Of all the rewards of Ti West's first trip to the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in 2005 -- screening his first feature before an enthusiastic crowd at Austin's storied Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, selling the campy horror film to a distributor, meeting like-minded folks at panels and parties -- what left the deepest impression on the then 22-year-old director was something more tangible.
"You could have as much free barbecue and beer as you wanted," says West, who at the time was selling jeans at a mall outside Philadelphia to fund his filmmaking interest. "When you make movies, you don't have any money. I don't think some festivals get that you could spend your whole food budget for a year there."
Though it's mellower than Sundance's feverish marketplace, cheaper and younger than a bring-your-own-yacht event like Cannes, and much less Oscar-oriented than Toronto's film festival, South by Southwest has emerged as a key event on Hollywood's calendar.
The populist and increasingly influential Texas event, which opens March 11 and is known by the shorthand SXSW, locked its 130-film features lineup this week. Among the films on tap: West's newest movie, a ghost story called "The Innkeepers"; "Foo Fighters," a documentary about the Seattle grunge band; and "The Beaver," Jodie Foster's drama featuring Mel Gibson as a depressed man who finds solace in a beaver hand puppet.
For filmmakers and studios, a major attraction of SXSW is its mixed audience -- rowdy young Austinites, hard-core film fans and the early adopters who attend SXSW's influential music and interactive technology events.
"We skew young, edgy, we're not as politically correct, we can do humor, we can go grosser," says film conference and festival producer Janet Pierson.
Of the conference's 36,771 registrants in 2010 -- including those who attended the music and interactive portions of the event -- 64% were younger than 40. Austin is home to directors like Robert Rodriguez and Terrence Malick and alpha fans like Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. SXSW's crowds are so likely to share their reactions via Twitter and other social media that they crashed AT&T;'s iPhone service in 2009. The boisterous atmosphere has led studios to bring comedies like "I Love You, Man" and quirky genre pictures like "Kick-Ass" in hopes of building buzz.
"At other fests, it's very industry-heavy," says Glen Zipper, co-head of documentary features at Spitfire Pictures, the documentary arm of Exclusive Media Group, which is premiering the Foo Fighters film and another movie called "Undefeated," about an inner-city football team. "This festival attracts a much larger gene pool. It's people who are plugged into culture."
This year, Summit Entertainment is making its first trip to the festival with the sci-fi movie "Source Code" and "The Beaver," a film that could use the help of an especially warm audience to get past the baggage brought by its scandal-plagued leading man.
Unlike Sundance and Toronto, SXSW doesn't hold separate press and industry screenings -- which tend to have more indifferent or critical crowds.
"You want to debut it in the best possible environment," says Eric Kops, the studio's senior vice president of publicity. "The hope is that the movie can be judged on its own merits."
Begun primarily as a music festival showcasing Austin's eclectic band scene in 1987, SXSW added its film component in 1994. In recent years the film fest has emerged as a breeding ground for new movie talent, launching directors Lena Dunham, Gareth Edwards and the Duplass Brothers, and bringing independent film movements like mumblecore and self-distribution more into the mainstream.
This year SXSW saw a 23% increase in submissions over 2010, with a record 4,900 films vying for inclusion. Thanks to the interactive event, tech-friendly topics tend to play well at the festival, which this year is premiering an astronomy documentary, "The City Dark," and a meditation on digital culture called "PressPausePlay." The lineup for the festival can be found at sxsw.com -- except for the typically genre-heavy midnight lineup, which will be announced next week.
Last year after "Tiny Furniture," Dunham's micro-budget coming-of-age movie, won the festival's narrative feature award, the 24-year-old director earned opportunities to write an HBO pilot for Judd Apatow and adapt a young adult novel for producer Scott Rudin. Dunham made "Tiny Furniture" with producers, a director of photography and an editor she had met at the festival in 2009.
"I sneezed on my DP at a party," Dunham says. "I'm not a party person but there's something about that festival that makes me want to stay out until 5:30 in the morning and get a cold."