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South by Southwest Film turns 25: Let’s look back at some key moments

Joe Gross

Look, South By Southwest isn’t Sundance. It’s not Cannes. It’s not Toronto.

For 25 years, it’s been its own thing, a stellar venue for young and developing filmmakers to come and, as one once put it to me, “launch your weirdness.” Here are some highlights of weirdness being launched or celebrated or developed at SXSW over the years.

1. 1994 -- The first fest. You have to start somewhere

2. While “Dazed and Confused” didn’t debut at SXSW Film in 1993 because SXSW Film didn’t yet exist, know that “The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” starring one Matthew McConaughey premiered at the 1995 festival. No idea what happened to the guy afterward.

3. SXSW got its first sneak peek of a major film from a well-known quantity when John Sayles world-premiered the iconic Texas film “Lone Star” in 1996. Have you watched “Lone Star” lately? It’s still terrific, and it has that McConaughey fellow from the “Chainsaw Massacre.” (Then go see “Sunshine State” -- it’s weirdly underrated.)

4. “The original Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado Street opened just in time (in 1997) for the screening of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men.” -- from the SXSW website.

5. Having spoken at earlier conferences, Richard Linklater debuted “The Newton Boys” at SXSW 1998. That guy from that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie above was in this one also. 

6. SXSW got its first true breakout hit in 2002 with “Spellbound,” a landmark film in creative documentary, which followed several contestants in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Blessed with a wide theatrical release the year after its SXSW debut, the film went on to gross an astonishing-for-a-doc $7 million worldwide. In 2007, the International Documentary Association declared it No. 4 in its Top 25 Documentaries of all time list. (Also premiering at SXSW that year: recent Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro’s “Blade 2.”)

7. In 2003, Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” their controversial documentary about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, sold out the Paramount Theatre on closing night. A shorter version of the film had already played on British TV, but this was the first time the full, 74-minute cut had been seen by American audiences. 

8. Like “emo,” “mumblecore” is a horrible term that doesn’t really describe anything, but that was the term that ended up getting attached to three Cassavetes-looking films that debuted at SXSW Film 2005: “The Puffy Chair” by the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg’s “Kissing on the Mouth” and Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation.” 

All those filmmakers went on to bigger things: Bujalski’s “Support the Girls” screens this year, and his 2013 “Computer Chess” will eventually be recognized for the weird little masterwork it is; Swanberg has gone the Rainer Werner Fassbinder route and cranked out 17 feature films and a Netflix TV series since 2005; and the Duplass brothers got really famous as directors and producers in addition to playing insufferable people in well-made TV shows (see also “Transparent” and “Togetherness”).  The work ethic of all four people is to be admired.

9. Judd Apatow premiered “Knocked Up” here in 2007. Apatow had already made the smash hit “The 40-Year old Virgin” in 2005, so he was on his way to being Judd Apatow, massive-influencer-of-film-comedy-for-good-and-ill, but “Knocked Up” did launch Seth Rogen as more than a guy everyone remembers for being a genius on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” 

This also started the trend of having Apatow or Apatow-style comedies playing the fest. See also “Bridesmaids,” “Neighbors,” “Spy” and “Trainwreck” 

10. Two notable director debuts happened at the 2008 fest. “Nights and Weekends” was co-directed by Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, the latter of whom was recently nominated for an Oscar for “Ladybird.” Also debuting that year was Barry Jenkins, who world-premiered his feature-length debut “Medicine For Melancholy.” His next feature, “Moonlight,” won a best picture Oscar for 2016.

11. We’re into the era of a good SXSW screening as potentially star-making for creatives, and there’s no bigger SXXW success story than Lena Dunham, whose “Creative Nonfiction” debuted at SXSW in 2009. Here she met future collaborators for 2010’s “Tiny Furniture,” which won the Best Narrative Feature prize. Some of the same people with whom she worked on that film worked with her on “Girls,” which was SXSW’s first episodic debut in 2012.

12. In 2011, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary “Undefeated” world-premiered at SXSW. It went on to win the Oscar for best documentary. 

This was also the year of Joe Cornish world-premiering “Attack the Block,” which launched the career of future Stormtrooper John Boyega; Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” screening as a work-in-progress; and, last but far from least, Andrew Haigh’s ground-breaking love story “Weekend.” Haigh -- who directed Charlotte Rampling in an Oscar-nominated performance  in “45 Years” -- returns to SXSW this year with “Lean on Pete.”

13. Also important in 2011: the implementation of the red-yellow-green status board to let film-goers know if a particular screening featured plenty of open seats (green), was filling fast (yellow) or was full (red). SXSW has since extended the system to cover panels and music showcases on the SXSW GO app. 

13. Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” world-premiered at the 2013 festival, an excellent film with a confusing title that might be best know as Brie Larson’s breakout role. (She had actually been seen the year before in “21 Jump Street,” which world-permiered at SXSW.)

14. 2014 was when episodics really took hold, with frequent Austinite Mike Judge’s HBO series “Silicon Valley” world-premiering. Also bowing that year: former Austinite Rob Thomas’s “Veronica Mars,” a silver screen sequel to his TV show.

15. Ah, 2015, the year the exclusive stuff leveled up: “Furious 7” had a sneak peek, as did footage from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” 

16. One of the more important Texas premieres for a movie about Texas took place in 2016, when Austin filmmaker Keith Maitland’s excellent “Tower,” about the 1966 UT tower shootings, bowed at SXSW. It was based on an article by Austinite and then-Texas Monthly writer Pam Colloff.