SXSW PODCAST: Indie Film is Flowering, But Is It Really Sustainable?

Posted by Eugene Hernandez on 3.9.2012


Pictured: Festival head Janet Pierson at SXSW tonight in Austin.


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Yesterday in Austin it was "the calm before the swarm," as journalist Eric Kohn fittingly called it on Twitter. However, today the masses converged on the downtown Austin Convention Center. Attendance at this annual Texas event for movies, music and technology continues to climb annually, likely topping 50,000 badge holders this year. That's twice as many as just a few years ago. 

The start of the film festival and tech conference on Friday ushered in a fresh wave of conversation about the event's place in the hierarchy of the annual festival circuit.

A tentpole in the bustling local film scene, SXSW's nineteen year old film festival has become an annual magnet for film fans and even some in the film biz. Yet it doesn't have the same industry pedigree as a festival like Sundance. Emerging filmmakers don't seem to come to Austin dreaming of big time distribution deals but hope to put themselves (and their movies) on the map in some fashion. Meanwhile, studios come to Austin to preview mainstream fare for a rabid audience. Two of the hits from last year's edition of SXSW were British indie Weekend and the Hollywood comedy Bridesmaids, just to underscore the range of films on offer in Austin. Other notable entries in 2011 included Attack The Block, Natural Selection and The Beaver.

"I think South By is a more important American festival than Sundance," proclaimed journalist and film programmer Aaron Hillis during the roundtable discussion that opened the Film Society's first SXSW podcast from Austin. While Sundance has bigger films, SXSW lacks the overwhelming industry presence and is a better launching pad for new talent, he explained. It is also a greater celebration of the art itself, said Hillis, who curates Brooklyn's reRun movie theater. Sitting alongside Hillis during the conversation, West Coast writer Anne Thompson disagreed. She argued that more films still emerge from the Utah festival.

Three of the filmmakers in Austin hoping for attention sat down to talk about their movies during today's podcast, produced with the support of local NPR affiliate KUT. Caveh Zahedi talked about his already controversial new film The Sheik And I, Ben Shapiro discussed his exploration of a well known artist in Gregory Crewsdon: Brief Encounters and former NFL athlete Matthew Cherry was joined by actor Lance Gross for a conversation about their indie feature, The Last Fall.

In the coming days, numerous filmmakers, journalists and industry veterans will drop by to talk about their new films and the latest trends or challenges they are experiencing.

South By Southwest has emerged as an important alternative to the popular Sundance Film Festival in January. It has also become a key place to survey a new generation of filmmaking while pondering a striking tension between art and commerce. The rise of the Mumblecore movement here a few years ago fueled a realization that the widespread availability of filmmaking tools is enabling more and more stories to be told. Meanwhile, the subsequent conversations at the festival's bustling conference have triggered an exploration of how to get so many indie films to a wider audience via emerging digital distribution platforms. 

As is often the case with American indie film, this is apparently both the best of times and the worst of times.

"I view it as a very promising moment for people being able to take control of their own fates and make the films they want to make," observed John Pierson during the final segment of today's SXSW podcast. But there's a perplexing flip side to the freedom and ease with which filmmakers seem to be making movies, Pierson warned. He seems to fear that narrowcasting and widespread no-budget moviemaking are watering down what's left of an indie movement.

The University of Texas film professor, a longtime guru of American indie film, said that he finds himself immensely frustrated by the state of independent moviemaking today. Pierson ignited a business for indie films back in the '90s when he shepherded the early work of Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Michael Moore and others to mainstream audiences. He documented the era in his essential book, Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes. These days he's confused about an elusive new business model for indie movies that he feels is simply unsustainable.

"I can't really deal with it because I am used to films performing two functions: 1) Working on their own in a way that creates revenues. Revenue above and beyond what the film cost to make. And 2) Maybe to launch careers," Pierson explained. "I don't understand what's going on now."

John Pierson, married to SXSW film fest head Janet Pierson, said that too many movies are being made today and argued that there's no clear model to support the films or the filmmakers financially. He allowed that if you care only about the art of film then perhaps you can ignore the broken business model, but he reiterated that this is "a problematic moment" for American indie moviemaking.

Pierson's remarks could provoke a productive conversation here this week if filmmakers and professionals pause to ponder the issues he's raising.

"It just seems dysfunctional to me," he added. "I don't understand how somebody who isn't already established on some level is supposed to make this work," Pierson continued.

Some say the solution is to aim movies at a clear target group to achieve a successful niche release and gain wider attention. Pierson worried that such an approach makes for boring indie movies. 

"Make a film about somebody or something that already has an audience?" John Pierson challenged, "What's the fun of that?"

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter from SXSW (@eug)

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The Daily Buzz podcast series in Austin is capturing the latest from the South by Southwest Film Festival, including a taste of this year’s bustling Interactive conference.

Produced with the support of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, The Daily Buzz is presented daily in Texas with KUT 90.5 FM and the Alamo Drafthouse. Recorded at the Alamo’s newest venue, Midnight Cowboy (313 East 6th Street) the show features conversations with filmmakers from SXSW, as well as insights from industry veterans and journalists.

The Daily Buzz is supported online by KUT, Austin’s local NPR affiliate, as part of their daily online coverage of SXSW at kut.org and hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center here at FilmLinc.com.

Daily Buzz guests for March 9

Hot Topic Roundtable Segment
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood on Indiewire
Jen Yamato, Movieline
Aaron Hills, GreenCine Daily and reRun Theater

Filmmaker Interview
Caveh Zahedi, The Sheik And I

Filmmaker Interview
Ben Shapiro, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

Filmmaker Interview
Matthew Cherry, The Last Fall
Lance Gross, The Last Fall

Veteran
John Pierson

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