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One year after COVID shut it down, the SXSW Film Festival announces full virtual lineup

Selma Blair floats face down in a pool in the documentary "Introducing, Selma Blair."
Selma Blair in the documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair,” premiering as part of the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival.
(Joseph Yakob)

When the annual South by Southwest event was canceled by city officials in Austin, Texas, one week before it was set to begin in March 2020, it was among the earlier signs that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have a major impact on the entertainment industry and many other aspects of American life. While the SXSW Film Festival scrambled to put on a limited online event in the wake of the cancellation, one year later organizers have announced a full program for their entirely virtual 2021 edition, scheduled to run March 16-20.

With a lineup that includes 75 features, down from more than 130 last year, SXSW continues to reflect the moment we’re in and the trend of pared-back, largely virtual festivals. Organizers had previously announced the event would be online, and the festival had a shortened submission window.

“It’s just a very engaging experience of trying to move forward and then having to readapt and readapt and readapt,” Janet Pierson, the festival’s director of film, said in an interview this week about the planning for this year’s event. “And I noticed it with all our industry partners, people we spoke to, you could just see people changing. Like, ‘We would never do that’ and then a month later they’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this now.’

“It’s just everyone trying to be humble about what they’re learning and what they’re trying and bringing this sort of beautiful spirit of, ‘Let’s try to get to the parts of this stuff that are so important to us. Let’s find ways to connect. Let’s try to find ways to enjoy great work.’ And it’s challenging every day.”

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A well-dressed woman in sunglasses pushes a cart down a supermarket aisle.
“Jakob’s Wife,” starring Barbara Crampton, will premiere as part of the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival.
(Ava Jazlyn / AMP)

The 2021 edition will continue the film festival’s strong connection to the SXSW music festival. As previously announced, the festival will open with the world premiere of Michael D. Ratner’s “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” a documentary look at the pop singer’s near-fatal drug overdose in 2018. The closing-day premiere is “Alone Together,” directed by Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler, a portrait of popstar Charli XCX recording an album in quarantine. Also screening as part of the Headliners section is “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” directed by Mary Wharton and drawn from newly discovered footage of Petty recording his 1994 album, “Wildflowers.”

Eight films will play in the festival’s narrative feature competition. On the documentary side, “Introducing, Selma Blair,” directed by Rachel Fleit, is a portrait of the actor pursuing a risky medical procedure after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Brendan FitzGerald’s “The Oxy Kingpins” examines the opioid crisis. “Alien on Stage,” directed by Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey, is about a group of British bus drivers who stage an amateur theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”

One of the first events shut down due to the pandemic in 2020, the South By Southwest Film Festival goes virtual for its 2021 edition.

The Midnighters section will include Travis Stevens’ “Jakob’s Wife,” starring Barbara Crampton; Mickey Keating’s “Offseason,” starring festival mainstay Joe Swanberg; Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s “The Spine of Night,” starring Richard E. Grant; and Kier-La Janisse’s documentary “Woodland Darks and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.”

The festival will feature a 2020 Spotlight of nine films that were slated to premiere as part of last year’s event, including Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli’s “Best Summer Ever,” Malcolm Ingram’s “Clerk,” Elle Callahan’s “Witch Hunt,” Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s “Without Getting Killed or Caught” and Justine Bateman’s “Violet.”

Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker in documentary "Without Getting Killed or Caught."
Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker in Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s documentary “Without Getting Killed or Caught.”
(Family of Guy Clark)

The Sundance Film Festival just released the numbers for its mostly virtual 2021 event this week, reporting an increase of more than 2½ times the number of views from its prepandemic, in-person event last year.

Where the online version of Sundance had both passes and individual tickets for sale, SXSW will approach the online experience differently. There is only one level of badge available for sale (with the price increasing closer to the start of the event) and only badge holders will have access to the event. No individual tickets will be sold.

Once inside the platform, participants can chose from various streaming channels to watch movies, listen to live musical performances or watch speaker panels and special events. Movies will be released in batches of seven films at a time in two-hour intervals, with most films being launched in the first three days. Once a film launches, it will remain available until it either reaches its viewing cap or the event ends.

Badge holders can register for films to ensure themselves a viewing. Some films will have global access and unlimited views, while others will be available only to the United States and have a limited number of available viewings.

“I was very excited by Sundance. I felt they did a phenomenal job. I was both impressed and daunted because we’re going to be very different,” said Pierson. “But I’ve been very buoyed and excited in the last week, as I just think about all the people that have gone to all these measures to participate in our event. Not only do we have these films that people really wanted us to engage with and we’re excited to share with everybody else, but you’ve got all these speakers and conference sessions and special events.

A wide range of narrative and documentaries highlights to watch for at the first virtual Sundance Film Festival.

“And the program itself is very much in line with the kind of films we respond to,” she added. “There’s a lot of new talent for sure.”

Knowing they were preparing for an online event, with the possibility of audiences well beyond those who might normally make it to the festival’s signature venue of Austin’s Paramount Theatre, had an impact on how programmers viewed the event in unexpected ways.

“We were thinking about our own attention spans and people being cooped up in their houses. What would work well by yourself in your house,” said Pierson.

“I just really hope that people engage because there’s a lot of important and entertaining and just wonderful work. It works when people see it,” said Pierson. “And I know for filmmakers the hardest part of the pandemic for them has been, they’ve lost that feedback mechanism that they’re used to getting. It’s just such an important part of it, to sit in the back of a theater and just feel and listen to people engaging with your work. And as much as possible, we’re trying to encourage our audience to make noise to the filmmakers, communicate with them through the platform, communicate with them on social media, take this moment to celebrate them with us.”

More information about this year’s SXSW Film Festival and the full lineup can be found at the festival’s website.


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