Heartbroken SXSW filmmakers look for alternatives after coronavirus cancellation

March 11, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC

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Alice Gu and her crew spent thousands on flights and a cramped but serviceable Airbnb. Post-production deadlines were rushed at the expense of sleep. Street teams and marketing activations were organized. Doughnut shops around Austin were called—could they make special treats to advertise the occasion? “An Easter egg hunt kind of thing,” Gu says. And they’d need doughnuts too for the world premiere of her first feature film, documentary The Donut King. Not to mention the afterparty Q&A. Anything to get a buzz going. There’d be agents, managers, and film distributors searching for talent around the city.

The monthslong, meticulous planning would end up being all for naught. This year’s South by Southwest festival was canceled in the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak. And while some of the up-and-coming filmmakers set to showcase work at the annual gathering are finding that travel costs can be refunded, the chance to impress crowds in the presence of industry movers and shakers is priceless—and now lost.

“It sucks the most that this is happening to South by because it champions independent, emerging, and first-time filmmakers the most out of any festival I know,” says Emma Seligman, director of Shiva Baby, one of the 10 films selected to screen in this year’s narrative feature competition at SXSW.

“A festival like a Sundance or Cannes, the slots they have for first-time filmmakers are a really small number of films that they accept,” Seligman adds. “South by is the only festival in my mind that is so highly regarded that also gives them a chance.”

A still from the film “Shiva Baby,” directed by Emma Seligman.
Emma Seligman

The impact of SXSW’s cancellation on independent filmmakers can manifest in multiple ways. Some come to Austin specifically looking to gain distribution deals or representation right then and there, knowing that other prestigious festivals may be out of reach at this stage of their careers. Others look to use SXSW as a springboard for their films, opting to debut at the buzzy festival before screening at others throughout the year.

In Gu’s case, she had committed to two other smaller festivals later this year, but saw SXSW as a crucial first step to building momentum for a potential sale. She says she turned down “another major festival” in order to screen The Donut King in Austin.

“People plan their festivals super carefully. You want to premiere at a big festival, but now it’s like—do we pull out from other festivals that we already committed to?” she says. “After speaking with our team, there was talk of, ‘Oh god, do we hold now? It’s too late for Tribeca. Do we wait for Telluride or Toronto?’ That was never part of the plan.”

A still from the film “The Donut King,” directed by Alice Gu.
Alice Gu

“You line everything up and arrange the submissions accordingly,” says Noah Hutton, director of Lapsis, another one of the 10 films that was set to screen at the narrative feature competition. “For a lot of filmmakers, it’s like, ‘Should we wait for a bigger festival? Should we continue and go to a smaller festival?'”

Hutton’s main goal at SXSW was to garner press coverage of his film—reviews or interviews with himself or the cast. “If big distributors see a film is being talked about, they’re much more likely to be interested,” he says. “We were relying on that moment.”

Like Gu, Hutton had another film festival lined up for after SXSW: the Cleveland International Film Festival. It’s a respected competition, but not one that generates as much buzz as SXSW. “It’s a wild shift in expectations to go from getting into a highly prestigious festival and feeling like you’re going to have this big moment, and that not happening,” he says. “You’re wondering how this film is going to have its arrival out in the world.” (Shortly after this article published, the Cleveland International Film Festival was also canceled due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus).

And with the coronavirus, or COVID-19, growing more widespread, there’s no guarantee that other festivals in the coming months will even happen. On Tuesday, the popular music festival Coachella set to begin in April was pushed to October. Also announced on Tuesday was the outright cancellation of this year’s Prague International Film Festival.

A still from the film “Lapsis,” directed by Noah Hutton.
Noah Hutton

Filmmakers like Shiva Baby‘s Seligman are mourning the loss of “enthusiastic public audiences, as opposed to just a screening room with industry people.” But, she says, that’s exactly how she will proceed. “We decided to move ahead with screening the movie for buyers, a strategy that a lot of films are going to take,” she explains. “We still think it’s important to get the film into the marketplace.”

Others have floated the idea of streaming services stepping in and acquiring the rights of SXSW films. “Which of u streamers is gonna bring us these @sxsw films?” tweeted director and actor Mark Duplass. “Maybe buy short term rights & host a virtual festival on your site? See which ones click & even make official offers from there? Give these worthy filmmakers a platform to show their work?”

The likes of Netflix and Amazon are known for buying distribution rights of films at festivals like Sundance, but so far they have been mum on the possibility for this year’s SXSW movies. Representatives from both companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In spite of everything, some participating filmmakers at SXSW are taking matters in their own hands, organizing online meetups with fellow directors and mulling over the possibility of hosting DIY screenings. But, Hutton concedes, “You can’t depend on people coming to screenings right now” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “We might be heading to a place where everyone’s sending out links.”

Each of the filmmakers Fortune spoke with say they have yet to have further communication with festival organizers beyond an initial cancellation email. But they say they are understanding of why the decision was made, sympathize with the organizers deeply, and are hopeful the circumstances happened for a reason.

Says Hutton: “I’m hoping it will present some other opportunity that doesn’t exist yet.”

Update, March 11, 2020: This story now includes the cancellation of the Cleveland International Film Festival.

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