Long lines snaking around city blocks were a common sight during the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival as the Paramount Theatre became the anchor for an innovative week of programming that ended Saturday.
Final attendance figures are not yet available, but every sign pointed to a record turnout exceeding last year's 50,000 badge holders, pass holders and single-ticket buyers. The festival, which brings in a lot of money to the city, is a phenomenal event, with wonderful screenings, parties and conferences.
SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson rightly pointed out during the 17th annual festival that the screenings at the Paramount were among this year's best. On Monday night, she was ebullient about the screening of the heavy-metal documentary "Lemmy" and expressed pleasure about the packed houses at a variety of venues, including the Alamo South and the Alamo Ritz.
But it's worth noting that SXSW is a for-profit venture, unlike the similarly lauded Austin Film Festival, which takes place in October. And though SXSW might be headed for a record money-making year, this progress could be coming at a cost, especially for the fans who spend $70 for film passes and $475 for film badges, which also include admission to the conference panels.
Each night at the smaller venues such as the two Alamo theaters, dozens of people holding film badges and film passes were turned away after standing in line. (Alamo management has no control over SXSW screenings.)
The scene was much improved as the week went on: The music festival took over the spotlight when it started Wednesday, alleviating the crowd at film screenings.
But during the heavy part of the film festival, frustration of some attendees started building.
Pierson has frequently pointed out that SXSW is democratic. "We love that we're an egalitarian and democratic festival," she recently told the American-Statesman. "We've been getting a lot more attention from people who are used to a kind of entitlement, and we have to explain to them that we don't have VIP passes, VIP screenings or press and industry screenings, and that they'll just have to wait in line with everybody else."
For most people who attend the music or the film portion of SXSW, standing in line has long been part of the festival experience. "Will I get in?" is part of the excitement, to some degree. The festival makes clear the badges and passes don't guarantee admission.
As SXSW unfolded this year, however, Pierson's statement about democracy deserved a closer look, especially at the smaller venues, where seats were reserved for filmmakers and journalists, leaving little chance for badge holders — and none for pass holders — to get in.
For example, at the Alamo South on March 12, "Leaves of Grass" had its only screening. Ninety-four seats in the 200-seat theater were reserved. Badge holder Barbara Burnham, who stood in line for an hour, was finally told she should leave, she said.
"I doubt that I will be back next year," she commented on the American-Statesman's Austin Movies Blog on Austin360.com.
Christopher Kelly, the award-winning film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and movies writer for Texas Monthly, also commented on the blog Sunday to say that he was leaving the festival early.
"Everything was overcrowded and oversold; the bigger titles were in some of the smaller venues; etc. (I barely got into a documentary about in vitro fertilization at noon today)," he wrote. "The organizers call it a 'democratic' festival, and that's a nice idea; but SXSW is only fooling itself if it thinks that's what's being practiced here. What an exhausting beatdown."
At Jo's Hot Coffee on South Congress Avenue on Monday, Pierson sat down to address concerns. She explained that most people were getting into screenings at the Paramount and the Hitachi G-Tech theater at the Convention Center, both of which have ample seating. But she acknowledged that people with film passes were getting squeezed out of the Alamo venues. She also noted, however, that the film passes clearly state that they don't guarantee entry.
Afterward, at several Paramount screenings, Pierson asked for people to hold up their hands if they were having trouble getting into theaters, and a large number typically went up. She advised that they arrive early and steer away from the smaller venues such as the Alamo if the lines were long.
As for the reserved seats, she said the filmmakers — the director, the screenwriter, stars, etc. — get 15 reserved seats that they can fill with friends, publicists, the media or whomever they want. (Critics, including this writer, are typically given film badges for free by the festival to cover panels and screenings and give attention to the event.)
Pierson said that "Leaves of Grass" star Edward Norton bought an additional 25 seats from the festival for his use. Publicists for the film, who said they were unaware of SXSW rules about reserved seats, kept the rest of the 94 seats for journalists who were scheduled to do interviews with the filmmakers after viewing and generate publicity for the movie.
When asked Monday about that night's upcoming screening of "Dance With the One," which has garnered a lot of local interest because of its ties to the University of Texas, Pierson said that only 15 seats had been reserved. But later, at the screening at the Alamo Ritz, an estimated two dozen people received reserved seats. The SXSW staff on hand had no comment.
When Pierson arrived shortly after, she explained that relatives of the director were at the screening, and he needed extra seats, so the staff let them in. She pointed out that all of the badge holders who were in line were going to be able to see the film.
As for the last-minute reserved seats, she explained that film festivals deal in relationships, and that her staff was trying to do what they thought was right.
When asked about the festival's relationship with the people who bought film passes and weren't going to get in to the movie, Pierson walked over to the people in line and began to tell them how the theater was full.
Most of the film pass holders started wandering off, but about a dozen who had been standing there for an hour took advantage of the opportunity to talk to Pierson directly.
"Just about everyone in this line is a local film lover," said Dick Tilghman. "And we're being shut out of the movies we want to see. If you're not corporately sponsored and cannot afford a $475 badge, then you're out of luck here. It's no longer a festival for Austinites."
Pierson was patient. She tried to explain the venue problem. She talked about SXSW efforts to get the city to renovate the damaged State Theatre on Congress Avenue. She asked whether they would mind going to films at the Long Center, if that could be arranged for future festivals. And she asked some of those in line if they had a particular movie they wanted to see.
"I want to see 'Enter the Void' later tonight," Tilghman responded, along with others. So Pierson went into the Ritz, came out with some paper tickets, and told them they would get in to the screening.
Pierson is to be commended for trying to deal with problems as they arose and for coming up with solutions, especially during such a slammed week. She was open to feedback during the week and worked hard.
However, no other film festival of SXSW's size schedules screenings in 200-seat venues where publicists, journalists, industry executives, filmmakers and jury members have no other option than to battle moviegoers for entry. The moviegoers often end up losing.
Sundance, for instance, holds press screenings to limit the rush on tickets that local and regular moviegoers want to see. It's not perfect, but it helps. The Toronto International Film Festival, the largest in North America, does the same. So does the Cannes Film Festival. Same for Berlin.
But something needs to change if SXSW continues to grow — extra screenings and larger venues would certainly help. Another option, which the music festival practiced this year, would be to make some events badge-only, especially for big movies at small theaters.
Pass holders could then make better decisions about how to spend their festival time. If there isn't a change, the festival might face a backlash — from industry professionals and the media, and most importantly, the movie lovers in our hometown.
Pierson says she is willing to listen. You may make suggestions at the e-mail address below, and they'll be forwarded to her.