Cinema | No Austin-tation: South by Southwest gives the film-fest experience a populist spin 

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You know how, when you’re a kid, you assume all families are more or less like yours, and then you spend the night at a friend’s house and discover that your family is actually peculiar in some ways? That’s how it was for me when I went to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival for the first time in 2006. Having been to Sundance every year since 2000, I’d grown used to thinking that the way they did things was simply how all fests did them. But, it turns out there are significant differences between Robert Redford’s snowy slice of Hollywood and Austin’s barbecued blast of Tinseltown.

SXSW is most famous for its indie-rock music festival, which has been around for two decades and overlaps the film fest by a few days. Consequently, while the film festival (launched in 1994) always screens a few sobering documentaries, the focus is generally on lighter, more raucous fare. When Sundance shows an unabashedly raunchy comedy like this year’s Choke, it’s a novel diversion. When SXSW shows Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, as they did at the just-wrapped 2008 edition, it’s par for the course. For that matter, SXSW had Choke, too, along with the Judd Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Sundance has endured a lot of criticism in recent years about its gradual drift from independent films to more mainstream, studio-funded films. There’s some validity in those complaints—along with some unproductive whining—and, as a result, when Sundance shows something flagrantly commercial with a big studio logo on the front, festival programmers get either sheepish or defensive about it. There are no such qualms at SXSW. They lean toward indie fare, and they strive to support do-it-yourself filmmakers but, hey, if they have a chance to screen a young-skewing crowd-pleaser like Knocked Up, as they did last year, they’re gonna take it. The SXSW audience doesn’t register nearly as much haughty disappointment in concessions as Sundance-watchers do.

A major reason for that difference in attitude is that Sundance is very much an industry festival, while SXSW is aimed at moviegoers. You don’t see nearly as many suits, insiders, or Weinsteins in Austin. Sundance wants to please serious movie-industry observers; SXSW wants to please weed-smoking 20-somethings who play Halo 3 all day. To that end, you have Austin’s legendary Alamo Drafthouse—think Brewvies, but with table service in the theater and more mischievous programmers—as the cultural heart of SXSW. At a midnight screening of Dance of the Dead, the film’s director bought a beer for everyone in the audience, and a cannon of confetti was fired from the back of the theater at the film’s climax to coincide with the explosion on the screen. Sundance seems downright stuffy in comparison.

Then again, Sundance’s age and experience give it an edge in some important categories, including organization. There is a general smoothness to Sundance’s fine-tuned operation, while SXSW frequently makes mistakes like scheduling two highly anticipated films opposite each other, and booking only one screening of each. There was an incident last week where the world premiere of actor Mark Webber’s directorial debut, Explicit Ills, was shown in a 165-seat theater, and the film’s entourage was permitted to take up 130 of those seats. At Sundance, they’d have either put the film in one of the large venues or put a cap on the number of guests the filmmaker could invite.

Sundance also has the advantage of being prestigious enough to be a trendsetter. SXSW producer Matt Dentler loves to go his own way with his fest’s programming, but he also attends Sundance and looks for films to bring to Austin. (The two fests overlapped on about a half-dozen titles this year.) Everyone in the festival world watches to see what Sundance does, even if it’s so they can do something else. SXSW has its strong suits, and it’s a solid festival on its own. But the fact is, if you gave a filmmaker the option of premiering at one or the other, he’d choose Park City over Austin almost every time simply because Sundance is the name you’d prefer to have on your résumé.

Still, I love SXSW. Let’s face it, Park City is a terrible place to have a gigantic film festival, and January is a terrible time of year to do it. Austin is temperate, mostly flat, and offers ample parking day or night. If you could combine the best aspects of both—the fun, laidback atmosphere of SXSW with the smooth professionalism of Sundance—you’d have a super-festival that would rule the world.

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