The South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival, which has become a leading launching pad for new talent, arguably second in the U.S. only to the recently completed Sundance, released its 2015 programming announcement Tuesday. Running from March 13-21 in Austin, Texas, the festival will show 145 features, with 100 World premieres, 13 North American premieres and 11 U.S. premieres, chosen from a record 7,335 submissions.
"We were really trying to show fewer films this year; we know it's hard for journalists to cover and we want to give them all their space," said Janet Pierson, head of SXSW Film. "But as we were watching, we just kept finding films that were really compelling. It's sort of like sculpting, you start by picking the ones that really speak to you and then all of a sudden we're out of room."
Among the most high-profile selections in Tuesday's announcement is a work-in-progress screening of Judd Apatow's highly anticipated "Trainwreck" well ahead of its opening in July. Written by and starring the rising Amy Schumer, the film also features Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton and Lebron James. Apatow has a long history with the festival.
The festival will also premiere two other high-profile studio comedies, "Spy," starring Melissa McCarthy and directed by Paul Feig, along with the Kevin Hart/Will Ferrell-starring "Get Hard." Including Feig's "Bridesmaids" and last year's Seth Rogen/Zach Efron vehicle "Neighbors," SXSW has a history of successfully premiering films that don't seem like obvious festival fare.
"We do that intentionally," said Pierson. "It's an interesting thing, because it's always a question of which ones are right for us. We try not to go too broad, so they have a point-of-view, you can really feel the filmmaker behind it. That's how we make our decisions. It's not wide open. We look for creators that we can support. We're really happy the way it turned out this year."
The festival will also have the world premieres of Jamie Babbit's "Fresno," starring Aubrey Plaza, Robert Duvall's "Wild Horses," starring the recently Oscar-nominated actor alongside James Franco and Josh Hartnett, and Alex Gibney's documentary "Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine."
The filmmaker George Miller, whose upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road" is one of the most anticipated titles of the year, will be in Austin to present his earlier "The Road Warrior."
There will also be the U.S. premiere of Ryan Gosling's directorial debut "Lost River," which hit a rough patch following a poor reception at last year's Cannes Film Festival and subsequent uncertainty regarding its theatrical release. SXSW likewise gave a friendly berth a few years ago to the troubled Mel Gibson/Jodie Foster comedy "The Beaver."
As to why the festival might be a soft landing spot for films having a hard time of it, Pierson said: "I might say that we're a friendly place, we support artists taking chances. You've got this really intelligent and enthusiastic film audience. They're looking to embrace films. It's different from some cities, where people start with being critical and in Austin that's definitely not the thing."
There are also plenty of filmmakers working on the sort of micro-budget indies on which SXSW in part made its name, with films including Alison Bagnall's "Funny Bunny," J. Davis' "Manson Family Vacation," Ross Patridge's "Lamb" and Andrew Droz Palermo's "One & Two."
For the Los Angeles-based Hannah Fidell, whose "6 Years" will be playing as part of the narrative competition, bringing her movie to the festival is especially gratifying as she used to attend the fest as an audience member while in college.
"The films I watched that first year influenced me greatly, giving me the courage to go out and make my own," said Fidell via email. "Premiering at SXSW seems like a complete full circle in the best way possible."
"The festival's grown by leaps and bounds in the last seven or so years," said Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington, who will have the world premiere of his "7 Chinese Brothers," starring Jason Schwartzman, during the fest. "There's definitely a shift that's gone on."
South By Southwest has been at the forefront of the recent talent crossover between film and television in more ways than one. The current Sunday HBO lineup of "Girls," "Togetherness" and "Looking" were all created by SXSW alums.
And the festival has also led the way in including television programming as part of its lineup, and this year will be the second for the section known as "Episodics," and will feature five series premieres.
Screening for the first time will be episodes of "Angie Tribeca," created by Steve Carell and Nancy Carell starring Rashida Jones, and "The Comedians," co-created by Larry Charles and starring Billy Crystal. Also screening will be episodes of Rob Thomas' "iZombie," Sam Esmail's "Mr. Robot" and Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro's "UnREAL."
"When I started in '09 I knew I was watching a lot of episodic fare and it just took a little while to figure out how to make it work," said Pierson. "Last year we thought, if the quality is there, let's have a section. People loved it, it gets a lot of attention and people felt great about it. Now there is so much episodic fare, it becomes challenging for us to decide what makes sense for us."
It was previously announced that the festival will open with Ondi Timoner's documentary on Russell Brand, titled "Brand: A Second Coming" and also screen Alex Garland's "Ex-Machina" and Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation." Ava DuVernay, Mark Duplass and RZA will all deliver keynote addresses.
The just-concluded Sundance Film Festival had an extremely strong year, with a number of films embraced by critics and some high-profile, high-dollar sales. As to whether this raises the bar for this year's SXSW, Pierson is circumspect.
"I think we're judged differently," she said. "I think for us, we judge ourselves in terms of work that connects with people, that people are excited about, talent discovery. We don't define ourselves by the sales on-site. It happens here, but it's not how we define ourselves or talk about ourselves."