Soon after its 1987 founding, South by Southwest emerged as one of the nation's top showcases for off-the-beaten-track music. Now the festival has turned into a very different kind of launchpad -- for the often raunchy youth-appeal comedies that have become one of Hollywood's biggest profit centers.
Over the last few years, Universal has premiered its sex romps "Knocked Up" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" at the annual Austin-based gathering, while Sony traveled to Texas to introduce "21," a gambling drama than went on to become a surprising box-office hit.
To open this year's festival on Friday, Paramount will premiere its bromantic comedy "I Love You, Man." Warner Bros. is taking its dark mall cop comedy "Observe and Report" and Universal will bring in a rough cut of its Sam Raimi horror movie "Drag Me to Hell" and screen three scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy "Bruno."
"I've been to different festivals, Cannes or Venice or places like that, and it's always quote-unquote prestige movies," says Donald De Line, a producer of both "Observe and Report" and "I Love You, Man." "This idea of a place that really embraces comedy is really fresh and a really needed thing."
Among North American festivals, Sundance excels at sparking interest in independently financed titles, particularly offbeat comedies such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Napoleon Dynamite." Telluride is better known for presenting award-caliber endeavors, including "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Capote." Toronto gravitates toward bigger-budgeted crowd-pleasers, including George Clooney's "Michael Clayton" and Jodie Foster's "The Brave One."
South by Southwest, which added its film programming component in 1994, has a slightly different identity: movies that young people can't resist.
Thanks to its concentration of both film lovers (Austin's creative community includes filmmakers Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and Mike Judge) and an abundance of college-age kids (the University of Texas is based there), South by Southwest also can support a number of ambitious art films.
IFC Films, the distributor of "Che" and "Gomorrah," will introduce in this year's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival (running March 13-21) five low-budget works that will premiere simultaneously at the festival and through IFC's video-on-demand services. Snag Films, a free online streaming site dedicated to nonfiction films, concurrently will introduce on its website and at South by Southwest the immigration documentary "The Least of These."
One of the IFC releases generating the most attention from the fervent cineastes is the latest"The Least of These." from writer-director Joe Swanberg, who is in many ways the star pupil of South by Southwest's micro-budget filmmakers.
All five of Swanberg's features have had their world premiere at the festival. This year he returns to Austin with "Alexander the Last," an ensemble drama about a young married couple grappling with love and temptation. It's Swanberg's first film to feature professional actors (including "Teeth's" Jess Wexler) and has "The Squid and the Whale's" Noah Baumbach as a producer.
"In 2005, when my first movie was there, I really had to explain to people what South by Southwest was," says Swanberg.
"I remember being really excited, telling people we were going to premiere at South by Southwest and having people say, 'Isn't that a music festival? I didn't know they showed movies.' And that's not the case at all anymore."
A hive for buzz
Says Arianna Bocco, IFC's vice president for acquisitions and production: "There are definitely a lot of hard-core movie fans there. And there are a lot of early adopters -- people who will talk and blog and Twitter about movies they have seen and say, 'You have to go see this movie.' "
It's precisely the festival's talent for initiating word of mouth that attracts the studios, much as they now flock to Comic-Con to jump-start momentum for fanboy flicks like "Watchmen" and "Iron Man."
"South by Southwest is a place that can equally embrace indie and mainstream material, with a big love of comedy," says Adam Fogelson, Universal's head of marketing and distribution.
Fogelson says he is particularly impressed by how much online attention a good film can generate mere minutes after its South by Southwest premiere. "If you have something that plays, the pickup is instantaneous. And that can be a very effective part of an overall campaign."
Valerie Van Galder, the co-president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment, says that unlike industry-heavy festivals like Sundance and Toronto, South by Southwest remains audience-driven. She says South by Southwest chatter can be more influential because it radiates from the middle of the country out, rather than the other way around. The coolness, in other words, is authentic, not manufactured.