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SXSW film fest leaves our critic geeked out

Posted 11:55am on Wednesday, Mar. 17, 2010

The 2010 edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival will go down in the history books for two reasons: It was the year the 17-year-old festival went completely geek; and the year crowd control officially got out of control.

Organizers reported a 25 percent uptick in the number of badges sold this year, which on the surface sounds terrific -- especially for the independent filmmakers at the festival hoping for as many eyeballs on their work as possible. In reality, this resulted in lines.

Long, endless-seeming lines.

For the big screenings Friday and Saturday night, you needed to queue up more than an hour in advance -- and even then you might end up sitting in the nosebleed seats. (At the premiere of Kick-Ass, at the Paramount, I sat farther from any movie screen than I've ever sat in my life.) At the smaller venues, such as the Alamo Drafthouse, it was virtually impossible to get in without building your entire day around one movie. The parties proved just as difficult to navigate, with barely any room to breathe if and when you got inside.

South by Southwest likes to bill itself as a more democratic and user-friendly event than Sundance, but Sundance has never been so exhausting and so plainly frustrating.

Then there was the geek factor. The festival has always embraced Austin's fanboys and gore freaks, to often joyful effect. (A midnight screening of Eli Roth's Cabin Fever in 2003 was one of the most rollicking, infectiously entertaining moviegoer experiences that I can remember.) But this year a festival that in the past merely tipped its hat to the geek brigade seemed to be functioning solely for them. Kick-Ass is a breezy violent action-comedy, based on a comic-book series about a pair of crime-fighting adolescents; it had previously showed in Austin, in rough-cut form, as part of Harry Knowles Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival in December.

After Kick-Ass, a number of festgoers walked a few blocks east to the Alamo Ritz downtown to watch producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal preview clips from their upcoming Predators reboot. By the time they brought out the Predator mask to a cooing and awed crowd, I thought I had been beamed, à la Scotty from Star Trek, to Comic-Con in San Diego. On Saturday, the hot-ticket panel discussion was about gore and violence in movies, featuring two directors (Ruben Fleischer, of Zombieland, and Ti West, of House of the Devil) who were both prominently featured at Austin's über-geeky Fantastic Fest last fall.

There is certainly a lot to be said for taking the path most popular. Ten years ago, when I first started attending the film festival, the event struggled in the shadow of the SXSW's music conference. Film distribution execs from New York or Los Angeles wouldn't be caught dead there. Not so these days. South by Southwest is considered an important step on the America festival circuit, sandwiched neatly between Sundance and Tribeca.

But some of us longtimers can't help but wonder if the event has sacrificed a little bit of its pluck and daring along the way. The documentary section, which in years past premiered such Sundance rejects as Spellbound and Jesus Camp, offered up a handful of solid efforts, including a look at the aftermath of civil war in Sierra Leone, titled War Don Don. And the programmers also did a nice job of culling together strong titles that have already premiered at other festivals, such as Lovers of Hate and The Red Chapel (both from Sundance) and the documentary Google Baby (Toronto). But the balance seemed all off at the event: For instance, a thoughtful experimental effort like 11/4/08 (which looks at Barack Obama's election from the perspective of a dozen or so filmmakers around the globe) only half-filled a theater inside the Austin Convention Center. But a documentary about long-standing tensions between George Lucas and his most rabid fans was so popular that organizers had to scramble to add a second surprise screening.

Perhaps this is the wave of the future -- the nerds taking over everything! -- and there's no use fighting it. But in 2010, South by Southwest seemed to lose a bit of focus over its own identity and went chasing after another one entirely. Instead of celebrating the scrappiest, most independent-minded filmmakers out there, it felt as if it were marching to the beat of someone else's drum.

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