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South by Southwest film program announced; festival runs March 11-19

South by Southwest film program announced; festival runs March 11-19
Mike Birbiglia, counterclockwise from upper left, Tami Sagher, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard and Kate Micucci in Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice." (Jon Pack / South By Southwest Film Festival)

The features lineup for this year's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival is a typically unpredictable group of films that leans toward the eclectic and unusual. With their program announcement released Tuesday, the Austin, Texas-based festival, which this year runs from March 11 to 19, looks to maintain its position on the festival calendar as a home for fresh talent and outsider voices.

Among the titles in Tuesday's release are comedian Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice," featuring Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs and himself;  Jean-Marc Vallee's "Demolition," starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts; John Michael McDonagh's "War on Everyone," starring Michael Peña,  Alexander Skårsgard and Tessa Thompson; Ti West's "In a Valley of Violence," starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta; and Jesse Moss' "Bandit," a documentary look at the friendship between Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham and the making of "Smokey and the Bandit."

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Previously announced titles include the opening-night world premiere of Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some" and John Lee's "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday," featuring Paul Reubens' return to his signature character. Other announced titles include Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special"; Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Chevalier"; Taylor Brodsky's true-crime documentary "Beware the Slenderman"; and Joe Berlinger's documentary "Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru."

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For the Record
Feb. 2, 2:45 p.m.:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the name of "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday" director John Lee as Jeff Lee.

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An additional program announcement is expected on Feb. 9.

Though this year's lineup may on first glance lack such obvious crowd-pleasing titles, such as last year's "Trainwreck" or "Spy," Janet Pierson, head of SXSW Film, points out, that films such as those by Linklater or Nichols are still major studio releases.

"It's so interesting this year that our studio films happen to be from the kind of filmmakers who come more from the independent world," Pierson said in a phone call from Austin this week.

Every year festival programmers are asked to sift through their lineup in search of new themes, and for Pierson this year represents continuity rather than change.

"I don't know if anything is new this year except for our commitment to discovery and fresh voices. Which isn't new, it's a continuation," Pierson said. "Every year it gets harder as there are more and more alums that we love. But in a lot of cases we opted for new voices. We're very committed to that.

"It's not easy, there's no easy trend," she added. "Some years they jump out at me, and this year I was staring at the board trying to think of how do I answer this question when it comes up."

The festival will feature 139 feature films, including 52 from first-time filmmakers, and 89 world premieres. The selection comes from more than 2,400 feature films submitted.

The 10 films in the narrative feature competition are all world premieres and include "The Arbalest, directed by Adam Pinney; "Before the Sun Explodes" from Debra Eisenstad; "Claire in Motion," directed by Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell; "collective: unconscious" by Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker and Lauren Wolkstein; "Donald Cried," directed by Kris Avedisian; "Hunter Gatherer, directed by Josh Locy; "Miss Stevens," directed by Julia Hart; "The Other Half" from Joey Klein; "A Stray" from Musa Syeed; and "Transpecos," directed by Greg Kwedar.

We're interested in anything that's interesting.


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The 10 films having their world premieres as part of the documentary competition are "Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America," directed by Matt Ornstein; "Alive and Kicking," directed by Susan Glatzer; "Best and Most Beautiful Things," directed by Garrett Zevgetis; "Goodnight Brooklyn -- The Story of Death By Audio," directed by Matthew Conboy; "The Liberators," directed by Cassie Hay; "Orange Sunshine," directed by William A. Kirkley;  "Ovarian Psycos," directed by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle; "The Seer," directed by Laura Dunn; "The Space in Between -- Marina Abramovic and Brazil," directed by Marco Del Fiol; and "TOWER," directed by Keith Maitland.

Julia Hart will be premiering her feature directing debut "Miss Stevens" as part of the competition. Though she had previously been to Austin for the local Fantastic Fest in the fall with "The Keeping Room," a film she wrote, this will be Hart's first time attending South by Southwest.

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"I've always wanted to go. I've gotten the sense that it's an innovative and inclusive festival," Hart said.

"I am more than a little excited that my first film will be premiering at a festival run by a woman," Hart noted via email. "I feel honored to be added to the list of female filmmakers whose work SXSW has championed."

Actor Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham on set during filming of "Smokey and the Bandit" in 1976. The new documentary "The Bandit" looks at their longtime friendship.
Actor Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham on set during filming of "Smokey and the Bandit" in 1976. The new documentary "The Bandit" looks at their longtime friendship. (Universal Pictures)

Among other world premieres announced Tuesday are Sophie Goodhart's "My Blind Brother," starring Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate and Zoe Kazan; Linas Phillips' "Rainbow Time," starring Melanie Lynskey, Phillips and Jay Duplass; Clay Liford's "Slash," starring Michael Johnston, Michael Ian Black and Missi Pyle; and Ben Brewer and Alex Brewer's "The Trust," starring Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood and Jenny Lewis.

"In a Valley of Violence" filmmaker Ti West has had numerous films premiere at the festival, starting with his 2005 debut feature "The Roost," and he expressed excitement at returning to the event.

"What better place to premiere a western than Texas?" West said this week. West credits the festival's early support in providing his films with appreciative audiences and giving him the boost he needed to continue.

"It's really hard to express just how meaningful that is to a filmmaker unless you experience it yourself," said West. "South by Southwest was the first big festival to really showcase micro-budget films and filmmakers, and without them taking those kinds of chances I wouldn't have a career today."

Zach Clark will be premiering a film at the festival for the fourth time when he appears with his new "Little Sister." Clark was even at the festival before he had a film of his own, first attending in 2006 for a film he edited, Aaron Katz's "Dance Party U.S.A."

"I think 75 people showed up for our world premiere and that felt amazing," said Clark this week. "You could make a movie for no money and people would take it seriously, who knew?"

SXSW was also among the first film festivals to give attention to new television programs, going back to when it first premiered Lena Dunham's "Girls" in 2012. Now it has become quite common for festivals to premiere series work made for television or streaming.

"It feels great we were there early," said Pierson, "but it was a little inevitable too."

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This year five series will have their world premieres during the festival. The supernatural "Preacher," directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and starring Dominic Cooper, will play, as will "Vice Principals," from the creative team of Danny McBride, Jonah Hill and David Gordon Green.

"Outcast," directed by Adam Wingard, who made "You're Next" and "The Guest," will also premiere in the television section. "Search Party," starring Alia Shawkat," is written and directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, who won the festival's feature competition in 2014 with their "Fort Tilden." John Scott Sheperd's "You Me Her" will also premiere.

While the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival was marked by a frenzy over unprecedented sales deals and a buying spree from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, Pierson notes that SXSW defines itself by different terms.

"We define success basically on how strong the work is, how well received it is, and even more so by what kind of experience the filmmakers have within their own community," Pierson said. "One of the things we hear over and over again is, 'I met the collaborators of my film this year while I was at the festival two or three years ago.' There's this alchemy where people meet really significant other people. And we love that, we're sort of an inspirational melting pot. That's how we define success, not by the conventional acquisitions market."

Put more succinctly, Pierson defined the mission of the festival when she said, "We're interested in anything that's interesting."

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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