At one point while putting together the program for this year’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, the event’s producer, Janet Pierson, almost had to stop inviting films because she was concerned there wouldn’t be anywhere for the writers, director and actors to stay. Hotel bookings were up in 2011 from the year before, and finding rooms in Austin, Texas, for this year has been even tougher.
One might think becoming too popular is just the kind of problem the organizer of any event would want.
“People say they are good problems to have,” said Pierson during a recent phone call from Austin. “It’s certainly a problem of success, but it’s not a problem you want, to be clear.”
The festival, commonly known as SXSW, starts Friday with the opening night world premiere of the inside-out genre film “The Cabin in the Woods,” the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, who cowrote the film with Joss Whedon. The festival will show 130 features over its nine-day run in 10 venues ranging from the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater to a 39-seat room at the festival’s newest venue, the local arthouse Violet Crown Cinema.
This year’s edition opens to heightened expectations because of its steadily rising profile and attendance, and the success of last year’s festival, which featured the premiere of “Bridesmaids” before it became a cultural talking-point, box-office sensation and double-Oscar nominee. Last year also had “Undefeated,” which became the first film to world premiere at SXSW and go on to win an Oscar, for documentary.
“Those aren’t the markers,” said Pierson of living up to such successes. “For me, while that stuff is great and I’m super happy about it, to me the success of a film like ‘Weekend’” — filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s gay-themed romance that was an unexpected festival hit — “that’s life-changing in a way. That’s the thing you keep in the back of your head when you’re programming: How can we help completely undiscovered, unknown talent connect with the rest of the world?”
Among the films looking to break-out this year are “Jeff,” a hybrid documentary by Chris James Thompson that explores the effect of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer on the people of Milwaukee, and “Tchoupitoulas,” the vivid exploration of nighttime New Orleans by documentarians Bill and Turner Ross.
On the narrative side, there is the freewheeling graffiti-culture comedy “Gimme the Loot,” the first feature from Adam Leon; “Leave Me Like You Found Me,” the directing debut of indie producer Adele Romanski; and Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington’s oddball fable “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”
Although SXSW may be known for its extremely indie fare, having a key role in launching the micro-budget “mumblecore” movement, organizers also have carefully cultivated a relationship to Hollywood. This year will feature the premiere of the movie adaptation/update of the television show “21 Jump Street,” with the film likely benefiting as much from the imprint of SXSW as the festival does from having stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum on its red carpet.
“It just says there might be more to this than what you expect,” said Chris Miller, codirector with Phil Lord, of premiering their roughhouse comedy at a film festival. “A ‘21 Jump Street’ movie should be met with some healthy skepticism, but I think that we’ve made something that is smarter than what you would expect and funnier than you might expect, and that South by Southwest wanted to incorporate it as part of its festival speaks to that.”
With its mix of outsider indies and smartly chosen studio films, South by Southwest has carved out a unique space in the festival landscape, with a bigger presence than smaller regional fests yet still apart from the industry-driven markets at the film festivals in Cannes, Toronto or even Sundance.
For Arianna Bocco, senior vice president of acquisitions and productions at Sundance Selects/IFC Films, the distributor who has picked up films such as “Tiny Furniture” and “Weekend” out of SXSW, it was losing out on the opportunity to distribute a low-budget genre film to a competitor that made her realize the fest had come into its own.
“I didn’t go for a couple of years,” said Bocco, who first attended more than 15 years ago, “and then I remember the year that Magnolia bought ‘Monsters’ right after the screening and I was like, ‘I can’t not be there.’ It’s reached that point where it’s competitive on all fronts.”
— Mark Olsen
Photo: Jonah Hill, left, and Channing Tatum in "21 Jump Street" Credit: Scott Garfield/Columbia TriStar