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