South by Southwest is back! And all eyes are on…well, a lot of them are on the Oscars, and not necessarily all on the Austin film, TV, tech, and music festival.
It’s not to say SXSW isn’t bustling or active. In fact one source said attendance through Day 2 of the festival was significantly higher than last year. And strictly anecdotally, there’s a ton of people milling about the Austin Convention Center who are first-timers as well. It’s just that due to the unfortunate, out-of-their-control circumstances of the festival crossing over with the Academy Awards, sources who spoke to IndieWire throughout the weekend felt there’s fewer studios or industry professionals in attendance this year or others arriving and then quickly leaving. That’s not ideal for some films looking to generate buzz or even land a sale.
“We’re returning for our second year after not doing a physical event in 2020 and 2021. We’re still in the process of building back, but what we’re seeing is that this year will be significantly larger than last year based on registration numbers, hotel bookings, and client, exhibitor, and sponsor activations,” a spokesperson for SXSW told IndieWire while declining to give exact attendance figures at this stage.
But you wouldn’t know there was any lack of excitement or interest sitting in some screenings, many of which have been very well attended, or walking about town. Friday’s opening night showing of Paramount’s “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” attracted a rowdy crowd not uncommon for screenings inside the Paramount Theater. Lines stretched around the building for panels on ChatGPT and AI or keynotes for Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Eva Longoria, among others.
Lionsgate has even been doing a fun and elaborate promotion on behalf of “John Wick 4” in advertising the film’s secret screening. On Saturday morning, faux protesters held up colorful poster boards of a messianic looking Keanu Reeves and heralded the return of the “Baba Yaga.” Those who engaged with the protesters could receive a gold coin that resembles the currency from The Continental in the film series. After receiving that, you could text a number and take part in a mysterious Wick-centered quiz that could land you a ticket.
Agents who spoke to IndieWire remain bullish that even with the Oscars distraction, SXSW’s market could be even more lively than it was last year or at times pre-COVID. Specialty labels and mini-studios have been screening titles on the ground and in advance. And SXSW is turning some more heads as distributors look for the next “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the A24 film that premiered in Austin in 2022 and now is knocking on the door of a Best Picture win.
You may be saying, even Sundance did not have a wave of sales during the festival, so why would SXSW? Well, the agents told IndieWire that this year’s crop feels more commercial and curated to the point that it features titles that might’ve landed on a Sundance or Toronto lineup in years past. There’s films like the offbeat, sci-fi/rom-com “If You Were the Last” starring Anthony Mackie and Zoe Chao or the Ewan McGregor drama “You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder” that could fetch healthy deals. Others have hyped up movies like “Molli and Max in the Future,” “Americana,” “Bottoms,” “A Disturbance in the Force,” and more among the buzziest titles. And the agents suspected that a potentially looming writer’s strike could be one more push that distributors need to get content in the pipeline now.
“It’s as exciting and as relevant as anywhere,” said Jeff Annison, co-founder and president of Legion M, which is premiering the William Shatner documentary “You Can Call Me Bill” on Thursday. “We have been so impressed with the stuff we’ve seen so far. We’ve been dividing and conquering, the reports are really strong, the creative is really strong and imaginative, and it’s great to be back fully after the pandemic.”
But while trends like the metaverse and AI in media remain top of mind, Annison and others said many conversations dominating SXSW still revolve around the ongoing questions of theatrical and how smaller distributors and filmmakers will find innovative ways to coax audiences back to theaters. Friday’s news that the government had taken control of Silicon Valley Bank also seeped into conversations about what ripple effects it might have on Hollywood, with Nancy Pelosi addressing to a SXSW crowd what implications there would be for the country should the bank fail.
One other theme emerging early this year is surrounding healthcare. The filmmakers of “Pay or Die,” a documentary about the expensive struggle American families have in obtaining insulin, told IndieWire that SXSW has proven to be an “inclusive” and “special experience.” They bonded during their premiere screening with another filmmaker and a theater usher who are also Type 1 diabetics. And their film is not alone. SXSW is also showcasing the documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore” that focuses heavily on her work advocating for diabetics, there are two films in the Documentary Feature Competition category that focus on autoimmune disease, and Nick Jonas will also make an appearance on Monday to discuss advancing diabetes care.
Unlike at other festivals where the film might stand on its own, the beauty of SXSW is such that with so many available panels and keynotes that go beyond the film, the “Pay or Die” team was provided a platform to open up a broader discussion and get other people, notably locals, involved. On Sunday the filmmakers hosted a panel discussion along with a Congressman from the Texas House of Representatives about the fight to get a bill passed in Texas to make insulin cheaper and more available.
“Everyone is excited about what everyone else is doing,” “Pay or Die” co-director Rachael Dyer said. “No one feels out of place”
“You feel the vibe. In our filmmaker lunch, everyone said this is the class of 2023. That’s so true. We’re all here together. We may be trying to compete here and there, but this is a together film festival,” “Pay or Die” co-director Scott Alexander Ruderman said. “No one is rising above the community. The Oscars are amazing, and it is unfortunate that the Oscars are happening right during SXSW when the whole idea is to emerge independent filmmakers, but I think it allows the emerging filmmakers to have a lot of inspiration and gives emerging filmmakers a good role model to be with the celebrities that come here. They’re all level-headed, and it’s not about trying to rise above and be above everyone, it’s about helping everyone and being a community together.”