The SXSW Experience (2003)
By Erik Childress
Posted 03/27/03 06:57:34
As the seasons bleed into each other more and more each year and it takes more than a groundhog to gauge the weather in the midwest, its one welcome relief to venture from Chicago to Texas in early March. It’s the perfect mixture of Spring that the Windy City usually needs another six weeks to experience and the town (Austin) is big but still holds a sort of small-town charm. It’s the 10-year anniversary of the South by Southwest Film Festival and it’s time for the eFilmCritics and WGN Radio to team up for the second time this year to provide the most extensive coverage on the web, air, land and sea.
The HBS/EFC/WGN team consisted of Chris “Oz” Parry, Scott Weinberg and myself. Jim “The Movie Freak” Laczkowski would also be in town to cover the music fest and catch a few flicks with us. I wish I could say the week started off on a high note. By the time everyone’s flights had arrived (from Seattle, Philadelphia & Chicago) it was already 5:00 PM. It’s opening night and the press office closes at 7, so off we went. Like three guys who toss aside the instructions or refuse to ask for directions, we figured that we could find the Austin Convention Center. All we have to do is walk…that way.
Well, it was the wrong way. But we did find all the fast food joints and local dives where some of the forthcoming musicians would be playing for the music fest which is also part of SXSW. A taxi wasn’t on our mind, but a tour trolley stopped for us. We told him our destination and he said he has to finish his route and doubleback, but that he would eventually go back that direction. Good enough and we were off listening to the driver discuss the Governor’s mansion and where they fry people down in Texas. We even went past the Capitol building which we were informed was “an exact replica of the one in Washington D.C., except that it was different.” Notice the quote marks.
This is all fine and dandy tourist info, but where was the Austin Convention Center? “Oh, we passed it,” said the driver. No word of warning. No – you may want to get out here. Nothing. It was now 6:20 and God knows how far we had to backtrack. All this after he quizzed us on where we were from and why we were down in Texas. This was the first of many people hired to drive around here that would act as if they had never heard of the film festival or its locations. Scott had to literally (but politely) take the thing out of trolley speed and high-tail it to the nearest intersection where we should have been told to get off in the first place. Thankfully we made it there in time, but it did put an omen-like cramp into our first night.
THE PRESS HEADQUARTERS
HQ was located at the Austin Convention Center. You know, one of those giant buildings that only uses the far left of its vast expanse for any given convention. Kind of like Michael Moore. To compare: the Sundance HQ was in various rooms at a Marriott hotel. Upstairs, downstairs, an entire wing dedicated to individual studios. The actual credential room had everything one needed (badges, PR contacts, screeners) but was small. At SXSW, there was a carnival/bank line with multiple booths set up. Very spacious. Very organized.
You get your picture taken on the spot (mine looked like a Muppet) , you’re given a lovely little SXSW souvenir bag with everything from contacts, magazines and party invites inside. You are all set. From here you can go buy some SXSW merchandise, get help at the press desk or even check out the Sony display with the latest cameras and video equipment. Or, you can go to what we considered the crown jewel of the HQ – The Press Lounge.
We didn’t go there the first night, but its worth dedicating some time to before returning you to our Twilight Zone of an evening. The Press Lounge is set up in one of the many conference rooms upstairs. The press badge will get you past the various checkpoints set up at just about every block of the convention center. All nice people doing their job, plus we wouldn’t want those pesky NON-journalists getting through. But more on them later.
The Press Lounge is filled with computers with the sweetest flat-screen monitors we had ever seen, all with internet access for the various reporters to gather info, check their e-mail or like we would later do – posting reviews immediately. Not reports of the “hey, I saw this” Ain’t It Cool News variety, but reviews. You know – sentences, punctuation, thought. Again, very anti-AICN. The term “lounge” is well used since there’s also complimentary refreshments of the soft drink variety, info on all the movies there and how about this, our own mailbox. That’s right. There was one for eFilmCritic and one for WGN Radio. We would take advantage of these mailboxes later on. This was our home away from our hotel in-between screenings almost daily.
But back to Serlingville. Clang Clang Clang went the trolley and prevented us from making the opening night premiere of the new Woody Harrelson documentary, Go Further. We actually might have made it if we actually knew where the theater was. But, alas, there was a theater setup within the HQ and we caught another documentary instead. Didn’t matter, because there was one goal for this evening for the three of us. Catch the midnight screening of Bubba Ho-Tep.
I had seen Bubba at the Sci-Fi Flashback weekend in Chicago the previous summer and was anxious to see it again. My enthusiasm for it and the legendary pairing of Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli was enough to wet the pants of both Scott and Oz. With some time to kill, we took in some of the local cuisine (the nearest Bennigans) and prepared for an evening months in the making.
11:15 pm – We hailed a cab across the street. Alamo theater, please. The female cab driver didn’t know where it was. Those familiar with my similar experience at Sundance this year could never believe this would happen twice, except I have a pair of witnesses. We were travelling light and didn’t bring our SXSW-provided map of the area. Why should we? Surely, a cab driver would know the area, especially during a time when great revenue was being brought into its circumference. Not the case. Oz thought he had a sixth sense about where to find it, but I think it only served to get the driver more lost. We went this way and that way. Nothing but malls and residential sections.
11:25 pm – Ah, thank God. A cop. Sitting in the parking lot in front of a donut shop. No lie. I have two friends who are police officers and I’d never make a statement like that unless it was 100% true. We pulled up to him and asked for the Alamo. Do I need to tell you what his response was? I suppose there’s some comfort in the fact that there must never have been any kind of incident at the Alamo theater since the cops had no clue where it was. The irony of Texas folk failing to remember (or even forget) the Alamo either says something about education, collective amnesia or an exercise in pure denial. Whatever the case, time was getting short and we still didn’t know where to go.
11:45 pm – How we found the place I’ll never know. Partially because I put myself into a hypnotic trance as to not lose anymore faith in humanity. But we found the theater and the line for Bubba Ho-Tep. As the documentary we saw earlier didn’t boast the kind of numbers we were seeing here, we still remained a bit hazy as to how powerful our press badges were. Apparently not powerful enough to get into a sold-out theater. Not powerful enough to put a curse on the leopard-haired jackass turning people away, including New York Times’ own Elvis Mitchell. (A publicist would soon see Elvis and bring him into the theater.) The three of us didn’t have the name recognition or dredlocks to get in.
The anger didn’t have time to well up within us as we just let it all out. What good are the badges? Who the hell was Rodman out front to speak to people like that? What good are sellouts and fire hazards if Elvis Mitchell can get in? More on sellouts later. It was a long walk back to the hotel that night and our observations about this festival were not pretty. In all fairness to SXSW, this is the only time during our week there that this would happen.
The press is treated very well at SXSW. Let’s make that clear. For every screening, we have our own line and are always allowed to enter first. As long as you’re there 15 minutes before the film, there shouldn’t be a problem. Out of the six venues where screenings are held, two of them are rather small and its recommended to get there ASAP. The schedule is well-handled with plenty of time to get to most of the films unlike Sundance when periodically two major films a press member may want to cover are given press screenings at the exact same time. There’s no such thing as a “press screening” at SXSW. Every film is there for the press and the public.
Having experienced the horror of trolleys and cabs in Austin, Sundance still has the upper hand in transportation. Namely the shuttles. From venue-to-venue they go, making loop-to-endless-loop so everyone arrives on time. It helps to have strong legs and a patience for stretching them from place-to-place. For the four theaters in the downtown area, this really isn’t an issue. But for the other two, it can be quite a burden if you don’t have someone picking up the cab fare or a cabbie who doesn’t know where the hell they’re going.
THE PARAMOUNT THEATRE (713 Congress)
This glorious movie hall is enough to bring a tear to the eye of anyone fed up with soulless multiplexes and personality-free chains. With 1300 seats including a balcony, stage and the Abe Lincoln sections, this was a magnificent venue that was a no-brainer to jump on and catch whatever film was playing. The price-to-portions ratio at the refreshment bar (where you could also purchase alcohol) left a lot more to be desired, but this is the kind of theater where you were born to eat popcorn and watch movies.
ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE (409 Colorado)
Despite our disastrous introduction to this cult palace, it quickly became the Paramount’s equal in our eyes. There were only about 200 seats and it may not look like much, but anyplace that shows regular midnight shows, has a live Mystery Science Theater 3000-inspired show and where you get served food and drink during the movie is tops in my book. From burgers to pasta and pizza to desserts, you can get a pitcher of coke or one with beer and it’s the perfect place for movie lovers to gather and rejoice in unison with laughter, terror and food.
AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER (Exhibit Hall S)
Back at the HQ, there’s a auditorium setup for film screenings. Its large and spacious and makes one wonder why there’s only one setup like this here.
THE HIDEOUT (617 Congress)
If you want to see a film, press or whomever, you better get there toot sweet. It’s rampant sellouts have nothing to do with its popularity. It’s just that small. I’ve seen underground community theater with more space then this venue and if I had a film showing at SXSW, this would be like the back of the bus. About 100 seats, tightly packed (I believe portions of seats actually were on top of the one next to it) with your typical “artist” coffeehouse as the front for this speakeasy. Mostly documentaries and music video premieres played here. One of the few features they showed was one of the worst films I saw at the fest.
These four theaters practically form a parallelogram in the downtown area and are very accessible in the walking distance sense. The other two theaters are a pain-and-a-half.
REGAL CINEMA WESTGATE (4477 S. Lamar)
Nothing bad to say about this theater. It’s a good-looking multiplex and if I was an independent filmmaker it would be wonderful to get a taste of what your film would look like in an actual theater. That being said - $15 cab fare each way for a single rider. The one trip I took out there was nearly 20% of what I spent at the fest.
MILLENNIUM YOUTH ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEX (1156 Hargrave)
Before I rant about the evening associated with this location, let me just say that this was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. For kids. Imagine a place where kids of all ages can go after school to socialize or relax until their parents can come get them. I’m talking bowling, skating, video games and a movie theater. All in one place. Pretty damn cool. The theater seats a maximum somewhere between the capacity of the Alamo and Hideout, but it IS an actual theater.
NOW – this place is about as far as the Regal in the opposite direction. It’s also located in a section of town that we were told not to walk around in at night. Our venture out here was for the second screening of Bubba Ho-Tep. Scott and I were going to meet Oz and we needed a cab. Fingers crossed. Finding the cab was no problem. Finding the Millennium was déjà vu in hell. First (and again) the driver did not know where it was. Secondly, WE had to find it for him on HIS cab map. And he still didn’t know where to go. I don’t think he knew he was in Texas, frankly.
This time I put myself into a coma because it was the only thing preventing me from jumping over the seat and strangling this guy. Thankfully, through the residential area and various detours along the way the Millennium was found and I wasn’t about to see Scott and Oz get screwed out of seeing this beautiful flick again.
Mr. Don Coscarelli has been in touch with myself and radio colleague Nick Digilio since last summer. He’s been very appreciative of our support of Bubba Ho-Tep since last summer and has been using our comments on-the-air to help sell the flick. You can listen to it here (http://www.bubbahotep.com/sound/WGNRadio.mp3). Don and I had setup a chance to meet at SXSW. I had already met original story author, Joe Lansdale earlier that day and I met Bruce Campbell back in Chicago. Now it was time to meet Don.
I told the SXSW volunteer that I was supposed to meet Don before the screening and he let us in with virtually no resistance. Don was chatting with another well-known film journalist and I patiently stood aside waiting for it to end or a lull to introduce myself. No need. Don stopped the conversation himself when he spotted my badge. An incredibly pleasant guy whom we pledged our continual support to for Bubba. He promised us first knowledge of distribution news and we plan to do everything we can to help. Unlike many film journalists who are in the game to hear their own name.
WRITE OR WRONG: FILM JOURNALISM
Along with the films, music and trade shows there are all sorts of panel discussions at SXSW. Ranging from filmmaking to the internet to conferences with actors and directors, there’s a lot to hear if you disregard all the movies. The one panel we planned on attending at all costs was this one. The overview stated:
“What is the current face of film news reporting? Some of the industry’s most respected journalists will analyze the current trends in film reporting, between feature writing, news writing, and criticism. What does the film journalist look for in a film and how can filmmakers give this to them?”
Chris Gore, the editor of Film Threat, was the moderator. The panel consisted of Ann Hornaday (Film Reporter, The Washington Post), Dana Harris (Film Reporter, Variety), Chris Nashawaty (Senior Writer, Entertainment Weekly), Joe Leydon (Film Reporter, The San Francisco Examiner & Variety) and Robert Wilonsky (Pop Culture Editor, The Dallas Observer). Elvis Mitchell became a late-minute addition.
If one of those names didn’t light up your radar, then you obviously haven’t been reading our Criticwatch section at the site where we nail the quote whores and untrustworthy out there in Journalismland. Joe Leydon was on our “list” much like on Bill Paxton’s demon catalogue in Frailty. Scott, Oz and I were prepared for blood. How would the panel lean? That film journalism is good nowadays with hometown boy Harry Knowles lowering the bar for all up-and-comers? Agree or disagree, we were ready. Even on five hours sleep.
To make a long story short, the discussion pretty much sucked. Nobody on the panel looked particularly thrilled to be there (the weak turnout probably didn’t help.) The wrong questions were asked, getting off on the wrong foot by seeking out each writer’s most embarrassing moment. I was hoping Leydon would say each morning when he looked at himself in the mirror, but that was not the case. Gore left an hour in to go interview someone. An interesting tidbit was shared here and there with Dana Harris sharing a time she was told to report gossip that turned out to be 100% false or Nashawaty getting all his comments about Brad Pitt on an MTV movie show cut down to “Brad Pitt is hot.”
Leydon, with a big jolly Santa Claus-like smile on his face proudly admitted that he was a whore. We would have called him on it right there, but if you would have heard the inane, inconsequential questions being asked the panel, you would know that our bile would mean nothing to this room. If you cut down a whore in this room, nobody was likely to hear it. Oz did manage to finally get in a question (with about 5 minutes left) about what the panel thought of someone like Peter Travers who got quoted 55 times last year. The answer was basically dodged into a recap of personal experience that meant nothing. Oz did get in the last shot though when someone was asked what they get in exchange for liking something like The Adventures of Pluto Nash. He spoke out of turn and said “Eddie Murphy.” Elvis Mitchell literally fell to the floor with laughter.
We met a couple of the reporters after the panel. Ann Hornaday was charming and probably the best of the bunch. Leydon wasn’t worth our breath, since calling him a whore to his face means nothing. We later made up flyers for everyone’s press mailbox calling Travers a whore and promoting Criticwatch at eFilmCritic. We had a far more interesting conversation with Nashawaty about publicists out on the convention balcony where Scott’s penchant for tobacco opens up doors all the time. Not the least of which of when I spotted Brett Hanley, the screenwriter of Frailty, whom we promptly told it would be a pleasure to shake his hand for helping to create such a brilliant flick. It was a greater pleasure to share time talking with him about it.
We met a lot of people at SXSW like that. Sure we saw Robert Duvall, Joel Schumacher, Woody Harrelson and (gasp) Pauly Shore. But it’s the people like Hanley, Coscarelli and Eli Roth (director of Lions Gate’s upcoming Cabin Fever) that we love. If we have one purpose at these festivals, it’s to get the word out there. For better or worse, we’re not looking for scoops or gossip or offering half-assed three-sentence opinions on someone’s life work. It’s not just a responsibility. It’s what we love. Whether we’re making the flicks or getting the word out there to the public, film is the thing. We’re going to continue to hit the festival circuits hard and we hope SXSW will have us back next year.
There were 55 films and documentaries. Seven more were part of SXSW's 10-year retrospective and an eighth was Peter Fonda’s 1971 The Hired Hand. To date, we have reviewed 29 of those original 55 (with a total of 40 reviews) and two more (Raising Victor Vargas and Robot Stories) we already covered at Sundance. That's to date. We still have more to post.
Overall, we had a great time at the fest. We saw some great movies, met some great people, went to the Film Threat party and nailed the #4 score in the country on the trivia game at a great downtown barbeque eatery. And we’re still just beginning. After Sundance and SXSW, we will continue to provide the most in-depth coverage anywhere. Sure, there’s room for improvement at SXSW but after all, it’s not about us. It’s about the movies.
A Mighty Wind (* * * 1/2) (out of 4)
Phone Booth (* * * 1/2)
Assassination Tango (* * *)
The Hard Word (* * 1/2)
Cabin Fever (* *)
The Eye (* *) (Vastly overrated Japanese horror flick that Tom Cruise picked up for a remake. Call it "At First Sixth Sense")
May (* * * 1/2) (Not part of the festival - but only playing in Austin & Fresno. One of the best things I saw.)
PICK 'EM UP
Bubba Ho-Tep (* * * *) (Seen it three times. Twice at SXSW)
Dummy (* * * 1/2) (Could be the next Big Fat Greek Wedding if people get behind it - great cast, Adrien Brody is fabulous. The movie is SOOOO good that I even liked Milla Jovovich....a lot!)
Assisted Living (* * * 1/2)
Security (* * *)
Melvin Goes to Dinner (* * *)
EH! NOT BAD
You'll Never Wiez In This Town Again (aka Pauly Shore is Dead) (* * 1/2)
Flag Wars (* * *)
Valley of Tears (* * 1/2)
Three and a Half (* *)
The Nature of Nicholas (* *)
Sexless (* 1/2)
A Midsummer Night's Rave (* 1/2)
Happy Here and Now (*)
For more info about SXSW – go to http://www.sxsw.com.