Conventional Hollywood wisdom states that films eyeing the Oscar for Best Picture must to make a splash in Toronto. The Toronto International Film Festival has helped launch winners-to-be like "American Beauty," "The Hurt Locker" and "The King's Speech" to awards glory, and it gave "The Artist," which premiered at Cannes, an added push. But where should filmmakers turn if they have an R-rated comedy hoping to take the masses by storm? Try Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival.
"In my experience, there are three amazing film cities in America: Los Angeles, New York and Austin," said Michael Bacall, the screenwriter behind "21 Jump Street," which will have its premiere at SXSW on Monday night before hitting theaters on March 16. "Austin may just edge out the coasts on that one. It is an amazing place to be a film lover." It's also an amazing place to be a comedy lover. The festival has become a bastion of funny in recent years, with an expanded podcast and stand-up lineup, in addition to the already established music and interactive portions. That growth has caused movie studios to take note. Last year, Universal screened a cut of "Bridesmaids" for SXSW attendees, which sparked the great buzz that accompanied the film through its release in May.
"It was a terrifying screening because we didn't screen until 12:30 in the morning," said "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig to Moviefone. "When I got in there it was almost all dudes and it was so late at night -- there was this moment of, 'Oh boy, we might be in trouble.'" Despite a negative review in Variety following the screening -- they weren't.
"When we went through the roof, that meant more to us than anything," Feig said about the instant positive reaction the screening received online. "That was the event that got the word on the streets. It really got us a lot of press. The word went out on the Internet from all the people who were there that they liked it. It was indispensible for us."
Even better, it lent "Bridesmaids" a bit of hipster cachet that doesn't accompany other film festivals.
"It was cool," Feig noted. "Sometimes these film festivals can feel a little bit big or corporate, and SXSW still feels super cool because it's music and it's Austin. It's still kind of underground, in a way. I couldn't have been more thrilled that we made that choice to do that."
Sony likely agrees; that's one reason the studio is debuting "21 Jump Street" -- an R-rated comedy in which Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum fire off gun shots and dick jokes with equal fervor -- in Austin.
"If you look at all the festivals, like Venice or Toronto or Cannes, [they] may be a little older," said Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures. "SXSW is a very 17-34 audience festival, and that's our core audience for this movie. It's just the right atmosphere to play in -- and I think it's going to be huge. I think the screening is going to be infectious. Everyone there is going to be like, 'Oh my God, I saw the funniest movie of the year.' It really propagates the buzz."
While that might sound like typical marketing bombast, even Feig contends that SXSW is the perfect jumping-off point for "Jump Street."
"When I heard they were doing '21 Jump Street' there, I was like, 'That's genius,'" he said. "The people making up that audience are the same people that are gonna come out and buy tickets for your movie. That's what I love about SXSW. To me, unscientifically speaking, it feels like the most representative audience for a populist comedy."
That fact isn't lost on Bacall -- the screenwriter behind current hit "Project X" and cult favorite "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" -- who said he's honored the movie is premiering in Austin.
"There's such a good vibe in that city," he said, before happily adding, "It's a great party town. Those people are crazy."
The SXSW Film Festival runs from March 9 through March 18. For full SXSW coverage -- from comedy to music to movies -- click here. Check back to Moviefone all week for updates from Austin.
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