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FILM FESTIVALS OF THE WORLD #1: South By Southwest Film Festival, Austin Texas

by Chris Parry

What makes a good film festival? What takes a series of films you've never seen before and turns them into a grandiose experience that you'll remember for decades? What's the difference between a crappy film fest and a big ol' time? In week one of a new umpteen part series, we look at one of the 'funner' film festivals in the world today, a little cinematic squaredance that the Austin folk call South By Southwest.

The South By Southwest Film Festival is part of a larger knees-up that includes a music festival that attracts hundreds of indie bands to the capitol of Texas, and an interactive festival which... doesn't.

Having been to the SXSW fest three times now, I can safely say it is one of the best ways for a film fan to have a holiday that I can imagine. Sure, in LA you can do all the 'film location' sights, and buy a crappy map o'the stars, and get your picture taken in fron of that crumbling Hollywood sign and do the Universal Studios rip-off... uh, I mean tour...

But what are you getting really? The tourist sights of L.A. are just like the sets in a Hollywood western. They look great from the outside, but go through the door and what you find is just like anywhere else you might have blown your savings.

No, for a film fan the best way to spend a vacation is to see a shitload of films. And drink a lot of beer with other people who want to see a shitload of films. And maybe watch some live music. And score with some chick from Okla... okay, maybe I should back up here.


Where it be at: Austin, Texas
When it be at: Mid March every year (12th-21st in 2004)
How expensive it be: US$150 for an 'every screening film pass' if you register for the film fest by Sept 19th. That gets you into the films and the forums, and it goes up $25 per month in price until the festival proper, when it tops out at $250. Student prices are $175.
Number of films screened: 150
Value for money: $1 per movie shown if you register early - Bargain!

What you'll see: A solid handful of movies that will be hitting major release schedules shortly afterwards (Phone Booth and A Mighty Wind, for example), loads more flicks that will get small releases... eventually (Dummy, The Eye, Bubba Ho-Tep and Cabin Fever, for example), and a whole lot more that will never be seen in public again (best not to name any examples here). Plenty of retrospectives, loads of documentaries (good ones, at that) and midnight movies that sell out quick.

Celebrity-spotting: Not really the focus of the fest. You'll hear the odd person say "I had my photo taken with Harry Knowles!", and you might catch a Robert Rodriguez or Richard Linklater hanging around town, but most celebs are 'festivaled out' from Sundance by the time SXSW comes around.

Accomodation: Plenty of local hotels within walking distance of most screening venues, from the luxurious (the Four Seasons charges $200 a night) to the basic (the La Quinta usually charges around US$100 a night for a twin share, $80 if you don't mind staying outta town - though, I wouldn't).

Transport: Easy to get to downtown from the airport - Quickshuttle will take you in for $10 or so, and it's a 20 minute trip at worst. Once you're downtown, you don't need to thin kabout transport as everything's in walking distance, though the free bus service is nice if you wanna be taken to see the building that IBM was going to make their headquarters before they decided not to. "Nice hole in the ground, bro."

Parties: Unlike Sundance and its ilk, SXSW remains very much non-industry ravaged. That means it's more fun at its core, but it also means those big parties with free booze all night are pretty tough to find. If you're lucky you'll find a screening or two where the director invites the audience to party at some bar or other, but expect a one or two free drink maximum. Booo...

Getting laid: Big opportunities for dalliances with the opposite sex (or the non-opposite, if that's your thing) because of the music festival that runs concurrently with the film fest. Actually, it takes a week for the music fest to kick in, so if you're looking to grab some tail, you might want to come out a week into the festival. And wear black.

Best venues: There's not a theater that beats the Alamo Drafthouse anywhere in the USA. The seats in this place all have a long 'bar table' in front of them where menus are placed, and as you get ready for the flick you write your food and drink orders down on a slip of paper (yes, you can get a pitcher of beer and a plate of hot wings - this is a bar with movies in it). As the film starts up, the waitresses will come along and take your orders, and about twenty minutes in they'll zip by your row and drop off all your food and drink. It's not overly expensive, the food is damn good (most of the time), and the place shows old TV ads from the 60's, trailers for 1970's kung fu movies and 1950's newsreels before the film starts, which is quite a kick.

The Paramount theater is also a neat place to watch a movie, though it looks better than it plays, with sometimes awful sound and seats that aren't the most comfortable. The art deco on the walls is a hoot though, and the balcony is huge.

Worst venues: The 'Sweatbox' - This tiny theaterette in the back of a coffee shop is some kind of crazy hot. The seating is limited, but that's no problem because the only people who bother going to this tiny hole in the wall generally know the person showing whatever film is playing there. The Millenium Youth Center is a nice facility, but it's way out in the middle of nowhere and the festival (for some reason) doesn't run buses there. Hitching and/or an expensive cab ride are the only ways home. Avoid.

Places to hang out: Take your pick. Austin is proud to call itself 'weird', and has a deep fascination with live music and great bars. Take a walk down 6th and you'll find bar after bar after bar after bar, all pumping out live music of every flavor, and all serving up the brewskis like they're going out of style. Really, at SXSW, where you go depends entirely on your favorite flavor.

Traps for young players: The locals don't know dick about the film festival. Get in a cab and tell them you want the Alamo Drafthouse and you're going to go on an unnecessary tour of the airport. The cops are no help either, and the bus drivers are more interested in showing you the sites than in getting you where you need to be. Clearly everyone in Austin is friendly, the problem is that many of them are also a little... how can I put this nicely... retarded. Especially the male folk.

No, I'm serious. Ask any Austin woman and she'll tell you - Austin guys are braindead, especially if the Longhorns are playing.
Added to all that, if you don't have a pass, get used to lining up an hour before the show - and don't even bother to do that if you want to hit an Alamo Drafthouse midnight movie. The press and passholders go in first, and that leaves room for about six people who want to buy a ticket in most of the theaters. Of course, Elvis Mitchell will be walked in, even if arrives five minutes late, but that's Elvis.

Press facilities/access: The SXSW press office are some good people. They're not ridiculously strict at who they let in as press (though they're not chumps either), but they'll make you prove your credentials. Fair enough too, as the press facilities at SXSW are very nice, and the seats to some shows fairly limited.

The real treat for the press at SXSW is the media center. They throw on about 16 cable-net computers so the press can check email, post stories and generally futz about (and there's snacks too), but for some reason they shut the press center early every night (no late-night deadline beaters here), and as soon as the music festival starts up (with almost a week of the film fest still to run), the film press are dropped like a bad habit as the music press floods on in.

That means, as soon as the film awards are announced (on the last Tuesday of the film festival), get the hell out of town. No more coverage. Cancel the last five days of accommodation, let those unseen movies go and git!

The Hollywood Bitchslap final grade for SXSW: A nice big A-. It could be even better as it earns a stronger rep, but we've sure seen a hell of a lot worse... (cough)Tribeca(cough). If you're a film fan who likes music and getting out of control after hours, and think you'll have a week off around mid-March next year, buy your pass today at

And tune in next Monday for part two in this series: The Sundance Film Festival

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originally posted: 09/16/03 14:59:58
last updated: 12/27/04 23:37:09
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