SXSW Day One: Messin’ with Texas

imageBy Brian Hieggelke

South by Southwest Film, held annually in Austin the week before the legendary music festival, has emerged as arguably the nation’s leading festival for new and truly independent film and filmmakers. (Though I’ve not been, Sundance seems to have been overtaken by more established filmmakers and studios, albeit still at the artful, indie end of the spectrum.) As one panelist said at an opening day “Insider’s Guide” session, “this festival is all about discovery,” and notable recent debuts here include Chicago’s Joe Swanberg and the birth of the mumblecore movement, as well as Lena Dunham with her pre-“Girls” “Tiny Furniture.”

The film festival coincides with SXSW Interactive which, thanks in part to the launch of both Twitter and Foursquare here, has become the nation’s top annual digital gathering as well. The streets of this bursting-at-the-seams city are awash in venture capital being burned in all forms of splendor, from the takeovers of various local bars, gas stations, whatever, to every kind of marketing gimmickry imaginable, to the hordes of digerati roaming 6th Street in search of the hottest private party. It all makes for a sensory assault upon arrival.

Sunday’s Chicago Tribune story about this project broke online as I landed, a happy and ironic distraction. So by the time I got credentialed and over to the conference, I was cutting it close if I wanted to catch the “Beginner’s Guide to the Film Festival” session I’d planned to attend. The Austin Convention Center is a vast, McCormick Place-like complex, so by the time I found my way, Q&A was well underway. But the follow-on “Insider’s Guide” session was helpful. The panelists went through their most-anticipated films (helpful when trying to process a ton of first-time filmmakers’ work) and, equally important, shared their recommendations for the breakfast taco, apparently a signature Austin attraction.

As this session wrapped, it was happy hour. At a film cocktail party, where I seemed to be a rare soloist, a woman handed me a card for the film “Arlo and Julie.” “What’s your involvement with the film,” I asked her. “I’m the producer,” she said, offering me my first taste of the role of an indie producer—doing everything possible to build awareness. Her name is Richelle Fatheree, and I joined her table to hear about the project. She’s from Washington DC, and was accompanied by her husband, a lobbyist, and their youngest son. The filmmaker is Steve Mims (writer-director-DP), who teaches film at University of Texas here in Austin, and they were able to make the feature as a class project, using equipment and student labor. Steve told me they raised $33,000 on Kickstarter and have $3,000 left over. That’s what they call micro-financed filmmaking. “Arlo and Julie,” described as a “neurotic couple’s obsession with a mysterious puzzle comically unravels their world,” premieres Monday and I hope to see it. Trendspotting: the festival also features a documentary about jigsaw puzzles, “Wicker Kittens”; Richelle has made promotional puzzles for her film.

From there, I joined my brother Brent, who’s here for the interactive festival with his company Urban Airship, and hit the party circuit a bit. Free drinks from companies I’ve never heard of and maybe never will again, but that appears to be the game down here. After that, a brief stop at the opening night film party sponsored by A&E, where minimally dressed “maids” served cocktails in a promotion for the series “Devious Maids.”