The past few years have been especially strong for the South By Southwest Film Festival. Having established itself as a home for breakout comedies including “Bridesmaids” and “Knocked Up,” SXSW expanded its hit-making track record last year as the launching pad for “A Quiet Place” and “Ready Player One.”
But the more audience-friendly commercial bent to their programming also serves as a way to spotlight the festival’s longer running mission of showcasing offbeat independent films, as seen in the festival’s feature film lineup announced Wednesday.
“Us,” Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Get Out,” was previously announced as the festival’s opening night film and remains the big-ticket item. Other high-profile titles range from “The Beach Bum,” Harmony Korine’s long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s “Spring Breakers,” starring Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence, to an untitled Lionsgate comedy from “50/50” director Jonathan Levine starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron as a diplomat and a journalist attempting to keep their romance a secret.
Last year’s opening night film, “A Quiet Place,” directed by John Krasinski, who starred alongside Emily Blunt, generated big social media buzz when it opened the festival last year, going on to an outsized box office performance and an unexpected awards season presence, including SAG, PGA and WGA award nominations.
“We don't program with an eye towards box office. We certainly like popular work, we're not against it; it's just not the goal,” said Janet Pierson, the festival’s director of film, in an interview this week. “We're looking for work that we respond to on a lot of levels.”
Pierson added that it has been gratifying to hear Krasinski repeatedly mention the premiere screening at SXSW during the film’s release and awards campaign, and its importance to the life of the film. She said the festival is encouraged knowing that they can make a difference for established figures as well as the kind of low-budget discoveries for which SXSW is also known. (One example: The indie comedy “Support the Girls,” which also premiered at last year’s festival, has found significant awards season support from critics groups for star Regina Hall.)
“Of course, the ‘Krisha’s’ and ‘Thunder Road’s’ and ‘Weekend’s’ we live for, discoveries that come out of nowhere and that people make out of nothing,” Pierson said. “Those are really the dream, but when you see people who also have a lot of choices and have been working in the Hollywood system, to realize that you can make a difference in their lives and in their work that really matters to them, is very fulfilling.”
Echoing Krasinski’s move behind the camera, actress Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut with this year’s SXSW title “Booksmart.” The story of two graduating high school students who realize they didn’t make enough time for fun and attempt to do as much as they can in one night stars Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow and Jason Sudeikis.
Wilde, who was at the festival last year with “A Vigilante,” a film she starred in and produced, is a SXSW veteran. “Since the beginning of the ‘Booksmart’ development process, I've fantasized about premiering the film at SXSW, so this is truly a dream come true for me,” she said via email. “Each time I've had a film at the festival, I've left feeling even more in love with movies.”
Her personal connection to the festival runs deep. “I remember premiering ‘Drinking Buddies’ at The Paramount Theater and just feeling truly overwhelmed with happiness. That was on my birthday six years ago, and this year, my first film as a director premieres on my birthday again. I can't wait.”
Last year’s SXSW also launched the well-received raunchy comedy “Blockers,” which followed in the well-established festival tradition of debuting major films in the genre. This year’s “Good Boys,” starring “Room” and “Wonder” breakout Jacob Tremblay in an R-rated friendship comedy directed by Gene Stupnitsky, seems to fit the bill. It comes from members of the creative teams behind “Superbad” and another one-time SXSW premiere, “Sausage Party.”
Netflix is bringing a pair of high-profile projects with the John Lee Hancock directed “The Highwaymen,” starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, and the animated anthology series “Love, Death & Robots” from David Fincher and “Deadpool” director Tim Miller, who are both slated to appear.
Robert Rodriguez, an Austin local and SXSW regular, will world premiere “Red 11,” an ultra-low budget movie co-written with his son Racer Rodriguez. The elder Rodriguez will also participate in a master-class on micro-budget filmmaking ahead of the film’s premiere.
“The Day Shall Come,” the first film directed by Chris Morris since his political comedy “Four Lions,” will premiere in the festival’s narrative spotlight section. The new film is written by Morris and Jesse Armstrong, showrunner of HBO’s “Succession” and stars Marchánt Davis, Anna Kendrick, Danielle Brooks and Denis O’Hare in the story of a Miami preacher whose revolutionary dreams find an unlikely backer in the FBI.
Other intriguing titles include actor Logan Marshall-Green’s directorial debut, “Adopt A Highway,” starring and produced by Ethan Hawke, about a man restarting his life after being released from prison.
Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots star in director Riley Sterns’ “The Art of Self-Defense,” the story of a man who takes up martial arts. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a wrestling-themed story starring Shia LeBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
Actor-director Tom Cullen’s relationship drama “Pink Wall” stars Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass, while Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell star in “Sword of Trust,” the latest from indie stalwart Lynn Shelton.
The documentary spotlight section includes a pair of provocative political docs: Troy Miller’s “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” the comedian’s first concert film, which also looks at the controversy that surrounded her following a notorious photograph depicting President Trump, and David Modigliani’s documentary “Running With Beto,” which follows Texan Beto O’Rourke on his campaign to unseat Ted Cruz form the U.S. Senate.
Among the festival’s music-centric 24 Beats Per Second section is “The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story,” Aaron Kunkel’s documentary on the disgraced music manger.
Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg will screen a portion of their upcoming Showtime docu-series “Shangri-La,” a look at the creative process of acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin, as a work in progress.
The full lineup is available on the festival’s website. Further titles will be announced in early February ahead of this year’s festival, which takes place March 8-17 in Austin, Texas.
“From a programmer's standpoint, every year it gets harder, in a way, because there's more good work,” said Pierson. “We are really, really happy with our program. This is just tremendous work here, but we turned away a ton of stuff that's really strong. I'll be curious to see how those films do work their way into getting their audiences.”