South by Southwest festival doesn’t want to lose its way
The worlds of movies, music and technology converge at Austin’s annual three-in-one South by Southwest festival, so what better place for director Alex Winter to unveil “Downloaded,” his decade-in-the-making documentary about the music file-sharing service Napster?
Winter came to the Texas fest last year and whetted audience appetites for his film, showing five minutes of footage and moderating a discussion with the defunct company’s co-founders, tech industry wunderkinds Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker.
As this year’s SXSW begins Friday, Winter is back for the world premiere of his finished film — and hoping to find a distributor to bring it to theaters in advance of an eventual premiere on VH1.
“The indie film world can be very narrow,” Winter said. “South by Southwest is one of the few festivals to understand that we live in a multi-platform world. It’s the one place where your movie can be seen by people in a myriad of industries.”
The informal, hybridized festival spans 10 days and its mix of performances, screenings, panels and parties brings together film-heads, tech-geeks and rock ‘n’ rollers.
The film portion has 133 features that play to the gathering’s traditional strengths — crowd-friendly horror and comedy movies and topical documentaries set in the worlds of music and high tech. Among the films on tap: a remake of the cult zombie classic “Evil Dead,” the Steve Carell magician satire “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” and a romantic comedy from a writer of “Borat” (“I Give It a Year”).
The nonfiction films tackle subjects as diverse as British physicist Stephen Hawking (“Hawking”), the Beatles’ secretary (“Good Ol’ Freda”) and the controversial file-sharing website the Pirate Bay (“TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard”).
The festival will also play host to some filmmakers whose early careers it boosted and who are returning this year with more commercial fare. Few have become as synonymous with SXSW as Chicago-based director Joe Swanberg, who became a leading figure in the micro-budget film movement with his SXSW premieres “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Alexander the Last.” This year Swanberg is back with “Drinking Buddies,” a romantic comedy with a high-profile cast that includes Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and “New Girl” star Jake Johnson.
“South by Southwest has been ... where all the major successes of my career have happened,” Swanberg said. “It’s been a very nurturing, fostering kind of environment for me.”
The 2013 festival saw a 7% increase in submissions over 2012, with more than 5,700 films vying for inclusion. With the interactive and music portions of the event growing in prominence, however, SXSW may risk its losing some of its low-key appeal.
“The richness of South by Southwest is the way these three separate conferences interplay with each other,” said film conference and festival producer Janet Pierson. “We all love what the others bring to it. But growth has its challenges. It’s not a chill scene anymore; it’s a much more crowded one. It’s a noisy atmosphere and you read articles asking, ‘Is South by Southwest too big?’ or ‘How can I be heard?’... It’s a reflection of the culture at large where there is so much noise, how is anybody hearing anything? It’s a question we all ask all the time.”
Television will have an even heavier presence at SXSW this year than last, which saw the premiere of the HBO show “Girls.” “Lost” show runner Carlton Cuse bringing his new A&E; drama, “Bates Motel,” while “Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre will participate in an on-stage conversation about creativity with fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The IFC network, a festival sponsor, is hosting multiple parties and panels.
The conference portion of the festival includes more than 150 panel discussions; among the featured speakers are directors Joss Whedon, talking up his Shakespeare adaptation, “Much Ado About Nothing”; Danny Boyle, showing scenes from his upcoming thriller, “Trance”; and Rob Zombie, who is bringing his witch coven movie, “The Lords of Salem.”
The year features a strong selection of films made in Texas, including “Loves Her Gun,” “The Bounceback,” “Computer Chess,” “Zero Charisma,” “Pit Stop,” “A Teacher,” and “Upstream Color.” SXSW will also feature the local premiere of “Before Midnight,” the latest from Austin’s own Richard Linklater and a sequel to his popular “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” again starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Fueled by plentiful free barbecue and beer, SXSW audiences tend to be more charitable than those at industry-centric festivals like Sundance and Cannes, and in the past they’ve delivered rapturous receptions for such films as the 2011 Paul Feig comedy “Bridesmaids” and the 2009 Sam Raimi horror film “Drag Me to Hell.”
Bruce Campbell, who appeared in Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” series and will attend the SXSW premiere of the remake (he’s a producer), is hoping the new version gets a similarly warm welcome.
“It should theoretically blow the doors off,” Campbell said. “There will be no doors left in the city of Austin, which has always been a really good city for us because of the [Texas theater chain] Alamo Drafthouse and how movie crazy they are. They’re just movie crazy, they’re horror crazy, it’s a great fit.”
Times staff writer Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.
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