03/09/2012 02:02 pm ET Updated May 09, 2012

[SXSW Film Preview] Don't Judge a Fest by Its Centerpieces

By Jonathan Poritsky

It's March again. While sports nuts flood your social feeds with college basketball madness, the film nerd in your life is probably more amped that it's time for another South by Southwest (SXSW). As one of the first major fests after the onslaught of Oscar season, it provides some much needed breathing room from the glitz of Hollywood.

Or does it?

This year's opening night film is "The Cabin in the Woods," a horror film directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote "Cloverfield." The film is also produced by television superstar, and director of the forthcoming blockbuster "The Avengers," Joss Whedon.

Last year's SXSW opener was Duncan Jones' "Source Code," starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The year before it was the Matthew Vaughn superhero riff, "Kick-Ass," which had a solid supporting spot for Nicholas Cage.

All of these films feature talents worthy of Austin's crowds, but they also all came to town with a release date in tow. This year, it feels a bit more ridiculous as one of the centerpiece screenings, the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum starring reboot of "21 Jump Street," opens only a few days after it plays the fest.

I often get asked what the purpose of these high profile festival screenings is. Isn't the point of film festivals, after all, to be on the cutting edge of tomorrow's hits? Why shine the spotlight on films that have already, ostensibly, "made it?"

There are a few answers, some cynical and some a bit more optimistic. I'll start with the cynical take.

These screenings are basically marketing ploys, booked to help build positive buzz (ugh, did I really just use that word?) about a film before its release. A skilled marketer can pick out fests that will work to the advantage of the project at hand, but a misfire won't really hurt a film's image all that much. The reason is simple: festival audiences tend to really like movies.

I don't mean to imply that festival-goers like everything they see, but most audiences at festival screenings have at least a passing respect for the medium. They take films seriously enough to consider their value and try to come to an informed decision about what they just saw.

Marketers can stack the deck by bringing star power to town. There's nothing like some good, old-fashioned glamour to get people a bit more chipper about how their evening went. Here at SXSW, most of these big screenings happen at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin: a plush, classic movie palace. After waiting in a line a city-block long for 40 minutes or more, the last thing you see before entering the theater is a glimpse of the red carpet, where flashbulbs pop as stars chat up eager journalists.

After the film, the stars reemerge on stage to uproarious applause and take questions from the audience. It's one thing to go to the multiplex and dismiss the bonehead who made it; it's quite another to put a face and a creative voice to the unspooled film. Even when I (a cynical film critic, mind you) absolutely hate a film, I am somewhat calmed when the filmmaker comes on stage to prove he or she actually is a human who deliberately made the crap I just watched.

As such, audiences tend to be quite amenable to take a chance on an otherwise ignorable work. The buzz (blech, again; will it help if I say chatter?) out of SXSW for these big screenings is rarely "don't see this movie." Instead it's usually either, "Best [insert genre] film ever!" or, "It could have been better, but I can't believe they made it for only...blah blah blah." So the marketers will almost always walk away with a win. Even if a film induces mass walkouts (see "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie") it will almost always find its curious champions at a festival.

The flip side (I should say the more positive side) of this arrangement is that the film festival benefits hugely from the mass appeal of these big-talent films. All festivals struggle with how to set themselves apart and discover great new work. But in addition to retaining indie street-cred (which I think SXSW has in spades) the programmers need to find ways to keep the lights on.

In order for a film festival to attract a crowd, it needs to be an event that can outshine all the other fests. Hollywood's quirkiest stars can help get extra butts in seats (and in town buying tourist knick-knacks), as can the promise of seeing a major new release before anyone else can. Plus, the festival gets to outsize press by featuring films by, and starring, people journalists have actually heard of. There are fests that don't invite films of this scale, but you've probably never heard of them. Ever wonder why?

Finally, the best of all answers is that what's good for a fest is good for filmmakers. SXSW has managed to stay on the bleeding edge of American indie cinema. Consistently, the films that end up being some of my favorites of the year come out of this little fest in Texas. They pack an incredibly diverse slate into an extremely short period of time, all while still being able to roll out the red carpet for big name talent every year.

During the fest, Austin feels like a little cinematic enclave. I get the sense that once you're in, you're in for life (see: the career of Lena Dunham, whose HBO series "Girls" is premiering here this year). It's a place where people forge strong professional relationships and meet other crazy people who think it's a good idea to work in movies year round. Whatever it takes to make that keep happening is damn well worth it.

And inviting national releases to a fest that bleeds indie does exactly that.

Jonathan Portisky will be filing from Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter: @poritsky

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