in approval, the auctioneer eventually split the item in two, combining a pair of bids into a collective haul of $42,000. That’s more money than the entire production budgets for a lot of SXSW movies, but if history is any indication, there’s no reason to assume they’ll remain stuck on that scale in another 10 years.