The South by Southwest Film and TV Festival launches Friday with a renewed sense of purpose. There is the new name, of course, adding “and TV,” along with new leadership. Equally important, the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” poised to win big at the Academy Awards on Sunday, had its world premiere at last year’s festival.
The Austin, Texas-based SXSW has long been a stop for offbeat commercial films such as “A Quiet Place,” “Us” and “Baby Driver.” Lena Dunham, Barry Jenkins, Daniel Destin Cretton and Greta Gerwig all premiered key early works here, while “Everything Everywhere” filmmakers the Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, previously screened their music videos and short films at the festival.
With the box office and awards season triumph of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the festival for the first time launched a different kind of success. (“To Leslie,” the modest film with the unlikely lead actress Oscar nominee in Andrea Riseborough, premiered at last year’s festival as well.)
“The reason I do my job is to support filmmakers that are super creative, imaginative and have a really specific vision of what they want to make. And I think that Daniels are a perfect example of that,” said Claudette Godfrey, who is taking over as head of the event from Janet Pierson, its leader since 2008. “Who doesn’t want to premiere a film that gets accolades all year round? But that’s not the goal of how we program.”
This year’s festival opens with the world premiere of the film “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” written and directed by “Game Night’s” Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and Hugh Grant. On the TV side, the opening night selection is “Swarm,” a series created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers.
Other anticipated premieres include “Problemista,” the debut feature as writer-director-star from “Los Espookys’” Julio Torres, co-starring Tilda Swinton. Perhaps the buzziest title at this year’s festival is “Bottoms,” a new film from director and co-writer Emma Seligman and co-writer and star Rachel Sennott, the pair who launched “Shiva Baby” at the 2020 festival after premiering the short film it was based on there in 2018. Adding to the excitement over “Bottoms” is “The Bear’s” Ayo Edebiri as co-star. Sennott also stars in another film at the festival, Ally Pankiw’s “I Used to Be Funny.”
A trio of films explore the personalities behind well-know businesses and products. Eva Longoria makes her feature directing debut with “Flamin’ Hot,” the story of how Richard Montañez did (or did not) invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “Tetris,” directed by Jon S. Baird, stars Taron Egerton in the tale of the Russian origins of the popular video game and how it was brought to the West. “BlackBerry,” directed and co-written by and co-starring Matt Johnson, examines the rise and fall of the handheld device company.
Other noteworthy titles include Hannah Pearl Utt’s “Cora Bora,” starring Megan Stalter, Billy Luther’s “Frybread Face and Me,” Jake Johnson’s “Self Reliance,” Julio Quintana’s “The Long Game,” Veronica Ngo’s “Furies,” Luke Gilford’s “National Anthem,” Tayarisha Poe’s “The Young Wife,” Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” and Alexandre O. Philippe’s “You Can Call Me Bill.”
Among other notable premieres on the TV side are Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo,” Lee Sung Jin’s “Beef,” David E. Kelley’s “Love & Death” and Zoe Lister-Jones’ “Slip.”
As to whether the success of “Everything Everywhere” created any pressure to unearth future Oscar nominees, Godfrey was emphatic.
“No. How do you compete with that film? You don’t. It’s a singular vision. There isn’t another film that’s like that in the immediate future,” Godfrey said. “That’s never the goal of what we’re programming, to try to program Oscar winners. I don’t necessarily think the taste of South by Southwest is perfectly aligned with the Oscar voting pool. But maybe now we are.”
Godfrey, who was born and raised in Austin and has held numerous other positions at the festival, moved into her new role partway through the year, with programming already underway. So she emphasized continuity rather than a sweeping new vision.
“I actually didn’t think that much about it until every person in an interview is like, ‘Well, how are you gonna make it different?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I already made it into this,’” Godfrey said. “Because we were already working together and built this thing together as a team. So I haven’t thought that much about it, because I don’t think there’s something different that I want it to be.”
Arguably the biggest challenge for this year’s festival is the calendar, as the scheduling of the Oscars during SXSW’s busy first weekend, creating potential headaches for films and talent availability as well as the attention of journalists.
“It’s been interesting to have a lot of conversations about it with different people in different parts of the industry,” Godfrey said of the unusual dilemma, adding that it hopefully won’t repeat itself. “I think the prevailing sort of outcome has been that just the realization that most people aren’t at the Oscars. So they can file their Oscar coverage from Austin. In the case of talent, of course, there isn’t anything screening that day with talent that would have to be at the Oscars. But not every big talent is there. … It’s helped to spread things out.”
Indeed, the festival is saving some of its higher profile titles for later in the week, such as Lee Cronin’s “Evil Dead Rise,” Gina Gammell and Riley Keough’s “War Pony” and Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride,” starring “Everything Everywhere’s” Stephanie Hsu, plus a closing night title still to be announced.
Unconcerned that starry studio projects might steamroll work by as-yet-undiscovered talent, Godfrey called SXSW a “choose-your-own-adventure type of event,” with audiences creating their own mix of what to see. The festival also emphasizes the crossover between film and television work.
“There’s an element of the weirdness or edginess or offbeat part of Austin that I think has always been part of the identity of the entire event. And I think that carries through to the work we program,” Godfrey said.
“So it’s like ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ literally made for South by Southwest. Having the room to play … and lean into stuff that it makes sense for our bigger and much different audience than a traditional film festival is important to me.“
Here are the projects Times staffers are looking forward to at this year’s fest.