IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS Cannes, and it was good. Then came New York in the sixties, Toronto in the seventies, and Sundance in the eighties. Each of these film festivals purported to be the mystical embodiment of uncompromised artistic vision, but like everything else that’s original, they got co-opted by the mainstream. They got too big and too popular too fast, leaving in their wake a void, a hole in the soul of the indie film world.
At the moment, that void is being filled by two upstart gatherings in Austin, the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference ( SXSW) and the Austin Film Festival ( AFF), which have generated electricity because of the women who run them: Nancy Schafer, SXSW’s executive producer, and Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam, AFF’s co-founders. Not that there aren’t other festivals in Texas; WorldFest-Houston and Dallas’ USA Film Festival, for instance, have been around for 31 and 25 years, respectively. But until SXSW and AFF were created in 1994, no festival had so successfully fulfilled the import-export aspect of its mission: bringing major films and filmmakers from elsewhere to Texas and exposing Texas talent—and Texas itself—to the rest of the world.
How does Austin support two nationally respected film festivals when many comparable cities don’t even have one? Good question. From the beginning, SXSW and AFF have eyed each other warily. But by taking different tacks, they’ve managed to coexist. SXSW comes off in March and focuses on filmmaking. AFF hits in October and is devoted solely to film writing.
SXSW, which has grown in attendance each year—around 350 in ’94, more than 1,800 in ’98—has often been likened to Sundance in its early days. That’s largely because of the boundless energy of 29-year-old Schafer, who books the nearly 150 films that are shown multiple times over nine days and pulls together four days of panels and seminars featuring industry bigwigs like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez. Two years ago, SXSW premiered John Sayles’ critically acclaimed Lone Star (Sayles was on hand to introduce it). This year’s special guests included Academy award—winner Jonathan Demme, Academy award—nominee Atom