My first South By Southwest was actually my second film festival ever. But I had my festival partner (Erik Childress!) there, as well as a bunch of movies to watch, so it's not like I was worried or miserable or anything. The year was 2003, and I was just about to meet Matt Dentler. Only a few weeks removed from my first Sundance, I simply wasn't prepared for the Austin hospitality. Once Mr. Dentler knew who Erik and I were (online film critics, big woop) he never stopped being a prince. Thanks to Matt and his awesome girlfriend Jarren, Erik and I became SXSW superheroes almost overnight. So it only took about six years for me to come up with the idea, but here's an interview with my friend Matt Dentler, powerfully good guy and ridiculously hard-working producer of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
Cinematical: You've been the producer of South By Southwest for the better part of a decade now, and the festival has seen huge growth in that time. How'd you score such a sweet gig, and (more importantly) how do you keep the festival chugging along year after year?
Matt: I've only been the producer since 2003, but I did start working at SXSW in 1997 as an office intern. I've seen the festival go through various stages of growth and it's really exciting. I guess I got the gig because I worked my way up the food chain and was just relentless about doing a great job. I dunno what it is, but something about this place and this job fit really well with me. The great thing about each festival, year to year, is that there are always new films and new filmmakers and new audiences. That keeps things fresh all the time, and you never feel like you're just doing the same job over and over. It really does feel like a new challenge each year, especially as we've grown.
Cine: How important is it for a festival producer to be a hardcore movie freak? Does your love for cinema ever start to wane when you're faced with 45 brand-new screener discs?
Matt: A programmer at another festival once used this analogy and I think it's appropriate: To do this job, you have to love movies like it's a marriage. You have to love it through thick and thin, sickness and health, richer or poorer. You have to be ready to embrace it during the good times and bad. And, that's very true. It can be a daunting gig, but I don't take it for granted. I love the idea of discovering great new films or a great new voice. That keeps it constantly interesting and usually entertaining.
Cine: I know you do a lot of traveling for SXSW, but what's your normal "yearly schedule" in Austin like? How quickly after SXSW ends do you have to start ramping up again for next year?
Matt: I typically travel to some festival or market once a month, but some months are especially busy. September, for example, with Toronto and the IFP Market back-to-back, can be a very busy month. I spend a lot of time in airports, but not nearly as much as other professionals. After SXSW, we usually have a short detox period where we clean up and the dust settles. It can be kind of sad, like cleaning up after all the party guests have gone home. But, I'm back at it pretty soon. I travel to some festivals in late Spring and then Cannes is when it all sort of starts up again. Plus, we have some summer projects (like our online shorts festival, SXSWClick) that keep us busy year-round. More officially, though, the ball gets rolling in earnest by the time Toronto rolls around.
Cine: The festival has helped a lot of smaller films and inexperienced filmmakers get some attention. What are some of your favorite SXSW success stories?
Matt: I like the fact that last year, three of the biggest success stories were: Knocked Up, Billy the Kid, and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Those are three entirely different films, but they each rose to the top and got a lot of love at SXSW. It makes me feel like we're doing something right, if we can mix the program up and deliver some eclectic good times.
Cine: What's the hardest part of your job?
Matt: Turning down films. Hands down, the hardest part, because you know that filmmakers never like getting the news that they're film wasn't accepted. And, we never like giving that news, but it's part of the process.
Cine: Between South By Southwest and all the events at the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin is an absolute mecca for movie freaks. Why do you think it's become such a "movie town"?
Matt: I think it's because it's so egalitarian. The movie stars and the movie geeks mingle together in a way you don't get anywhere else. There's a mutual respect about that in Austin, and it keeps both movie stars and movie geeks coming back year after year.
Cine: Once and for all, and mainly for the out-of-towners, where can you find the BEST BBQ in (and around) Austin?
Matt: Outside of Austin, you have to go with the Salt Lick, especially if you want the comfortable experience. I mean, all-you-can eat BBQ? And, it's BYOB? Those are two acronyms I love, and the Salt Lick is the greatest. If you want a more pure Hill Country vibe, you visit Lockhart which is a town about 20 minutes away, and built on BBQ. Pretty much the only thing in the town, is great BBQ. Inside the city limits of Austin, however, I'd say Iron Works (conveniently located next to the SXSW HQ), Ruby's, and Rudy's.
Cine: How has the internet (or, more specically, the blog-world) influenced festivals like SXSW? Do you find that you get TOO MANY requests for press credentials? Which movie sites, aside from Cinematical of course, do you turn to for excellent festival coverage?
Matt: We love online journalists, blogs, and the whole community. First of all, with Harry Knowles and Ain't It Cool News as a big part of the Austin scene, we've been followers of that world for a while now. So, we try to embrace bloggers and online critics just as we would more "traditional" media. I think, for the best festival coverage online, you can't go wrong with Cinematical, AICN, indieWIRE, Film Threat, the Spout Blog, Variety's "The Circuit" blog, Movie City News, Hollywood Elsewhere, GreenCine, eFilmCritic, and the IFC Blog. I'm probably forgetting some, and I'm sure I'll hear about it later. Probably on a Web site. Plus, we also do our best to reflect that love with our own site. For example we just launched a really unique page for SXSW movie trailers!
Cine: I've often described SXSW as "as good as Sundance or Toronto, but for normal people." Do you and your team actively try to avoid the "impersonal" nature of most film festivals? Is it your goal to be known as high-end and prestigious -- but ultimately "normal Joe accessible" at the same time?
Matt: I think the Austin audiences are our secret weapon when it comes to not being too elitist. Frankly, Austin would never allow that and we love that about the community here. So, we're always gonna be down-to-earth. Our motto every year is "Program films and panels that will let people have the most fun." I know I'm biased, but I really believe that all of the films we program share a common thread. And, that thread is simple: exciting and fun events. Which is why even our most "arthouse" programming (films like Love Songs, Mister Foe, and Mongol) are still really cool films. Or, the films of Joe Swanberg, Michael Tucker, or Steve James. They may handle dark subject matter but they still have a very populist point of view. And, in a weird way, it makes total sense to see a film like those next to a film like Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Because even those big studio films, still have a very subversive and independent heart.
Cine: If you had to describe the difference between SXSW and the rest of North America's 'bigger' festivals, what would it be?
Matt: Well, just practically speaking, we're one of the only big North American film festivals where the public and the industry see the films together. And, we believe that's important, both for the filmmakers and for the audiences. Plus, similar to Toronto, we're a festival where the local community really comes out to support the films and the filmmakers. And I believe that's a key ingredient to a successful festival. It should be a blend of the local audience and the out-of-town industry (and vice versa), because when those two groups come together that is how films get made and seen.
Cine: People might think that programming a film festival is as easy as picking 150 films from a list of 700, but there's a lot more to it than "we liked the film." How tough is it to keep trimming the list down?
Matt: Very tough. This year, more than any other before, we had to pass on films we liked but they did not fit into the program for one reason or another. I guess you could say it's a good problem to have, yet we don't take it for granted and it pains us each and every time we have to pass on a film. We just hope the filmmakers never take it personally or hold a grudge. After all, there's always next year.