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Female filmmakers take the spotlight at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival

Female filmmakers take the spotlight at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival
John Cena, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz in a scene from "Blockers." Directed by Kay Cannon, the film has its premiere as part of the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival. (Universal Pictures)

From "Bridesmaids" to "Baby Driver," the South by Southwest Film Festival has become known as a launching pad for broad comedies and out-there genre fare often disregarded by other fests. But that reputation overlooks the way in which South by Southwest has long been a vital platform for the discovery of new talent, unknowns about to become somebodies.

The 25th edition of the Austin, Texas-based film festival, which kicks off Friday and runs through March 17, also marks the 10th year for the festival's director of film, Janet Pierson.

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The festival has introduced such notable filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Gareth Edwards, Andrew Haigh and Joe Swanberg, but has arguably been even more influential by creating a space for female auteurs including Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Stella Meghie, Amy Seimetz and Ry Russo-Young.

Eight out of 10 of the films in the festival's narrative competition this year are directed by women, from debuts such as Nijla Mu'min's "Jinn" and Olivia Newman's "First Match" to the return of veteran Stacy Cochran ("Boys," "My New Gun") with "Write When You Get Work."

"I'm certainly proud of the work, but it hasn't been our talking point," Pierson said of the festival's ongoing support of female filmmakers. "Of course it's women and it's also everybody who doesn't have an easier seat at the table. You've got gender, you have race, you have privilege and geography, and you have age.

"Those kinds of distinctions are part of the puzzle," she added, "It's also very important for us to think about films that are made for no money, to take a chance on emerging talent as well as films that are fully realized and made with stars and support."

The festival opens with the world premiere of "A Quiet Place," directed and co-written by John Krasinski making a step into genre thriller territory after the dramedy tone of his previous directing efforts. The film, which Paramount will release nationwide on April 6, stars Krasinski, Emily Blunt and "Wonderstruck" breakout Millicent Simmonds in the story of a family forced to live in silence by mysterious creatures that hunt by sound.

Elvire Emanuelle in a scene from "First Match."
Elvire Emanuelle in a scene from "First Match." (Netflix)

Saturday night's headliner is the world premiere of "Blockers," the feature directing debut of Kay Cannon, who wrote all three "Pitch Perfect" films and was a producer on "30 Rock." "Blockers," which Universal will also open on April 6, stars Leslie Mann and John Cena in a story of a group of parents determined to stop their teenage daughters from following through on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

"Blockers" comes from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's production company Point Grey Pictures, which was behind previous SXSW premieres "The Disaster Artist," "Sausage Party" and "Neighbors." Cannon acknowledged that she was excited to have an R-rated commercial comedy, which might seem an unlikely selection for a prime spot at most other festivals, have its premiere at SXSW.

"Although I would have never have thought this movie would play at a festival, I'm glad it is because the intention behind it is to show what the movie really is and hope that when people see it they'll spread the word," said Cannon. "It's not just this raunchy sex romp. It's really about parents letting go of their kids and young women having agency over their sexuality and making decisions for themselves as they enter adulthood. It's got some heavier issues at play."

Other titles showing in the festival's headliners section are Shana Fest's "Boundaries" and the closing night North American premiere of Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs," which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival and opens theatrically March 22 from Fox Searchlight. Playing among the festival favorites section are a number of films that premiered earlier this year at Sundance, including social satires "Blindspotting" and "Sorry to Bother You," the Robert Pattinson comedy "Damsel," the female filmmaker documentary "Half the Picture" and Fred Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor."

One of the most anticipated premieres of the festival is Julia Hart's sci-fi drama "Fast Color," starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in the narrative spotlight section. Hart's debut as writer-director, "Miss Stevens," premiered at the festival in 2016 and featured a then-unknown Timothée Chalamet. Also in the narrative spotlight is the return of Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Bujalski with the female-driven "Support the Girls," starring Regina Hall. In the documentary spotlight section, Anthony Wonke's "The Director and the Jedi" offers a behind the scenes look at the making of Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

SXSW was also among the first festivals to feature television work in their program, and this year includes the premieres of Bill Hader's HBO comedy series "Barry" and the long-awaited TBS series "The Last O.G." created by Jordan Peele and starring Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish.

Newman's competition entry "First Match" is a drama about a Brooklyn girl fighting for a spot on her high school's boys wrestling team. "First Match" was financed by Netflix and will be released by the streaming platform at the end of March, which makes Newman all the more grateful to be playing to audiences at SXSW in particular.

"My film would be easy to overlook because it doesn't have huge name stars and it's not for sale," said Newman. "No one would be clamoring to see it necessarily because there isn't that kind of big pull. So I'm hoping that at South-By it finds a broader audience of people who are just looking for interesting stories."

Another narrative spotlight premiere is the New Zealand comedy "The Breaker Upperers," written and directed by Jackie van Beek and Madeline Sami. Executive produced by "Thor: Ragnarok" director Taika Waititi, the film stars Van Beek and Sami as two women who run a business assisting dissatisfied people in breaking up with their romantic partners.

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A scene from 'The Breaker Upperers," written and directed by Jackie van Beek and Madeline Sami
A scene from 'The Breaker Upperers," written and directed by Jackie van Beek and Madeline Sami (Matt Klitscher)

Both Sami and Van Beek noted how inspired they were by "Bridesmaids," which just so happened to have its world premiere at SXSW in 2011.

"I looked up at the screen and there were six women on-screen. And I thought, 'This is a turning point. Things are changing,'" said Van Beek. "I think it's absolutely vital that our perspectives are up there on screen."

"I think women just aren't accepting these things that we thought were normal," said Sami. "When I saw ['Bridesmaids'] I remember thinking, 'This is what I've been like with my friends my whole life.' I'm always around smart, funny women and I don't see that on-screen. And that's crazy."

"Galveston," French filmmaker and actress Melanie Laurent's adaptation of a novel by "True Detective" writer Nic Pizzolatto, will also premiere in narrative spotlight. Starring Elle Fanning and Ben Foster, the story combines the bleak sleaziness of Pizzolatto's worldview with a tenderness that comes from Laurent and her performers.

"Nic's idea was bigger at some point, with more bad guys and more violent scenes and I realized it's really the story about two lost souls who are trying to escape," Laurent said. "I think everything was there, it was just my vision was very precise on that and tried to transform things. We will never know, but maybe if a male director would have taken that story he would have done something very different."

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Having a festival run by a woman is not entirely unusual — both of the major festivals in Los Angeles, AFI Fest and the LA Film Festival, currently have women in top leadership roles — but the distinct perspective brought by a programmer like Pierson is noted and appreciated by filmmakers.

"We're up against all these obstacles in financing films that are directed by women and that have a non-traditional cast," Newman said. "Yes, we need more women filmmakers, we need more women directors, but we also need more women programmers, more women critics, and all across the board. And not just women, but people from all backgrounds and sexual orientation. These stories resonate differently when you have had a different world experience. So I am so grateful that Janet saw the film and that she loved it."

Last year's festival featured the premieres of "Baby Driver," "Atomic Blonde," and "The Disaster Artist" with stars and filmmakers in tow for rowdy, rollicking events. Alongside prize winners "Most Beautiful Island" and "The Work" it makes for a formidable lineup to measure up to for 2018. It's a feeling Pierson has gotten used to.

"I always go in thinking, 'Oh wow, how are we going to top that?'" Pierson said. "But it's actually about maintaining the quality. As long as we're delivering an interesting, quality experience where the filmmakers get some sort of transformational opportunity and the people attending get excited about the work, that's the goal."

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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