Listen to Austin 360 Radio

In its 17th year, SXSW Film has forged a firm identity

With a mix of Hollywood movies and indies, SXSW has become important player on festival circuit

Chris Garcia

Movie critic Joe Leydon remembers the early days of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, when some movies that screened were so amateurish "the filmmakers would have had a hard time getting their parents to watch them."

That was in the mid-1990s, when SXSW Film gave priority to Texas fare, limiting the festival with an air of provincialism. And it was just before the digital film revolution exploded, enabling aspiring filmmakers to acquire affordable cameras and shoot their movies, leading to a wider selection of quality films on the market.

Celebrating its 17th year today through March 20, SXSW Film has evolved with a rapidly changing film culture. It has branched from its roots as a refuge for low- and micro-budget movies that weren't ready for more established events, such as the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to become a destination for rising independent filmmakers to rub shoulders with Hollywood players.

Its lineup boasts major studio movies, such as "MacGruber" and "The Runaways" this year, as well as top-notch documentaries and indie features by some of the most exciting talent in the world. It's gone from a grungy, twerpy cousin of Sundance to a respectable rival with its own singular draw.

"These days at South by Southwest, on almost any given evening, you can walk into the Austin Convention Center or the Alamo Drafthouse for a film you've never heard of and be absolutely gobsmacked, truly startled by the talent, the vision and the audacity," said Leydon, a veteran critic and regular contributor to Variety magazine, who has been to every SXSW Film Festival.

"You can look at South by Southwest as mirroring the maturing of indie cinema in this country," Leydon said. "Now there are so many talented people making their first or second film, their indie labor of love, that a place like South by Southwest can really pick and choose. It has earned the cred as a major showcase. In terms of sheer variety and depth of choices, South by Southwest is second only to Sundance in America."

Along with its artistic spurt, attendance at the film festival and the concurrent film conference has jumped annually.

Fewer than 5,000 people attended the first festival and conference in 1994. That rose to 13,000 in 1995. By 1999, attendance reached almost 30,000. In 2009, it was more than 50,000, according to the festival.

This year, paid registrations for film badges are up 25 percent from last year's 7,144, organizers said.

In its early years, SXSW seemed to want to emulate Sundance, which always has been a market festival where industry types flock to acquire movies for distribution. "The programming was geared to making South by Southwest competitive with Sundance," said Matt Dentler, who was the SXSW film fest and conference producer from 2003 to 2008. "I always felt that was a fool's errand.

"If you look back at the first few years of the festival, it's very unclear what it was trying to be. I don't think people knew what to make of it before 2004 or so."

Dentler and his programmers forged an identity for the festival by grabbing small films that Sundance had passed on — including the work of newcomers Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, progenitors of so-called mumblecore films — and inviting Hollywood studios to premiere star-laden features.

"My mantra was: Let's just look for films that really excite us," Dentler said.

That included booking the Judd Apatow comedy "Knocked Up" as the festival's opening night film in 2007. The movie was a huge hit. From then on, studios viewed SXSW as a prime place to launch edgier films.

That "watershed moment in the festival's history," current SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson said, paved the way for the SXSW premieres of studio comedies "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay," "I Love You, Man" and tonight's opener, "Kick-Ass."

Some have complained that these movies compromise the original mission of SXSW as a haven for struggling filmmakers who abide by an anti-Hollywood, DIY ethos.

But organizers, including original SXSW film producer Nancy Schafer, who is the executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, contend that the larger movies bring important industry attention to the festival while satisfying a youthful and eclectic college-town crowd.

Despite carefully selected Hollywood titles, SXSW is favored by veteran festival-goers for its non-Hollywood vibe. It's a festival where "no publicists with clipboards are exerting imagined power" at parties and screenings, said Chris Gore, founder of Film Threat magazine and author of "The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide," now in its fourth edition.

Unlike more industry-driven festivals, SXSW "is unique in that you will have distributors and the press watching the film with the public under one roof," Dentler said.

"That's something we care a lot about, and it's something we're going to have to manage as we grow," Pierson said. "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.

"We love that we're an egalitarian and democratic festival. It's those aspects that define us."

The South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival

When: March 12-21

Venues: G-Tech Theater at the Austin Convention Center (501 E. Fourth St.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.); Alamo South (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.); Bob Bullock IMAX Theatre (1800 N. Congress Ave.); Carver Theater (1165 Angelina St.); The Hideout (617 Congress Ave.); Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.)

Film badge: $475, includes conference and films

Film pass: $70

Single screening tickets: $10-$12