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Indie Roots: Everything You Need to Know About SXSW Film Festival

Spicy Latino Cinema: producer DeVon Franklin and director Eva Longoria premiered their movie "Flamin' Hot" at SXSW. / Photo by Daniel Boczarky, courtesy of SXSW.

Spicy Latino Cinema: producer DeVon Franklin and director Eva Longoria premiered their movie "Flamin' Hot" at SXSW. / Photo by Daniel Boczarky, courtesy of SXSW.

Save date! South by Southwest, the largest Festival in the US, announced March 17-15, 2025, as their next date. Those days now belong to SXSW, so don't think about scheduling anything else competing with it. When we say it's the largest fest in the US, we are not kidding. There is a healthy Movie & TV competition, but it goes further, creating spaces for music, technical innovation, and knowledge sharing. You can launch a book, interview an expert on climate change, and give a banjo recital if that's your kind of bag - and if your proposal passes muster with the organizer.

But I digress. For us, the main event is the Film Festival, which runs parallel to a creator-centric conference circuit that invokes the biggest names in the industry - and its most eccentric talents -. Here, you can learn from the indie-to-Marvel path of director Jon Favreau, soak up the hard-earned lesson of DIY filmmaking of Mark Duplass, get industry insight from producer extraordinaire Christine Vachon, and bask in the glow of Texas' own Richard Linklater. Imagine any of these luminaires can happen to sneak into your debut short while killing time between panels. It makes you want to apply to the SXSW Film Fest, right?

A Little Bit of History

In the beginning, South by Southwest had nothing to do with film. The founders of a music festival based in New York wanted to replicate the event in the South and roped in The Austin Chronicle's journalist Roland Swenson to help. The out-of-towners eventually bailed, and nothing came out of that particular plan. However, Swenson took over the reins. He contacted colleagues Louis Black and Nick Barbara and sold them on the idea. 

In March 1987, SXSW was officially born. The three-day event identified itself as a "Music and Media Conference." Showcases ran overnight, simultaneously, in up to 13 venues at a time. Most of the acts were local or neighbors from other southern states.

With time, SXSW began to grow, achieving national and international scope. In 1994, it went beyond music and opened the "SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference." Those were the heady days when the internet was in its infancy, and CD-Roms were cutting-edge technology - shout out to Microsoft's "Cinemania"! -. 

Opening doors: Greg Araki and many other luminaires from the '90s indie wave found a spotlight at SXSW. / Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Opening doors: Greg Araki and many other luminaires from the '90s indie wave found a spotlight at SXSW. / Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

The 1994 Film program included Rusty Cundieff's ahead-of-its-time rap satire "Fear of a Black Hat" and Gregg Araki's "Totally F***ed Up" - part of a trilogy that includes the recently restored "Nowhere" -.  One year later, SXSW opened a film competition. More established and up-and-coming talents flocked to the platform. Art House titles like Denys Arcand's "Love and Human Remains" planted their flag in the American market with regional premieres. The rest of the lineup is nothing to scoff at: Hal Hartley's "Amateur," Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven," James Gray's "Little Odessa," Daisy von Scherler Meyer's "Party Girl," John Sayles' "The Secret of Roan Inish," Steven Soderbergh's "The Underneath," and many more contributed to making SXSW a Sundance-caliber event.  

Texas roots: the best directors of our generation, like James Grey, got their foot in the door at SXSX. / Photo by Denis Makarenko©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Texas roots: the best directors of our generation, like James Grey, got their foot in the door at SXSX. / Photo by Denis Makarenko©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Competitive Categories

SXSW is an industry showcase. Established talents find plenty of opportunities to strut their stuff and declare commercial viability. 

Oscar-nominated actor Dev Patel brought his unlikely action movie, "Monkey Man," which, despite his fame, he produced himself as a labor of love. Big studios take up space to preview their tentpoles and start building word-of-mouth. A24 brought their sleeper Spring hit "Civil War."

Universal premiered its big summer contender, "The Fall Guy," at a gala this year. Ryan Gosling charmed festivalgoers, and the movie was rapturously received. However, come the theatrical run, audiences failed to show up in the numbers needed to validate a plus-100 million production.

Blockbuster launch pad: Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt promoting "The Fall Guy" / Photo by Starstock©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

Blockbuster launch pad: Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt promoting "The Fall Guy" / Photo by Starstock©, courtesy of Dreamstime.

The feature film section reserved for the big boys offers 11 programs defined by genre or thematic affinity, with vague monikers like "Headliners" and "Spotlight"—fair enough, SXSW is not the sole fest guilty of this charge. Other programs are self-explanatory: "Midnighters" aims for genre and cultish movies; "Global" encompasses world cinema.

Alas, as promoters of new filmmakers, the categories that matter the most to us are the ones where you can compete. Yes, you! The organizers are very generous. A quick scan of the 2024 program reveals that at least when it comes to shorts, world or US premieres are not demanded. Just this year, plenty of Sundance competitors also made it into the official competition in Texas, like "The Rainbow Bridge," "Say Hi After You Die," and "Snake." Also double-dipping, the Best Animated Short "Bug Dinner."

Post Sundance exposure: SXSW opens its doors to movies that played in other festivals like Jane Schoenbrun's "I Saw the TV Glow" / Photo courtesy of A24.

Post Sundance exposure: SXSW opens its doors to movies that played in other festivals like Jane Schoenbrun's "I Saw the TV Glow" / Photo courtesy of A24.

SXSW is an Oscar-qualifying festival. Therefore, it follows the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' rule to define shorts and feature films. The reference is 40 minutes in running time, including credits. Shorts go under that signpost; features go over it. Yes! A one-hour fiction can qualify as a feature. In the immortal words of Vincent Vega, "It's freaky, but it happens!"

These are the official competitive categories at SXSW:

Narrative Feature Competition

Documentary Feature Competition

Narrative Short Competition

Documentary Short Competition

Animated Short Competition

Midnight Short Competition

Texas Short Competition

Who Decides the Winners?

Each competing category has a three-person jury, which operates entirely independently of Festival authorities. The juries include artists, filmmakers, executives, academics, journalists, and critics. 

A parallel set of Audience Awards adds glitz to the competitive categories covered by the so-called Grand Juries. The public can also choose their favorites in the showcase and premiere categories, where established talents display their stuff. 2024 winners include Dev Patel's "Monkey Man." The Colman Domingo-starrer "Sing Sing," directed by Greg Kwedar, took Festival Favorite. Chances are you will start hearing about it in the run-up to the Oscars.

Award-worthy contenders: Colman Domingo will be in the Oscar conversation thanks to "Sing Sing" / Photo courtesy of A24.

Award-worthy contenders: Colman Domingo will be in the Oscar conversation thanks to "Sing Sing" / Photo courtesy of A24.

When Can You Apply to SXSW?

Soon enough! Submissions open on July 23 and close on October 2. That gives you about two months to put your duck in a row. As usual, several deadlines come into play to separate early from late submissions. The first deadline is August 27, and the second is September 17. The final deadline is, you guessed it, October 2.

There are seven film-related competitive categories, and some of them are Oscar, BAFTA, and Indie Spirit qualifying! This kind of perk should motivate you to submit your project.

How to Submit Your Film to SXSW?

Submitting your film to a festival can be daunting, but SXSW keeps things easy. They only accept submissions via their own platform. Come July 23, 2024, you hit them up on SXSW.COM and follow the prompts. They will ask for a secure link to an online version of your film. It can be on Vimeo, a personal website, or other external sites they define in their rules. They even made a note telling you NOT to send a DVD copy. At least you won't have to dig in your attic for that old DVD burner collecting dust somewhere.

The bad news is that this is the ONLY way to submit your film. If you rely on submission platforms like FilmFreeway, there is no dice. You will have to do some extra work.

As usual, we offer general references regarding dates and requirements. Check out the official data on SXSW's website and subscribe to their newsletter for up-to-date information.

Daddy issues: Tracey Laimon's "Bob Trevino Likes It," starring John Leguizamo and "Euforia"'s Barbie Ferreira, took both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature at the 2024 SXSW. / Photo courtesy of Myriad Pictures and SXSW.

Daddy issues: Tracey Laimon's "Bob Trevino Likes It," starring John Leguizamo and "Euforia"'s Barbie Ferreira, took both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature at the 2024 SXSW. / Photo courtesy of Myriad Pictures and SXSW.

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