SXSW returns to Austin in person this week. For many Texans, the festival’s 2020 cancellation marked the moment the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit a little bit closer to home.
After going virtual in 2021, SXSW Film director Janet Pierson says her team wasn’t sure what this year’s festival was going to look like until very recently.
“Here we are, getting close and it seems to be happening. And it’s really exciting that, you know, wow people are going to be able to gather together in a festival setting to see movies,” Pierson said.
Every film will have an in-person premiere but most films will also be available online. Pierson says keeping that option available was a lesson learned during COVID.
“A wider accessibility, a wider affordability,” Pierson said. “So we knew there was an aspect that people loved about online, although there is nothing like seeing a film in person with a real audience.”
The film festival lineup is intentionally leaner than in pre-pandemic years. There used to be about 130 features. In 2021’s virtual format, they trimmed that to around 75. This year, they split the difference with about 90 features. That choice was also, in part, related to ongoing, though lessened, concerns about the risks of spreading COVID-19.
“More time between screenings, with the venues having more time to kind of get people in and out safely allow for cleaning,” Pierson said.
Pierson says this year’s SXSW Film lineup also reflects our pandemic experiences.
“So last year, you had a lot of Zoom films, and this year, not as many. Although it comes up and you see in a lot of the documentaries this year, you’ll see something in place and then you’ll see them having to adjust to COVID. And all of a sudden people who hadn’t been wearing masks are – or all of a sudden people are on Zoom where they haven’t been,” Pierson said.
It’s in those documentary categories where audiences will especially see a lot of Texas. A couple of films feature prominent Texans, including “Finding Nolan” about Nolan Ryan and “The Return of Tanya Tucker.”
The SXSW audience will be the first in the world to see Richard Linklater’s new film, “Apollo 10½.”
“It’s from the perspective of a 10-and-a-half-year-old and kind of during the moon landing. And it’s very specific in time, and it’s very Texas, and it’s kind of a beautiful kind of memory immersion film,” Pierson said.
Another world premiere is the opening night film, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” – which Pierson calls “extraordinary.”
“I mean, it really lives up to its title,” Pierson said. “It’s a tour de force. It’s a family drama that’s innovative and exciting and impossible to characterize, but just works. And when you see something that’s original that actually is emotionally grounded, it’s so rare and it’s so exciting. So we just couldn’t be more happy to be associated with this film. It was like a gift that fell in our lao to be able to present it. It’s just beyond exciting.”
To participate in that excitement, you’ll have to have a SXSW badge. Even the films with online options require a badge this year. The only non-badge option would be to try your luck for extra space in an in-person screening in Austin.
SXSW’s EDU Expo is underway now. The film and interactive portions start on Friday and the music kicks off next week.