“Baby Driver,” buzz and the fickle weather of South by South­west

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day

austin, texas» Ev­ery film fes­ti­val de­vel­ops its own bub­ble — a ter­rar­ium-like al­ter­nate re­al­ity that in­vis­i­bly takes hold be­tween movies, au­di­ences, mood, food and weather. South by South­west (SXSW), the mu­sic-filmtech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence that wraps up this week­end, has come into its own as an in­valu­able buzzbuilder for par­tic­u­lar kinds of films, which them­selves fit right into the fes­ti­val’s of-the-mo­ment mi­lieu.

That gestalt could be felt through­out SXSW dur­ing its open­ing week­end, when both the film and in­ter­ac­tive con­fer­ences got un­der­way. Founded 30 years ago as a mu­sic show­case, SXSW — along with the rapidly grow­ing city around it — has mor­phed into an all-pur­pose des­ti­na­tion for cul­ture mavens ea­ger to be early adopters in every­thing from mu­sic, cin­ema and tech­nol­ogy to pol­i­tics, health and sleep­ing (one of this year’s most pop­u­lar mar­ket­ing tie-ins was a Casper Mat­tress pro­mo­tion that un­der­wrote $99 ho­tel rooms at the Stan­dard Ho­tel).

Twit­ter be­came a thing in 2007; Foursquare hit two years later. Barack Obama keynoted last year, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Mark Zucker­berg, Elon Musk and Lena Dunham. This year, the big gets were the rarely seen di­rec­tor Ter­rence Mal­ick, who sat for a con­ver­sa­tion with Austin-based film­maker Richard Lin­klater, and former vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, who spoke about how the tech com­mu­nity can help his am­bi­tious new can­cer ini­tia­tive.

Since its de­but in 1994, the film por­tion of SXSW has at­tained its own version of on-trend al­lure, hav­ing served as a hip launch­pad for such movies as “Brides­maids,” “Train­wreck,” “Neigh­bors” and, last year, “Sausage Party.” The au­di­ences for SXSW pre­mieres — which take place at Austin’s gor­geous vin­tage movie palace, the Para­mount — are fa­mous for be­ing wildly en­thu­si­as­tic about ev­ery movie they see, es­pe­cially if it in­volves raunchy hu­mor, slick vi­o­lence, cool irony and a mem­ber of Judd Apa­tow’s ex­tended reper­tory com­pany.

This year, the ben­e­fi­ciary of the SXSW bump was “Baby Driver,” Edgar Wright’s long-ges­tat­ing com­edy, which di­rec­tor Robert Ro­driguez de­scribed as an “ac­tion mu­si­cal” when he in­tro­duced Wright on Satur­day night. Greeted with rau­cous whoops and rap­tur­ous ap­plause, the film — which stars Ansel El­gort as a get­away car driver and Jon Hamm as a heavy — is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the kind of film that SXSW au­di­ences im­bibe as ea­gerly as Shiner Bock beer: heavy on genre con­ven­tions, a poppy sound­track, giddy en­ergy and know­ing winks.

The ques­tion, of course, is whether “Baby Driver” can sus­tain that en­thu­si­asm un­til it ar­rives in the­aters later this sum­mer: If an SXSW pre­miere can be a brac­ing vote of con­fi­dence for film­mak­ers and their casts, it can also be a poor pre­dic­tor of com­mer­cial suc­cess. For ev­ery “Kick-Ass,” which had a hugely suc­cess­ful pre­miere here in 2010, there’s the 2009 Seth Ro­gen com­edy “Ob­serve and Re­port” or 2013’s “The In­cred­i­ble Burt Won­der­stone,” both of which were well re­ceived when they played the fes­ti­val and nei­ther of which went any­where with au­di­ences.

Gaug­ing that dif­fer­en­tial is the cru­cial job of stu­dios that come to Austin both to de­but their wares and ac­quire oth­ers; al­though SXSW his­tor­i­cally hasn’t been known as a mar­ket fes­ti­val, in re­cent years that pro­file has changed, with the ca­reer-mak­ing ac­qui­si­tions of Dunham’s “Tiny Fur­ni­ture,”Gareth Ed­wards’s “Mon­sters” and “Short Term 12,” which starred Brie Lar­son.

This year didn’t fea­ture any high-pro­file ac­qui­si­tions, but at least two movies that ar­rived with dis­tri­bu­tion may none­the­less have their fates changed: “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s af­fec­tion­ate mak­ing-of homage to the cult hor­ror film “The Room,” had a work-in­progress screen­ing on Sun­day night. The film, which stars Franco, his brother Dave and Ro­gen, was pro­duced by New Line Cin­ema and Warner Bros., but a num­ber of buy­ers for smaller stu­dios were at the event, sug­gest­ing that Warn­ers was en­ter­tain­ing of­fers for the project, which vir­tu­ally de­fines the term “niche.”

Af­ter a rap­tur­ous re­sponse, how­ever, the stu­dio is thought to be re­assess­ing its op­tions. Sim­i­larly, when “Atomic Blonde,” a pulpy ac­tion thriller star­ring Char­l­ize Theron, re­ceived a wildly pos­i­tive re­sponse at its Para­mount pre­miere, some ob­servers spec­u­lated whether it would stay with Fo­cus Fea­tures or be taken on by that bou­tique shop’s par­ent com­pany, Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures.

Eric Kohn, deputy edi­tor and chief critic for the film web­site IndieWire, has been com­ing to South by South­west for more than a decade and notes a “tried and true” pat­tern whereby movies play like gang­busters for the ador­ing home­town crowd, only to crash and burn in the­aters later on. He’s par­tic­u­larly cau­tious when it comes to a film like “The Disaster Artist,” which, de­spite now-height­ened ex­pec­ta­tions, may be bet­ter off with a smaller dis­trib­u­tor than Warner Bros.

Franco’s movie “plays to a cer­tain kind of sen­si­bil­ity,” Kohn notes, adding that it doesn’t come un­der the purview of the kinds of films Warn­ers has been spe­cial­iz­ing in lately. “It’s not a su­per­hero movie, it’s not genre. (The SXSW) au­di­ence re­ally un­der­stood the cult movie phe­nom­e­non, and they gave a great il­lus­tra­tion of how strong it can be. I just don’t know if a stu­dio is well equipped to un­der­stand how to cap­i­tal­ize on that around the coun­try.”

In other words: Bub­bles can be fun, but they’re frag­ile at best. There’s no doubt that Austin has ar­rived as the cap­i­tal of hot prop­er­ties — lit­eral, cul­tural and cin­e­matic. The ques­tion is whether they can stay on a healthy sim­mer once out­side South by South­west’s febrile but no­to­ri­ously fickle weather sys­tem.

Ansel El­gort and Jamie Foxx in “Baby Driver.”

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