What’s the old saying about March roaring in like a lion? In Austin this year, it seems especially appropriate: Blooming mountain laurels perfume the air with their sweet-tart aroma, bluebonnets have started to appear on the roadsides, and if you explore downtown, you’ll sense the electric buzz forming as shopkeepers, bartenders, restaurants, theaters, and hotels prepare for the wildly popular event known as the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which runs March 9-18 this year.
Last year, the event’s 25th anniversary, the festival’s official registration surged 40 percent over 2010 numbers (with a total fest attendance of 286,000 people!). Here are more impressive numbers: More than 2,000 musical acts performed on 92 stages across the city; the interactive contingent drew almost 20,000 registered attendees (from 53 foreign countries!); and the film contingent attracted more than 66,000 film fans who flocked to see 140 features and 153 shorts. According to organizers, SXSW was directly and indirectly responsible for injecting some $168 million into the Austin economy. (And these figures don’t even begin to consider the impact of the hundreds of unofficial events, concerts, parties, and attractions offered during the festival.)
For the past decade, I’ve experienced SXSW on the fringes, ducking into free day parties and big concerts at Auditorium Shores, standing in line for movie tickets, and enjoying the crush of visitors from around the world who descend upon Austin each year. But this year, I have a film pass (available in limited numbers for $70 in-store at Waterloo Records), and I plan to see as many films as my schedule allows. With 132 feature films and countless shorts and other events to choose from, these next weeks should be action-packed. (See my colleague Jane Wu’s blog for details on some of the festival’s films with Lone Star ties.)
I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the event’s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film you’ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.
“Since the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,” Pierson says. “The digital revolution has made a huge difference. In the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of films made every year; now there are thousands. When people made films in 35 millimeter, making a movie cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a long time. But thanks to digital advances, cameras became less expensive, and filmmakers could edit well on their laptops. This year, we moved the deadline for submissions up to mid-November, because the number has been steadily increasing year-to-year. This year, we received more than 5,000 submissions, a 7% increase from last year.
“As film festivals go, and I’m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. We’re neither a regional film festival nor an international film festival. We look for balance, so our films range from comedies to documentaries, dark dramas, and may feature themes as ‘small’ as two people walking down the road.”
While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a “badge event” designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says it’s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)—as long as seats are still available. “We want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,” she says. “I mean, if you don’t have a badge, you’re not going to get into the world premiere of The Cabin in the Woods (the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, the writer behind the hit TV show Lost), but you can easily see certain films at the Vimeo or Canon. Or try the Alamo South Lamar—sometimes it’s crowded and sometimes it’s not.
“We’ve vetted everything,” she told me, “and we think it’s all great. Take a chance on something you’ve never heard of. Success for us is when we’ve inspired people.”