March 10, 2008 / 6:38 AM / 10 years ago

South By Southwest boasts indie film spirit

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The definition of a festival success story tends to come in the form of numbers: How much did distributors fork over for the grand jury prize winner? How late did negotiations go into the night?

Grant Gee, director of the film "Joy Division", poses for photographs at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival, September 9, 2007. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

At the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, which kicks off Friday in Austin, Texas, success comes in a far less quantifiable form.

“One of the most gratifying things that happens is when people come and make connections that lead to more work,” explains SXSW festival producer Matt Dentler. “They meet and go on to make a project that’s at the next South by Southwest. That means we’re not just a venue to showcase creativity, but to spark more creativity for the future.”

By that standard, this year’s SXSW, which runs through March 15 — is already a success, thanks to Mary and Ronald Bronstein.

Last year, Ronald picked up SXSW’s special jury award for “Frownland,” a debut film that took six years to complete. In Austin, he and wife Mary met up with Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, whose “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (directed by Swanberg, who co-wrote the script with Gerwig) was one of the festival’s most-talked-about premieres. A bond was forged, and a project was born: Mary’s exploration of toxic friends, “Yeast,” will premiere at this year’s SXSW, co-starring Gerwig.

“‘Frownland’ was made in a vacuum environment,” says Mary Bronstein. “(SXSW) was the first time we felt that we were part of an independent film community. I was inspired to make (‘Yeast’) after being down there and seeing all the great work people were doing.”

As poster children for SXSW convergence, the Bronsteins are by no means alone. The Austin festival is all about synergies and partnerships of different types — the tech nerds flow directly into the film fanboys who all really want to be rock ‘n’ roll stars — and the atmosphere jostles more than just creative juices in its attendees. Virtually across the board, distributors, sponsors, registrants and execs call the festival “casual” and “manageable,” along with “hip” and “cool” — even if they don’t call it a “market.”

“In a culture where independent music has become 30%-40% of all music sold, when independent films get almost all the nominations at the Academy Awards, SXSW is reaping the benefits,” explains Evan Shapiro, general manager at IFC TV, which is world-premiering documentaries about punk rock (“Heavy Load”) and the death penalty (“At the Death House Door”).

And any number of films are looking to take advantage of the easygoing, ribs-and-beer-influenced atmosphere. Everything from Sony’s card-counting film “21,” which opens the festival, to the comedy sequel “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” to the virtual-world documentary “Second Skin” are looking for a platform — either to woo a distributor or to woo key demo audiences.

“SXSW has a reputation as being one of the best entertainment parties of the year,” explains “Harold & Kumar” co-director/co-writer Jon Hurwitz. “We have a movie best viewed in a packed theater of rowdy people looking for fun, and I think we’ll find our crowd there.”

That’s the hope of indie distributors like ThinkFilm, too, which is sending Helen Hunt’s directing debut, “Then She Found Me,” and the World Trade Organization drama “Battle in Seattle.”

“Austin as an important hip movie market is worth our attention,” says U.S. head of theatrical distribution Mark Urman. “It’s the home of several key bloggers, and a lot of media descends on SXSW, and a lot of ground-floor observation emanates from there — on an exponentially increasing basis.”

David Modigliani’s documentary on President Bush’s adopted hometown, “Crawford,” is tapped as a potential festival favorite, but Modigliani has a different goal than Hurwitz or Urman: “The festival has been increasing its profile, and there are more buyers and distributors there, but I don’t think a lot of films are sold there. It’s more of a great place to launch the film and follow up with buyers after that.”

Documentaries have a special place in SXSW’s heart, by reputation and according to Dentler: “It’s a place where audiences see documentaries treated as well as features. Here, documentaries are equally so, if not more, successful than the features.”

Which has no doubt led to the growth of music-related films in the festival, most of which are documentaries, including Grant Gee’s “Joy Division,” about the Manchester band whose lead singer was profiled in 2007’s “Control”; VH1 Rock Docs’ “The Night James Brown Saved Boston”; Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert movie “Shine a Light”; and “Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet,” which actually hits the fest’s synergistic trifecta: It’s a film about music made from computers.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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