It was about ten minutes into “Drinking Buddies” at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival when you could feel a collective grin come across the face of those who had been attending the festival for a few years. The evening was already electric since the premiere of the new film from Joe Swanberg was something of a statement for the festival, playing in its most coveted slot – 7:15 on the first Saturday at the Paramount, Austin’s premier 1000-seat movie palace, acknowledging that the director had moved up in the world from the low-budget DIY productions he had brought to the festival in the years before with a cast that included Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, even if the director himself didn’t necessarily feel that way.
Five years after Matt Dentler made a graceful transition out of serving as the festival’s director, handing the reins to Janet Pierson, Swanberg snuck in a nameplate into “Drinking Buddies” to acknowledge him, naming Jason Sudeikis’ character in the film “Gene Dentler” and that nameplate would travel from Chicago, where Swanberg is based, to Meridian, Texas where David Lowery placed it on a desk in his latest film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” honoring the festival where the two met each other in 2005. (That year was so formative that the class of filmmakers that included Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Ry Russo-Young, Mark Duplass, Todd Rohal, Kent Osborne and Kris Rey came together to make “Hannah Takes the Stairs” with Swanberg for the 2007 festival.)
There is no shortage of of filmmakers that have told me over the years that they met a key member of their crew waiting in line for a movie at SXSW or, thanks to the matchmaking skills of Pierson and her awesome programming team of Jarod Neece, Jim Kolmar and Claudette Godfrey, have been nudged to make a friend with someone else with a film in the festival, and the cancellation of SXSW because of a pandemic is a particularly cruel irony when the festival has been unique amongst its peers as a place to bring people together like no other. It’s a truly nurturing environment where every year Pierson can be counted on to walk on stage before every screening and ask, “How’s everyone enjoying the festival?” with genuine interest in what the response is, presiding over this massive event like the host of an intimate dinner party who effortlessly gets the guests to engage with one another.
This made it a more difficult decision than you would think to cover SXSW remotely when the opportunity presented itself after filmmakers began to figure out how to salvage their plans when their trip to Austin was cancelled – the marvelous feast that SXSW had prepared was going to be served in to-go bags and consumed alone. As they say, audiences complete the movie experience and even if filmmakers were willing to provide a way for the press to see their films, there’s the dispiriting knowledge that they have been deprived of their moment in the sun after years of hard work as well as the programmers that sit through hundreds of hours of movies every year to find the gems.
Naturally, there are elements of class to this unique situation as well that make coverage seem exploitative, even if it’s with the best of intentions – the filmmakers most eager to make their work available to the press also are generally the ones who can least afford proper guidance from professionals as the fate of their film’s financial prospects are on the line, and as “Jezebel” director Numa Perrier eloquently wrote, a setback like this disproportionally affects artists of color, which Pierson has valiantly made a priority during her tenure. It can feel silly enough doing festival coverage initially geared towards the limited few who can afford to attend them well before mass audiences can see the films, and to do so when no general audience will be able to be at their launch seems especially ridiculous, but we have made the decision to cover this year’s SXSW since it’s what’s within our limited power to recognize the typically stellar lineup that Pierson, Neece, Kolmar and Godfrey have put together and to honor the standouts with the consideration they deserve when their road to receiving attention elsewhere has been made that much harder.
Our coverage will be done with a heavy heart, but based on what we’ve seen already, great enthusiasm for a collection of films that will surely lift spirits when they get the proper public premieres. More than anything, however, we wanted to acknowledge and celebrate the efforts of all those who were set to make SXSW 2020 special, including the many service providers and local businesses that will suffer from this cancellation, and won’t be able to see the fruits of their labor appropriately appreciated — this is true any given year when they keep raising the bar, but especially this one.