The cancellation of the SXSW conference by Austin city officials in the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak shocked multiple industries on Friday, but the biggest casualties are the smaller movies that still don’t have homes. A handful of studio titles were aiming to premiere at the festival to generate marketing and publicity around their upcoming release dates, including Judd Apatow’s Universal-produced “The King of Staten Island” and Paramount’s “The Lovebirds,” starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. However, the bulk of the program is comprised of movies searching for distribution.
That includes the 20 movies in the narrative and documentary competition as well as potential discoveries in various sidebars, all of which were selected from a submission pool of 2,316 films. The cancellation leaves a sudden gap in the festival calendar and veterans of the industry reeling from an unprecedented situation.
At the same time, it leaves newcomers unsure how to process the mayhem around them. That includes 22-year-old first-time director Cooper Raiff, whose soulful college dramedy “Shithouse” was among the competition titles looking to break out of this year’s lineup.
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“I don’t know if I’m sad because I don’t know what’s being lost,” Raiff said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, less than an hour after the SXSW news broke. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I always think of SXSW as a bunch of young people watching movies and I was excited about the idea of young people watching a movie about college and laughing about it — but also being like, ‘Oh wait, I’ve felt those things too.’”
Under normal circumstances, Raiff would fit the ideal mold for a SXSW discovery. The festival has long prided itself on championing new American voices like Lena Dunham, whose “Tiny Furniture” took the grand jury prize 10 years ago and lead to her HBO deal for “Girls.” Like Dunham, Raiff based his first feature on his own experiences, and stars in the chatty story of a lonely freshman who forges an unusual romantic bond with the resident advisor (Dylan Gelula) in his dorm. Raiff directed a rough version of the movie with his girlfriend and shared it on Twitter with SXSW regular Jay Duplass, who wound up advocating for the project and helping to shape its final form. Raiff connected with Gelula and another co-star through Instagram. The result is at once intimate and charming enough to make its young creator’s voice stand out.
Raiff, who was inspired by both “Before Sunrise” and “Lost in Translation,” said he was surprised he got this far with the project, which was set to have sales handled by ICM at the festival. “Even getting a sales agent and a PR person was super cool to me,” he said. “It just makes me feel really good that it’s in the world.”
Meanwhile, sales agents were grappling with the unusual challenge on their hands. Visit Films founder Ryan Kampe was planning on bringing two films to the festival this year, the documentary “Bulletproof” and the drama “The Surrogate,” both of which he expected to sell. “I don’t really know what we’re going to do,” he said. “I’ve never had a situation where the festival that starts a film’s run doesn’t happen.” Kampe said it was unclear whether films that had already booked additional festivals later in the year should make those screenings into the de facto premieres. “My initial reaction is, ‘Let’s play those festivals and tell everybody they were in the South By lineup, because they were,” he said. “Who knows where films like this go, if they’re not in Tribeca or SXSW? Do you wait for Sundance next year? Will they take a bunch of films that are a year old?”
Kampe stressed that while SXSW may not host press and industry screenings, it does help stimulate interest from buyers. “When I talk to Netflix, it’s a lot easier to get somebody to come to a screening at South By or Tribeca than San Francisco or Santa Barbara,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the same thing for them in terms of their festival priorities.” (It remains unclear whether the Tribeca Film Festival, which is on the calendar for mid-April, will be impacted by these events.) Kampe said that most buyers that mattered for his titles had some level of representation at SXSW, including junior staff. “If people complain, it’s because their movies aren’t at Sundance, but outside of that, I don’t know where else you go that’s better than SXSW,” he said.
The unique nature of the SXSW environment can often benefit edgier titles and unorthodox documentaries when they screen to the festival’s youthful and often jubilant crowds. Cinetic sales rep Jason Ishikawa was planning to bring a range of documentaries to SXSW, including the Kevin Smith profile “Clerk,” the Robert Rodriguez-produced “Hood River,” and the unorthodox pro-wrestling saga “You Cannot Kill David Arquette.” On the phone from the True/False Film Fest, Ishikawa was in shock from the news about the Austin festival. “For the right film, the audience is just electric,” he said. “The energy of SXSW is just totally unique.” He added that several of the films on his slate “have a deep and special connection to Austin and SXSW, so it’s hard to imagine premiering anywhere else.”
As anticipation of a diminished or canceled SXSW began to build on Friday, studios and publicity reps began canvassing journalists to better understand whether the festival would benefit from anyone on the ground. “If your film is playing at SXSW, that sets the stage for what you hope the strategy will be for your film going forward,” said Clare Anne Darragh from Frank PR, which had seven SXSW films in its slate and also reps the Texas Film Awards, slated to take place on March 12 the night before the festival (and which will still be held regardless of the SXSW cancellation). While some of the publicity firm’s titles already have homes, such as the HBO documentary “Baby God,” others were readymade for buyers to pounce at SXSW. Chief among these is the Frank Oz-directed “In & Of Itself,” which the veteran filmmaker adapted from his stage play and boasts Stephen Colbert as an executive producer.
The firm had already planned to show the movie in New York and Los Angeles ahead of the festival to stimulate additional interest, and Darragh noted that with the future of other festivals around the corner, that approach may become more crucial. “We will keep our screenings and try to get the sales agents in,” she said. “That may be the new norm going forward until we understand the future of upcoming festivals.” Fellow publicist David Magdael, who was bringing five documentaries to the 2020 festival, echoed those concerns while striking an optimistic note. “It challenges us to come with a different model to figure this out,” he said. “I am hopeful and optimistic that we will find a way through.”
Filmmakers Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, whose feature documentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs” was represented by non-fiction heavyweight Submarine at the festival, had high hopes for the week ahead. “Preparing for this year’s fest was the most challenging thing we’ve ever done,” they said in an emailed statement. “As two of the filmmakers that were sitting with bags packed, eagerly awaiting the future. we can only think of the disappointment so many of our peers must be feeling today.”
Even SXSW’s keynote speakers were impacted by the ramifications of the news. “The Farewell” director Lulu Wang was scheduled to talk at the event and spent most of Friday waiting for an update on the plan. “I’m incredibly sad for the filmmakers who were relying on SXSW to launch their films, and of course, I was looking forward to my keynote address,” Wang said in a message to IndieWire moments after the news broke. “But with the mounting pressure, this cancellation felt inevitable.”
Raiff echoed others in expressing sympathy for the organizers of the festival, including SXSW Film Producer Janet Pierson, who has yet to comment on the situation. “I’m feeling pretty devastated for people like Janet, who have been working an entire year to put together such an awesome event,” he said. “That’s who I’m mostly thinking about right now.” He stressed that he felt no resentment toward the festival over this outcome. “I’m upset that I can’t show people my movie in a cool theater,” he said, “but I’m glad that everyone is safer as a result.”