My Movie Was Supposed to Premiere Today at SXSW. Now What?
Noah Hutton is one of hundreds of indie filmmakers whose projects are in limbo following the cancellation of SXSW. What happens now to their projects? Will they ever be seen?
Right about now, Noah Hutton was supposed to be a few drinks in at The Highball, the bar that’s attached to the Alamo Drafthouse over on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Texas.
Maybe after another Highball Old Fashioned, one of the colleagues from his film, Lapsis, would have goaded him into a duet, given the venue’s reputation for karaoke. Over on the honey-wood bar, he’d imagine guests thumbing through some of the temporary tattoos he had made to promote the movie, stills from a training video in the film that would probably make people who saw it smile and make those who hadn’t want to check it out. Under the light of the disco ball, he’d squint to see the first reviews of the film on his phone as they started to trickle in.
Hutton wrote, directed, edited, and composed the music for Lapsis, his narrative feature debut as a filmmaker. His movie was scheduled to premiere Monday afternoon at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, where it was programmed in the narrative competition and hoped to be picked up for distribution.
The annual festival sent shockwaves through the industry when it announced March 6 that it was canceling this year’s event as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. SXSW was the first domino to fall in a series of closures and cancellations across the country, culminating in the weekend announcement that New York City and Los Angeles will be shuttering movie theaters entirely, along with restaurants, bars, and gyms.
No one is decrying these necessary public health and safety steps. But these cancellations still have caused understandable disappointment and frustration among those who worked hard for and looked forward to opportunities that have been canceled. Hutton is among hundreds of indie filmmakers who planned to premiere projects at SXSW and are now left not only without a debut screening, but without the industry platform the festival would have given their work.
They’re all left with one major question: Now what?
“We had this big group of people that was going to go down [to Austin] to have this big moment of celebration for this small indie project that everyone gave themselves to last summer,” Hutton said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “So it was a real crazy twist in our story to not be going down there.”
Hutton, who had been to SXSW twice before to premiere documentary projects, has been developing Lapsis for three years. It’s described as a “blue-collar sci-fi” film, centered around a delivery man named Ray who is struggling to support himself and his ailing brother.
Desperate and coming up short on his hustles, Ray takes a peculiar new job in a gig economy, one that has him trek deep into the forest to lay cables connecting massive metal cubes that power the new quantum trading market. But when he catches on to the more sinister quirks of the job, he’s faced with the decision to get rich and get out, or sound the alarm to help his fellow workers.
In a press note, the film is described as “a gritty story of the messy exploitative underbelly that tech companies often rely on to uphold their glossy facades.”
Hutton and his team saw the writing on the wall when major companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter began pulling out of the festival. Once the announcement was officially made, their first thought was how unpredictably timely their film has turned out to be. The entire narrative stems from this character, Ray, having to make money in order to pay for his brother to get to a clinic and get tested for a mysterious illness.
“We’d like to figure out a way to connect this film to things that are going on in the world right now,” Hutton said. “Not to take advantage of the moment, but just to show that this film, which was originally written in response to forces in the world, feels like it’s becoming more pertinent to the world we’re living in.”
But the cancellation of SXSW means the team is without the infrastructure and platform to get that word out.
The point of these festivals is for smaller films to be seen for the first time with an industry audience outsized to the scale of the project. That marks the start of an amplifying effect that hopefully leads to distribution and an eventual release. An ideal trajectory involves industry press attending the first screenings and writing reviews, which Hutton said is extremely important.
“There are two moments when reviews can be written, the festival premiere or a release date,” he said. “For films like ours that don’t have a distributor yet, to get reviews written at the festival premiere is crucial to getting those distributors interested in the film to begin with. So that whole ecosystem of industry and press looking at the film for the first time, it means everything for a small independent film.”
With that ecosystem disrupted, now there’s uncertainty. How will films like his find buyers? Will critics still review them? What about streaming platforms? In the absence of a traditional festival setup and auction process, will they step in and bring them to their streaming platforms—something that seems especially advantageous given the number of Americans currently confined to their homes?
SXSW organizers have taken steps to address this.
The jury competitions are still taking place, with panels adjudicating using streaming links. There is also a secure online screening library called Shift72 that was previously meant for key industry players who couldn’t make it to the festival, but is now being made more widely available to press, buyers, and members of the industry. Filmmakers are given the choice to opt-in to the platform. And there are industry publications, led by IndieWire.com, that are continuing to remotely review and cover films that were meant to screen at the festival as planned, with permission from the filmmakers.
But the fact remains that none of these measures are substitutes for the impact and the reach of the live SXSW event.
There are some filmmakers who are opting to postpone any viewing of their projects, figuring that it is better to wait until they can have a proper festival premiere to promote their work. Others, like, Hutton, just want to get their films out as soon and as widely as possible, even if it means foregoing a traditional festival experience—particularly as most festivals scheduled in the coming months have already been or are likely to be canceled, too.
(SXSW is allowing films to retain their “world premiere” status for whatever future occasion finally marks their public unveilings.)
“I feel that this particular film feels timely and relevant,” Hutton said. “While the energy to get this film out is sort of secondary to the greater issues that we're facing right now, I still feel like people are going to be home maybe for a while and I would like to share this film with the world.”
The circumstances aren’t what anyone imagined. Hutton is trying to get links to his film and Shift72 access to anyone he thinks could help it garner press attention or potential distributors’ eyes, a nimble redirect of the energy he thought he’d spend promoting his film on the ground in Austin at the moment.
In that process, he’s been struck by the sense of community that’s been fostered with the other SXSW filmmakers who are in similar situations, particularly those also in the narrative competition, who have been in near-constant communication since the cancellation was official. There’s an element of it all that feels, for all the frustration and disappointment, galvanizing and a little bit special.
“It’s like the fire alarm being pulled in the middle of the show, and, like, everyone finds themselves out on the street, looking around,” he said. “That solidarity you feel in that moment is wonderful and kind of binds an audience together. In this case, it's binding the filmmakers together. I think everyone still wants to make sure the next chapter of their stories can happen, which is getting the film out into the world. But for the time being, it's actually really helpful to feel this community come together.”