AUSTIN, Texas — It took all of 10 minutes of standing in line for the opening-night film of this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival in downtown Austin to hear chitchat about the 2023 Academy Awards.
And why not? It isn’t just a scheduling quirk putting the Oscars and SXSW’s start on the same weekend that makes “Hollywood’s biggest night” a topical subject several states away. More urgently, it’s also that “Everything Everywhere All At Once” – an awards-season juggernaut that cleaned up with accolades to an extent very few films have reached before, culminating in Oscars domination Sunday night – premiered here exactly one year ago. Naturally it feels like South By Southwest, already the state’s premiere annual destination for all things culture, tech and industry, seems even more at the center of this universe in 2023. And maybe the next one too.
It is unlikely that this year’s opening-night film, the whimsical and wisecracking fantasy/action romp “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” will repeat the feat and be crowned Best Picture in 2024. Expectations may have been lower to start this year’s film festival, but you wouldn’t have known it from a full Paramount Theater crowd Friday night, which ignited first-year festival director Claudette Godfrey’s tenure with a familiar fervor. The crowds here are game for anything, especially when they’re gathering for a movie designed to draw big reactions like “Dungeons & Dragons.”
The festival’s first three days brought plenty of other opportunities for passion at the Paramount. In the case of Emma Seligman’s raucous high school comedy “Bottoms,” about queer students who start a self-defense club to get with other girls, it was deafening laughter. At the screening of his work-in-progress but looking-quite-good thriller “Hypnotic,” San Antonio native Robert Rodriguez was met with the reverential applause appropriate for a filmmaker who has maintained strong Texas ties. And sometimes the cheers came from a more personal place; for those at the premiere of “The Long Game,” chronicling how a group of Mexican-American golfers from South Texas endured prejudice to win the state title in 1957, it was impossible to mistake the audible pride when the words “Del Rio, Texas” appeared on the screen.
“The Long Game” is one of just many Texas stories on the film festival lineup this year. That’s to be expected for SXSW, though the sheer diversity of local and/or locally made stories you could’ve caught on opening weekend feels particularly noteworthy. They came in the form of dramas (“The Long Game” and “Flamin’ Hot,” the latter directed by South Texas native Eva Longoria); they came in the form of thrillers (“Deadland,” “Only the Good Survive”); they came in the form of shorts (the San Antonio-produced “Dead Enders,” along with many others).
They also came in the form of documentaries, which allows for some Lone Star State crossover in the celebrity-appearance space alongside the likes of Chris Pine, Elizabeth Olson and Chloe Bailey. One of the more incredible sights of the weekend unfolded when an Edinburg ISD school bus pulled up outside the Paramount from some 300 miles away to drop off members of Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro, the young stars of “Going Varsity in Mariachi”; at a festival that prides itself on the sheer range of experiences offered, it was a poignant moment of convergence for two distinctly different sides of Texas just a few blocks from the state capitol.
As film festivalgoers can attest, there’s few better places to find that convergence than in the lines outside the Paramount, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar or ZACH Theatre, where the go-to icebreaker between movie-loving strangers can help you plan the rest of your week, put obscure films on your radar or otherwise create community between those with different tastes. That conversation can help you forget how hot or chilly it is while waiting (true to Texas, it’s been both this weekend), or how many corners you have to turn until the Paramount comes into view.
Those lines can also be the lifeblood of the festival’s down-lineup offerings, the place where enthusiasm for indie, international or idiosyncratic films blooms. True to the wide-ranging spirit of the festival, those are also aplenty at South By Southwest 2023, creating a world of discovery in their own right. Opening weekend yielded the Texas premiere of Sundance standout “Talk To Me,” an Australian twist on the family body-possession formula that could be a hit this year; “Another Body,” an urgent documentary about the deepfake pornography and the growing misuse of a new technology; and the Spanish film “Upon Entry,” a different kind of border thriller and an early highlight of the festival.
When audiences across the U.S. might have a chance to watch “Upon Entry” remains to be seen; such is the strange in-between reality of attending a film festival like SXSW that whatever small movie remains lodged in your mind may or may not get picked up by a platform or distributor.
But that’s also what makes being here so exciting; even a multiversal family dramedy that has the backing of an admired studio and is directed by two of the more eccentric creatives working today can leave its mark. The extent of the success that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has seen over the past year has been unexpected, refreshing and thrilling–but it’s only part and parcel for the SXSW programming team and for Godfrey, who told me ahead of this yera’s festival that the movie’s reputation doens’t change their approach so much as affirm it.
“We’re always looking for that discovery… that’s just a product of how we’ve always done it,” Godfrey says. “I love seeing more offbeat, weird, edgy cinema being celebrated. Every event has its programming point of view, and that’s part of ours. It’s perfect for our audience, and it’s exciting to see that kind of work breaking through.”