If audiences have come to expect one thing from the South by Southwest Film Festival, it is the unexpected. Even as it has grown in size and stature, the festival has worked hard to maintain a rambunctious spirit that one returning filmmaker describes as "warm-hearted subversion."
Based in Austin, Texas, the film festival kicks off Friday and runs through March 19. The larger South By Southwest event also includes interactive and music components with conferences, keynote speeches and live performances. Underlining the heightened profile of the overall event are scheduled appearances by President Obama and the first lady for separate talks on civic engagement and educational initiatives.
The appearances by the Obamas at the interactive portion also points to the breadth of the overall festival from wildly outré works to wonky think-tank panels. SXSW was among the first major film festivals to regularly showcase new television work, and the interactive event has been a leader in spotlighting virtual-reality technologies.
"South by Southwest film has never just been a film festival. It's always been something unique nestled within these other really interesting events," Janet Pierson, head of South by Southwest film, said by phone from Austin earlier this week. "It's that cross-pollination that's fantastic."
SXSW has also staked out territory few other film festivals cover by regularly spotlighting smart, crowd-pleasing studio comedies. Last year saw the premieres of "Trainwreck" with Amy Schumer and "Spy" with Melissa McCarthy. There was also a last-minute surprise showing of the action-adventure "Furious 7."
That freewheeling approach continues this year with the opening night world premiere of Richard Linklater's college baseball film, "Everybody Wants Some." This year's film festival also includes a new Pee-wee Herman film produced by Judd Apatow and high-profile work-in-progress screenings of "Sausage Party," an animated comedy from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and "Keanu," the big-screen transition of the popular television comedy duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, better known as Key and Peele.
The SXSW film festival has become a key launching pad for young talent and new films. Recent Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson received great acclaim for her performance in "Short Term 12" when it premiered at the festival in 2013. Last year saw the North American premiere of "Ex Machina," which went on to win an Oscar for its visual effects.
Linklater is one of the most important figures in Austin's long-established filmmaking community. Though he has shown films at the festival before, this year marks the first time one of his films has opened SXSW.
"It's an honor, of course," Linklater said recently in his trademark low-key manner similar to the relaxed hang-out vibe of his new film. "It's cool, you know?"
Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special" will have its North American premiere during the festival, having recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival — the films opens nationwide on Mar. 18. Starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, it is the story of two parents trying to protect their son, who has supernatural powers.
Nichols is also an Austin-based filmmaker and, having traveled to other film festivals around the world, he has become acutely aware of what makes local audiences special.
"I think we're far enough away from the industry here that people really just want to see a good movie and they want to have a good time while watching it," Nichols said of the Austin crowd.
The Key and Peele movie "Keanu," the story of two cousins who fall into a criminal underworld while trying to retrieve a lost kitten, was a surprise late addition to the program as a work-in-progress for a late-night Saturday screening.
"We couldn't have asked for a more perfect place to make our debut," director Peter Atencio said. "This is a movie made by people who love movies. … So showing it to a crowd of people who also love movies feels right. It's also a movie that is very conducive to a midnight experience because it's fun and crazy and unique."
That same enthusiasm among audiences and filmmakers alike moves across all sections of the festival. "My Blind Brother," the feature debut for writer-director Sophie Goodhart, is the story of a two brothers, one a blind athlete, who fall in love with the same woman and stars Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate and Zoe Kazan.
Goodhart, who was also at the festival in 2003 with the short film that was the basis for the feature, noted that unlike many other festivals, "I feel like they really understand comedies."
That populist attitude covers the documentary programming as well. Jesse Moss is at the festival with "The Bandit," a playful yet heartfelt portrait of Burt Reynolds, "Smokey and the Bandit" and Reynolds' longtime friendship with that film's director, Hal Needham.
Moss was likewise at the festival in 2003 with his debut feature doc, "Speedo," about a demolition derby driver. The festival this year will also feature a screening of "Smokey and the Bandit," and Reynolds is scheduled to appear.
"I see it as a kind of homecoming and coming full circle," Moss said of returning to the festival. "It's the kind of festival that I think really celebrates films like this."
Other notable films in this year's program include the world premieres of Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice," Ti West's "In a Valley of Violence" and Joe Berlinger's documentary, "Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru," as well as the North American premiere of John Michael McDonagh's "War on Everyone." Titles also generating interest include the world premieres of Julia Hart's "Miss Stevens," Stella Meghie's "Jean of the Joneses," Mike Flanagan's "Hush," Clay Liford's "Slash" and Zach Clark's "Little Sister."
For a festival so steeped in discovery, "Pee-wee's Big Holiday" represents both something new and the return of a beloved icon. The film, directed by John Lee, produced by Apatow and co-written by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust, is the first new feature-film adventure for the character since 1988's "Big Top Pee-wee."
"It's certainly nicer to be thought of in the present tense than in the past," said Reubens of presenting his Pee-wee character to new audiences.
From big rowdy comedies to smaller dramas and documentaries, the mix of ideas and events alongside the broad-ranging selection of films at South by Southwest is what continues to give it a unique appeal among American film festivals.
"I feel that people come to South by Southwest to talk about a lot of important ideas, but they also come here to have fun," Pierson said. "You've got all these creative people and great thinkers, but they've here because it's enjoyable. It's not like homework."