“You must be real excited” says the SXSW coordinator handing me my Filmmaker badge in the registration hall at SXSW, “You guys are playing the Paramount – that’s huge”. Huge as in massively prestigious or huge as in massively big? I wonder. I soon find out it’s the latter – the Paramount seats 1200 people and our film is due to play there on Wednesday afternoon. My mind immediately flashes up an image of us doing a Q&A in front of a colossal auditorium with about 5 people sat there, one of them’s asleep, another’s texting and the rest are ushers. I decide not to think about it but send an anxious text requesting more poster putter-uppers.
Austin is clearly a rocking town with or without SXSW coming to stay – so much so that it’s hard to believe that this is where George Bush chose to live. There are bars you’d travel miles for in London on just about every corner and in front of each stands a sizzling taco truck waiting for you to fall drunkenly in its porky arms. If you’re English, the locals are suspiciously lovely, enthusiastic and hospitable hipsters, all ink and beard, that make Dimitri (producer) and I want to cut the sleeves off our t-shirts, roll around in the dirt and go get some words tattooed on our necks. En route to the hotel I get an email from Miami Film Festival, where we’ve just arrived from, saying that we’ve won the Grand Jury Prize – we’re so stunned that we have to call them to check!
Buzzing from the news, Dimitri, Poppy (co-producer) and I head out toward 6th street where crowds are spilling out of cranking clubs – some with SXSW Film badges, some with SXSW Interactive badges (most of the interactives can be found staring at their phones, busily tweeting about what a killer time they’re having, whilst socially mobilising other interactives to gather together and stare at their phones en masse). Nevertheless, this tweeting thing has begun to obsess me – as soon as a screening ends twitter is alive with people giving their miniature verdict – the other day a girl twittered her irritation that I was wearing the same shirt/shoe combo for the Q&A that I had on at Sundance!? It seems I must have inadvertently acquired a special Q&A outfit, and, possibly also a stalker. At a screening at True/False I introduced the film then moved to a nearby bar while the film played. Unable to resist a quick twitter check for “the Imposter” – I find a 2-minute old tweet from someone actually sat in the audience watching the movie: “OMG – Watching the The Imposter at #TRUE/FALSE – totally gripped!!” – I wonder how gripped you can really be if you feel the need to tweet your state of grippedness.
Our first SXSW screening is at the Lamar theatre – why is there nowhere like this in the UK? In front of each row of seats is a long bench with slots for menus, paper and pencils. Then in front of the bench is a space for servers to steal up and down, take your order and return with burgers, beer or Mexican food! Now this is a cinema! The screening is packed out. I intro the film then lurk in the back as an audience of munchers, slurpers and belchers sits transfixed – quietly masticating in a darkness thick with burrito. Credits roll, an amazing response, a great Q&A followed by an outpouring of tweety enthusiasm. We are stoked! Hopefully word will spread and the Paramount will attract a smattering more takers.
The next day it’s back to back press interviews with everyone from Ain’t it Cool News to the Austin Statesman and even a somewhat questionable encounter with The Diabolical League of Awesome - friendly “journalists” who absolutely rave about the film, but who I’m not completely sure realise it was a documentary. We answer the same questions 30 or 40 times over the course of the day and do our utmost to sound interesting. Night falls and we attempt to locate the “hottest party in town” – this is pretty much a losing battle – kind of like all those rubbish New Years Eves you had as a teenager where you spend most of the night convinced you should be at the other party only to find yourself caught between the two, sat next to a sleeping tramp on a night bus as midnight strikes.
So we enlist the help of our handsome new Hollywood agent who drags us off to the 21 Jump Street party where we rub shoulders with Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow and a gaggle of agents, models and self-proclaimed actor-writer-producer-director-producer-cinematographers. The thing about these parties is that everyone wants to be there but no actually one looks like they’re actually having much fun - with the possible exception of Jonah Hill, who’s wearing a police uniform and fending off blonde girls with skin almost the exact same colour as their hair.
Today’s the day of reckoning – 2:30pm at the Paramount Theatre – will it be empty, half-full or maxed out? I spend the morning with a churning feeling in the pit of my stomach – could be the steady diet of smoked brisket and grits but I’m wagering it’s nerves. We arrive early for a tech-check. The place is ginormous, the screen is huge, the picture looks phenomenal and the sound is trouser-shaking. By quarter to two the rush line is filling up nicely but what of the actual film-goers? Where are they? It’s a beautiful day, I’m convinced everyone will be out drinking in the sun. Anna from Film 4 notices me pacing, “The badge line starts round the corner,” she tells me. So we go look to see if anyone’s actually standing there. I take out my iPhone to record the terrifying evidence:
To our enormous shock and relief the queue stretches to the end of the block and beyond.
It’s pretty incredible, especially if you’ve only worked in TV before, to sit in a packed theatre as big and beautiful as that one – with hundreds of strangers staring silently at this thing you spent months and months working on, driving everyone you know round the bend, and then actually see an audience (a real audience!) from Texas, where the story takes place, responding to it in the way you prayed they might. Then the relief of finally hearing them erupt in applause because they have been on a journey for the last 95 minutes that absorbed them – one that hopefully entertained them, moved them and even made them question what they thought they knew about human beings. So thank you SXSW and Austin for one of those rare and ‘huge’ moments that we’ll keep living and reliving over and over again.
The Q&A was a blur but the audience, as is typical of Austin, were clever and generous and thoughtful. Some friends from London were there and along with a great bunch from Film4 we went to a rooftop bar around the corner to do the post mortem. I can’t resist the lure of the tweet – I surreptitiously type in “The Imposter”. One in particular catches my eye: “The Imposter = wow. Believe the hype. What a terrific doc-thriller. Could be one of the best docs this year. #SXSW” – ” turns out it’s by Matt Dentler, former head of SXSW Film Festival, now head of iTunes. We can go home happy.