Looking back at Short Term 12, the 2013 SXSW breakout hit offers a prescient who’s who of some of Hollywood’s hottest actors in 2019. There’s Rami Malek, who took home the Best Actor trophy for Bohemian Rhapsody at the Academy Awards less than two weeks ago. There’s Lakeith Stanfield, who has appeared in a string of recent successes: Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and FX’s Atlanta. There’s Brie Larson, whose first lead role was in the micro-budget indie drama; on March 8, she leads the massive action blockbuster Captain Marvel. That’s not to mention rising talent, like Kaitlyn Dever, star of the forthcoming SXSW headliner Booksmart, and Stephanie Beatriz, the Brooklyn 99 and Bojack Horseman star who’s one lead film role away from the A-list.
The indie hit is an example of what SXSW hopes it can be for film. But Short Term 12, which director Destin Daniel Cretton expanded from a short film he made during film school and based on his own experiences working at a group home for at-risk teenagers, didn’t immediately seem like a sure bet.
SXSW programmer Janet Pierson says that the pitch for the film didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in her initially. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, counselors and disturbed kids.’ In your mind, you think it’s an after-school special, and I was not interested in it based on the log line,” she recalls. The cast of what was then a collection of obscure talent won her over. “But once you get into it, it’s just so good—the performances are just great, top-to-bottom, and it had a freshness to it that was so compelling.”
The movie immediately appealed to the SXSW audience, winning both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at the festival, but few would have predicted that so much of its young cast (Larson was 23 years old, Stanfield a year younger, Malek a youthful 32 years old) would go on to dominate Hollywood. Larson was the first of the cast to win an Oscar, in 2016 for her lead role in Room, and Malek followed suit three years later.
“I wasn’t familiar with Brie’s work at all when she came to our orientation in L.A., and she showed up excited, because this was her first leading role in a film,” Pierson recalls. Larson arrived at SXSW 2013 just as her career was ready to launch—a short film she directed, Weighting, also premiered at the festival. Pierson remembers her arriving at the orientation ready to work. “When she came in, she was just wearing flats and dressed very simply. She was just so engaged and happy to be in this artistic community, and then she engaged in a big way when she was here. She was super active on a lot of fronts.”
There’ve been other SXSW discoveries that launched big-time careers—Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture debuted at the festival in 2010, effectively beginning the Girls creator’s run in Hollywood; that same year, Monsters premiered, which led director Gareth Edwards to helm Godzilla and Star Wars: Rogue One. But Short Term 12 didn’t just launch one career, it launched nearly a half dozen. In that way, it echoes one of the more beloved Texas films of the past few decades: Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused didn’t premiere at the festival, but it did introduce the world to future Oscar winners Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Renee Zellweger, as well as stars like Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg.
For Pierson, one of the joys of her job is getting the chance to find and support projects like Short Term 12 and to be a part of launching a number of careers at once. “The mission of SXSW is to help artists achieve their goals, and for us, it’s tremendously exciting to be there early,” she says. That means that she’s excited for the successes that Larson and Malek have had, but she’s focused on projects beyond those from the festival’s biggest alumni. “You can’t be a closed shop. You can’t just show the same people over and over again,” she says. “Part of the curation process is to find a balance—to show people we’ve shown before, and to make sure there are new voices in the mix, who have no connection to anything.” That’s how she plans to make sure that SXSW will build on its track record to showcase the next generation of Oscar winners and superheroes.