SXSW got off to an uncharacteristically chilly start last week. As the annual ode to movies, music and tech kicked off on March 11 in Austin, the Texas winds blew a cold front into the downtown streets. Between screenings and musical acts, many attendees lamented that they hadn’t packed a heavy winter jacket. But by the weekend’s close, the frost had faded, and it felt like spring in Texas again.
That’s a fitting metaphor for this year’s gathering. The festival, which runs through March 20, represents a time of renewal as the first SXSW since 2019 — the 2020 edition became one of the first major events to be canceled due to COVID-19, and the 2021 version didn’t take place either because vaccines weren’t widely available. (Variety’s parent company, Penske Media Corporation, is an investor in SXSW.) And now, SXSW has become one of the biggest U.S. film festivals to mount a comeback.
From one event to the next, the mood on the ground of this year’s festival was one of optimism and relief. “I can’t tell you how amazing it is,” Janet Pierson, the director of SXSW Film, said in opening remarks at the premiere of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” a meta action comedy starring Nicolas Cage. “The vibe is just so good. People are grateful to be with each other. There’s a humbleness to it.”
And hopefulness too — especially for what the cheers and standing ovations could signal for the health of the theatrical movie business. SXSW, which was founded in 1987, in recent years has become a springboard for launching studio hits in the spring and summer, with the Austin crowd of hip college students and affluent millennials proving to be a barometer of moviegoers’ tastes.
The long list of films that have achieved box office glory following rapturous premieres at SXSW includes everything from 2014’s “22 Jump Street” to 2016’s “Sausage Party.”
What’s vying to continue in that tradition this year?
“The Lost City,” a romantic caper starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, which Paramount Pictures will open in theaters on March 25, is the most likely candidate. Indeed, all over Hollywood, executives are crossing their fingers that the movie is a hit — because it will signal that older women, a demographic that’s been skittish about buying movie tickets during the pandemic, have returned to multiplexes. (Men seem to be more comfortable going to the movies, as evidenced by the success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Batman.”)
“In post-production, everything was Zoom, everything was little cubes,” Bullock said at a Q&A. “Seeing it in a theater is a reminder of why we love the theater.” “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” which Lionsgate will release on April 22, also could prove a sleeper success story. The gonzo film features Cage as a version of himself who, on the verge of quitting acting, lands in the middle of an elaborate kidnapping scheme.
Not surprisingly, A24, the edgy boutique studio, has planted its feet firmly in Austin. The label is premiering three movies here: “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” starring Michelle Yeoh in a metaverse adventure; “X,” a slasher film with an ensemble that includes Kid Cudi, Brittany Snow and Mia Goth; and “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a murder-mystery comedy with Pete Davidson and Amandla Stenberg.
Of course, as SXSW has grown, so have the TV projects that come to it. Among the early winners, based on the Austin applause meter: “They Call Me Magic,” a docu-series about the life and career of NBA legend Magic Johnson, which debuts on Apple TV Plus on April 22; and “WeCrashed,” an inside look at the life of WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his wife, Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), which arrives on Apple TV Plus on March 18.
But not everything was completely back to normal. Texas, which has laxer COVID protocols than, say, Los Angeles or New York, doesn’t require proof of vaccination in restaurants and bars, but the festival was supposed to card people for their jabs inside movie theaters. In practice, though, attendees were quickly ushered into theaters without being asked to show documentation.
Most people wore masks inside theaters, but not at panels, parties and concerts. And the specter of Texas politics loomed large over the festival, with speakers and guests such as Lizzo and Richard Linklater decrying Gov. Greg Abbott’s moves to limit access to abortions and target families with transgender children for state investigation. “It’s a violation of human rights,” Lizzo said to loud applause.
As far as the nightlife scene in Austin, SXSW was probably about 75% of its pre-pandemic rage level. One noticeable change: Not as many A-list stars seem willing to mingle super close with fans. Even the line at the late-night haunt Voodoo Doughnut was surprisingly short compared with past years.
But give it time. SXSW showed how hundreds of thousands of people can gather again as we navigate the tricky realities of a not-quite-post-pandemic future.
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How SXSW Led to Big Wins for Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage and A24