LOS ANGELES — They don’t have much in common — the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” the independent film on aging “That Evening Sun,” and the upcoming comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass” — except for the same U.S. premiere location: The South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival.
Coming halfway between Sundance and Cannes, the Austin, Texas, gathering grows in importance every year. Starting Friday, the 17-year-old festival, anchored by its older, overlapping music festival, has turned into an increasingly eclectic blend of oddball studio fare, genre films and micro-budget indies, with its largely local audience welcoming pretty much whatever programmers throw at them.
“It’s a unique festival,” says Jason Constantine, the president of acquisitions and co-productions for “Kick-Ass” distributor Lionsgate, which is taking Matthew Vaughn’s darkly humorous reworking of Mark Millar’s comic to Austin for its world premiere. “There’s not an official film market there, so it’s all about fans and filmmakers interacting with their fans. There’s a real passion for artistry — filmmaking and music and the cross-pollenization of the arts.”
The festival has been a launching pad for such studio comedies as “I Love You, Man” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and was largely responsible for spawning “mumblecore,” the low-budget indie sub-genre often focusing on middle-class romantic complications represented this year by “Cyrus,” the first studio production for two of the style’s leading lights, Mark and Jay Duplass.
In part because of the interactive conference and numerous panels that occur around the festival, South by Southwest also has been a vital think tank for burgeoning new ideas about film distribution. Last year, the festival showed a handful of films that were simultaneously available through video-on-demand services, a program being repeated again this year and an idea that has been emulated by the Sundance and Tribeca festivals.
What the festival hasn’t produced yet is a high-profile sale, something like the Sundance acquisitions “Little Miss Sunshine” or this year’s “The Kids Are All Right.”
“My goal is not to follow the model of how Sundance’s success was measured,” said Janet Pierson, the producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. “The goal is to be viable and fruitful. It’s not to be defined by one film in a marketplace. And that was never Sundance’s goal either. It was the rest of the industry that imposed those other measuring sticks.”
In being more focused on audience reaction than distributor bidding wars, the festival has a more celebratory feel and isn’t judged on which films sold for how much. “I think South-By has been lucky so far not to get that,” says Ben Stambler, a producer of this year’s entry “Cold Weather” and a former acquisitions executive, “because once those expectations emerge, it’s difficult to regain control of where things go from there.”
Yet some filmmakers will head to Texas this week hoping to generate buyer interest in their movies. Keith Calder is a producer of “Thunder Soul,” a documentary about the reunion of a Texas high school funk band, which will have its world premiere on Saturday. “I don’t think any of us believe South by Southwest is really a marketplace festival,” Calder says. “To me, it’s a perfect blend of everything that makes Austin great — that you can have a festival that embraces genre films and music documentaries at the same time. It kind of breaks the mold of the traditional art-house festival.”
Typical of the smaller films premiering at the festival is “Tiny Furniture,” a story of female post-collegiate ennui playing as part of this year’s narrative feature competition. The movie marks a personal and professional leap that could only have been achieved through the support of SXSW, which played filmmaker Lena Dunham’s debut feature, “Creative Nonfiction,” in last year’s lineup.
While at the festival in 2009, Dunham not only met cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, but also her key collaborators for “Tiny Furniture,” producers Alicia Van Couvering and Kyle Martin, editor Lance Edmands and co-star Alex Karpovsky.
The festival “was really the connective tissue for my relationships with a lot of these people,” Dunham says. “I just wanted to connect with other filmmakers but I don’t think I expected it would be such a gold rush.”
(Horn is a Times staff writer; Olsen is a special correspondent.)