MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

SXSW Direct

As the big hand sweeps past the little hand of the springy Harold Lloyd clock on my tschotske-strewn desk, I’m once again reminded that South by Southwest 2009 will open in a few, short hours. I won’t be there in person, but, this year, I’ll be able to enjoy several of the movies that will be shown there, at home in my living room, via IFC Films’ Festival Direct platform. So, will you.

It isn’t the same as being in Austin for a world premiere, of course. But, then, Austin isn’t the really same as Austin, either, with 30,000 more people than usual stumbling around the bars and chili parlors downtown.

What began as a music and media conference & festival, in 1987, has grown like Topsy into an event that now spans 10 days and includes conferences & festivals that focus specifically on film, interactive media and other converging pastimes and businesses. SXSW was timed to coincide with the Austin Chronicle’s annual music-awards ceremony, which honored such then-regional favorites as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Joey Ely Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Omar & the Howlers, Timbuk 3, Butthole Surfers, Tish Hinojosa, Poi Dog Pondering and Austin Lounge Lizards. Less heralded attractions, like Dino Lee and the White Trash Revue, Bouffant Jellyfish, Beat-O-Sonics, Whoa!Trigger and Bad Mutha Goose & the Brothers Grimm also were give their due. While the music represented Austin’s eclectic personality, the names of the up-and-coming bands reflected both the town’s party-hardy reputation and a playfulness missing in most other Texas community.

Historic 6th Street remains a Mecca for lovers of rock, country, jazz, blues and Tex-Mex, as well as a safe haven for musicians hoping to get their acts together. Its reputation as a congenial watering hole for men, horses, lobbyists and state legislators extended well past the 1970s’ heyday of the cosmic-cowboy and long-haired-redneck era. It played host not only to soldiers returning home from the Civil War, but also to Cavalry units assigned to protect the cattle grazing on Plains where the buffalo once roamed.

Over the last 22 years, the music event has grown from 700 registrants to nearly 12,000. This year, more than 1,800 acts will perform at 83 venues. It is the music-industry’s version of the annual NFL Scouting Combine, where college athletes demonstrate their skills in front of more than 600 assessors of football talent. Essentially the same process informs the SXSW Film showcase.

Launched in 1994, the fest’s film and interactive components now attract nearly as many registrants as the musical one (the events’ schedules overlap each other). SXSW ’09 is expected to attract some 7,000 registrants, all intending to wade through as much of the 270-film schedule as possible, in hopes of discovering the next Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 21 or, on a smaller scale, Hannah Takes the Stairs, all of which debuted here. More importantly, perhaps, industry pros will be on the lookout for hints of emerging talent among the many actors and directors on display, so as to sign them before anyone else does. At least 900 members of the entertainment- and celebrity-based media will be there to add to the mishigas. SXSW Film didn’t really come into its own until 2005, or thereabouts, but it’s often mentioned now in the same breath as Sundance.

It would be easy to lump SXSW in with other movie powwows that started small and hip, but ended up fat and lazy after becoming beholden to Hollywood for its hit attractions and Entertainment Weekly for free publicity. After all, what began as a cozy gathering of musical tribes and Tobe Hooper-wannabes – smaller than most of Willie Nelson’s legendary Fourth of July parties – has evolved into a massive, unavoidable media beast, as a reporter for Canada’s National Post observed last year.

That, however, is essentially what SXSW planners had in mind all along. It’s the media that confuses it with community-sponsored festivals, at which the public enjoys almost the same access as the pros. SXSW Inc. is a privately held entertainment company, based in a city officially trademarked Live Music Capital of the World by its Convention & Visitors Bureau, an organization that concerns itself with filling 29,000 hotel rooms on a sustainable basis. The company also is involved in North by Northeast (NXNE), an event held in Toronto in late spring in association with an alternative newsweekly there. So, any complaints I might have about the Texas-sized hype machine powering the festivals is completely beside the point. Let the fun begin.

Athletes, musicians and crooked politicians may garner most of the media attention in Austin, but the local paparazzi also keep abreast of the movements of such locals as Sandra Bullock, Richard Linklater, Terence Malick, Matthew McConaughey, Farrah Fawcett, Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Renee Zellweger and at least one gentleman formerly known as The Bachelor. Among other filmmakers-made-good, Wes Anderson and Robert Rodriguez attended UT’s well regarded cinema department.

As at any other major festival, though, plenty of imported stars will be in attendance at screenings, photo ops, parties, swag shops, panels, hit-and-run interviews and on the red carpet. If recent events in Toronto, Sundance and Cannes are any indication, the press will pay more attention to them than all the music, movies and video games combined. Sadly, that’s become the nature of the festival beast.

This month’s hype will translate into higher registration numbers next year and greater ticket sales when the films finally open. Studio, personal and festival publicists will hover like tiny little bees, creating buzz for their clients and making sure they allot sufficient interview time and sparkling smiles to the media that count. Meanwhile, publications from Vanity Fair and Vogue, to OK! and the National Enquirer, use the free access to celebs to update their photo inventories and shows such as Entertainment Tonight and Extra! rush around gathering all the vapid sound-bites they can. To them, the movies are the least exciting aspects of any festival. Hell, they’re going to plug them the big ones, anyway, regardless of their artistic value.

Critics always complain to their readers about having to deal with tortuous eyestrain and fatigue, as well as the pressure that comes from having to choose which movies are must-sees. Some even insist on instantly blogging and Twittering their opinions of movies that will open months down the road, if ever. Information overkill is reaching epidemic proportions. We commoners can surely wait the few days it would take for a more reasoned and contextualized chronicle of a festival’s high and low points.

It would be nice to think that the consensus approval of the assembled critics would be sufficient reason for a distributor to pick up a buzz-worthy indie title. Most of the big players in Hollywood have become far more interested in finding review-proof movies than wasting energy on another low-profile arthouse project.

I’ve sat on a few juries and been sorely disappointed when the award-winners fail to find a buyer, simply due to the prohibitive cost of making prints and marketing the darn things. When a deserving low-budget picture – in my case, a Manito or Dallas 362 — manages to scratch its way to the surface, there’s usually at least one horror story attached to it, as well. Miramax would buy a lot of festival favorites, then hold on to them as if they were bottles of fine wine. Even if the money covered the filmmakers’ expenses, they were left with nothing to show for their efforts … unless, of course, they traveled to Bulgaria or Malaysia, where someone else owned the rights. After the Weinsteins’ bitter exit from the Mickey House, Disney elected to cut their losses by dumping a lot of very decent movies – many with A-list talent attached — into the straight-to-DVD market without any fanfare, whatsoever.

Like you, I’ve repeatedly had my hopes for a particular movie raised by premature profiles, rave reviews and reports of blockbuster deals, only to be disappointed when it turned out not to be that hot. The blame for such disappointment belongs less to the reporters and critics covering the festival than on editors who demand lots of sexy copy from their correspondents, in return for the privilege of winning the assignment. Now that the media have fallen in love with the blogosphere, reporters are required to blog or Twitter their musings on meals, the weather, head colds and hotel rooms as soon as is humanly possible. The same thing happens at sporting events, political conventions and the TV Critics Tour.

OK, fanboys, geeks and data junkies love to parse to such scribbling. Otherwise, who cares?

It would be better if the reporters were deemed qualified to separate the real news from trivia, just as they are assumed capable of the wheat from chaff on the big screen. If a particular title, actor or director rises above the crowd, there would be plenty of time for a salute in wrap-up columns. Parties that take place 12,000 miles away from the home office rarely are any more interesting than those staged 200 miles and routinely ignored for lack of money or interest. If there were a chance that a party or reception might suddenly become headline-worthy, the sponsors probably wouldn’t have invited the media, anyway.

Now that technology has caught up with the masters of spin, it’s possible that the meek will inherit the box-off … or a small part of it, anyway. For instance, anyone whose interest was piqued by David Denby’s piece in the New Yorker on the Mumblecore movement not only can rent – and, in some cases, download – representative titles from Netflix and Facets, but also attend the world premiere of the niche’s newest entry, via IFC Festival Direct. Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last is one of five IFC pictures that are being made available, day-and-date, to fest-goers and couch-warmers, alike. It also will be shown on-demand for the next 90 days on several major cable services. As is typical with Swanberg’s films, a theatrical release will follow.

This is IFC Films’ third movie with Joe … all of them debuted at (SXSW) and they did well in theaters and on-demand, said Ryan Werner, the company’s vice president of marketing and publicity. Joe feels that his most effective publicity derives from festival appearances. The kind of exposure we get helps us keep the marketing costs down when they open in theaters.

The publicity material describes Alexander the Last as a sensual and intimate portrait of a young marriage. It focuses on a young, artistic couple … illuminating the challenges of monogamy amidst myriad sexual and creative temptations. That blurb makes it sound far more mainstream than it any Mumblecore product should be, however.

Swanberg draws a general outline for his actors before inserting their characters into situations that will be instantly recognizable to today’s generation of post-college-age urbanites, if not their parents (unless they were fans of Henry Jaglom’s free-form ensemble pieces). Like the people on the screen, the target audience will be comprised of people who have postponed their entrance into adulthood, hoping something better will come along to save them from getting a full-time job. They spend a great deal of time in cafes that offer free wireless access, exchanging IM messages with friends in far-flung places, and getting buzzed on highly caffeinated beverages. As they do on a daily basis, anyway, fans of such minimalist fare have less difficulty putting up with the inarticulate chit-chat and unresolved crises than others in their peer group, who prefer car chases, explosions and plots. Swanberg, who also produces webisodic entertainment for IFC’s webstite, does have a gift for the sensual and intimate stuff, though.

Alexander the Last may be the first of Swanberg’s four features to have highly recognizable actors in key roles. Jane Adams (The Anniversary Party, Frasier) and Josh Hamilton (Third Watch) are joined by Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs and Amy Seimetz. Most of the actors employed by Swanberg and fellow niche-sharers Andrew Bujalski and Aaron Katz are newcomers or familiar primarily from one-shot appearances on various Law & Order series. Greta Gerwig, the sneaky-sexy blond star of Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs, has a shot at making the A-list, however,

Given the cult appeal of Mumblecore films, it’s likely that the simultaneous screenings will generate chatter on movie-centric blogs and social networks. As in real life, laptop computers are the communications medium of choice for the characters in Alexander the Last. The idea of using multiple platforms to launch a movie, while foreign to distributors of Hollywood fare, makes a lot of sense to those who already are conversant with modern technology. Instantaneous gratification is the name of that tune.

Steven Soderberg got the ball rolling in April, 2005, when he announced that six of his forthcoming films would be shot on hi-def and debut simultaneously on the HDNet, DVD and in theaters. The first, Bubbles, was a decidedly artsy picture that didn’t attract much attention in theaters. According to Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet, Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Pictures, the $1.6-million supernatural drama was ordered by 500,000 cable subscribers and it performed as expected.

Soderbergh has been focusing his attention elsewhere, since then, but he remains a proponent of HD and 3D technology, as well as alternate delivery systems. Both halves of his Che were made available on the IFC In Theaters on-demand service, simultaneously with the date of their limited theatrical release, as were Gomorrah, Hunger, A Christmas Tale and Dog Eat Dog.

The more familiar or controversial titles, like Che and Gomorrah, tend to do well in both places, Werner said. IFC Festival Direct also offers a full lineup of independent movies that have done well at the festivals – In a Day and Beautiful Ohio, for example — but might not have been shown, otherwise, except on DVD. All filmmakers want their pictures shown on the big screen … some, like Joe, just want them to be seen.

Another Festival Direct title that comes with a pedigree is Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy. It was nominated for a pair of Independent Spirit Awards (Best Cinematography, First Feature) and the Someone to Watch Award. It’s described as a love story of bikes and one-night stands told through two African-American twenty-somethings, dealing with the conundrum of being a minority in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. The boys-night-out dramedy, Three Blind Mice, feels like an Aussie version of Hal Ashby and Robert Townes’ The Last Detail.

Joe Maggio’s poignant Paper Covers Rock describes the struggle faced by a fragile young woman to regain custody of her 6-year-old daughter. Jeannine Kaspar gives a heart-breaking portrayal of the troubled mom, who was institutionalized after the girl interrupted a suicide attempt. Maggio asks us to consider whether the woman, with whom we naturally sympathize, would ever be the right parent to raise such a sharp kid. The other movie in the package is the Bulgarian neo-noir, Zift, in which a man jailed shortly before the communist coup of 1944 is paroled into totalitarian Sofia of the 1960s. His first night of freedom is harrowing enough to make the man wish he were back in prison.

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– Gary Dretzka
January 16, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon