All this talk of alternative distribution models has our correspondent thinking whether the competing interests can sustain audience interest.
21 Mar 2011 - 10:26 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 2:57 PM

There was perhaps only one premiere at this year's SXSW film festival that was, by design, a little beside the point. Though it was screened theatrically, Girl Walks Into A Bar (pictured) is the first major production with a notable cast (including Danny DeVito, Josh Hartnett, and Rosario Dawson) to have been conceived specifically for the Web. During an interview at the festival, director Sebastian Gutiérrez noted that more people watched his film during its opening, March 11th weekend (already available on YouTube in the United States, copyright issues are holding up wider availability) than went to see most of the top box office draws during the same time.

That means that 250 000 people sat through what amounted to something like eight Lexus commercials — approximately one every ten minutes. During his time at SXSW, Morgan Spurlock noted that his The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the first feature film to contain actual commercials for its sponsors. Watching Girl Walks Into a Bar, which comprises a series of interlinked vignettes about an undercover detective (Carla Gugino) trying to bust a dentist (Zachary Quinto) for putting a hit out on his wife, I shuddered to think that Spurlock's example — supposed to be a sardonic look into the future of movies and marketing — could quickly become commonplace. Between the copyright issues messing up what was touted as “worldwide distribution” and the intrusive partnership with its sponsor, the well-made Girl Walks Into A Bar is not a great advertisement for the Internet distribution model. If the “wild west” already has a Lexus dealership, how wild can it be?

A SXSW success story I can get behind is that of Attack the Block, a British alien invasion film that a colleague of mine called “the first geek hit” of the festival. Part of the “Midnighters” program (five films chosen for their genre and cult film qualities), Attack the Block was a hot ticket even before its first screening, and its reputation only grew over the rest of the fest. Written and directed by first timer Joe Cornish (who had small roles in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), the film is set in South London, where a gang of teenagers must defend their neighbourhood from an alien invasion. Attack the Block picked up the audience award for its category during the festival's final award ceremony on March 19th, amid already-swirling rumours about an American remake of a film that hasn't had an American release yet.

Shaun of the Dead confirmed not so long ago that genre films (and genre goofs) travel extremely well, and the only complaints circulating about Attack the Block relate to the heavy accents of the actors, and their use of exotic slang. It's a little disheartening to hear that type of thing — as far as I can tell the whinging has come from those calculating how to make money off of the film, not those who simply enjoyed it — at a festival prided for its embrace of all things weird and local. Nothing's perfect, I guess, especially the studio brigade's track record for gauging the appeal of something that feels organic and even a little foreign for moviegoers weary of overprocessed entertainment. (I remember the impenetrability of one Trainspotting character's accent being celebrated.) In a culture this fragmented, what's known as “mainstream” filmmaking is doomed to puppet show-broad theatrics, and stories marketed and focus grouped down to a narrative nub. Niches are the future of moviegoing, I think — something this eclectic festival has known for years. If the kinks of niche production and distribution are not yet worked out, it's comforting to be reminded that both the filmmaking will and the audiences' willingness remains firmly, patiently in place.

SXSW x Numbers

Movies seen so far: 16
Tacos eaten: I don't want to talk about it.
Hours spent in line to see The Beaver: 1.5
Frantic Four Square “check-ins” witnessed: Innumerable
Excitement factor at seeing Hole drummer in person: 1 000 000+
Weirdos deflected: 3
Weirdos engaged: 5
Hours slept upon arriving home: 12