One year after COVID shut it down, the SXSW Film Festival announces full virtual lineup

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This combination photo shows Demi Lovato performing at the o2 in east London, on June 25, 2018, left, and Tom Petty performing during the Vegoose music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 28, 2006. Documentaries about Lovato and Petty are among the films set to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year. (AP Photo)

Photo: Associated Press

When the annual South by Southwest event was canceled by city officials in Austin, Texas, one week before it was set to begin in March 2020, it was among the earlier signs that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have a major impact on the entertainment industry and many other aspects of American life. While the SXSW Film Festival scrambled to put on a limited online event in the wake of the cancellation, one year later organizers have announced a full program for their entirely virtual 2021 edition, scheduled to run March 16-20.

With a lineup that includes 75 features, down from more than 130 last year, SXSW continues to reflect the moment we’re in and the trend of pared-back, largely virtual festivals. Organizers had previously announced the event would be online, and the festival had a shortened submission window.

“It’s just a very engaging experience of trying to move forward and then having to readapt and readapt and readapt,” Janet Pierson, the festival’s director of film, said in an interview this week about the planning for this year’s event. “And I noticed it with all our industry partners, people we spoke to, you could just see people changing. Like, ‘We would never do that’ and then a month later they’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this now.’

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”It’s just everyone trying to be humble about what they’re learning and what they’re trying and bringing this sort of beautiful spirit of, ‘Let’s try to get to the parts of this stuff that are so important to us. Let’s find ways to connect. Let’s try to find ways to enjoy great work.’ And it’s challenging every day.“

The 2021 edition will continue the film festival’s strong connection to the SXSW music festival. As previously announced, the festival will open with the world premiere of Michael D. Ratner’s “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” a documentary look at the pop singer’s near-fatal drug overdose in 2018. The closing-day premiere is “Alone Together,” directed by Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler, a portrait of pop star Charli XCX recording an album in quarantine. Also screening as part of the Headliners section is “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” directed by Mary Wharton and drawn from newly discovered footage of Petty recording his 1994 album, “Wildflowers.”

Eight films will play in the festival’s narrative feature competition. On the documentary side, “Introducing, Selma Blair,” directed by Rachel Fleit, is a portrait of the actor pursuing a risky medical procedure after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Brendan FitzGerald’s “The Oxy Kingpins” examines the opioid crisis. “Alien on Stage,” directed by Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey, is about a group of British bus drivers who stage an amateur theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”

The festival will feature a 2020 Spotlight of nine films that were slated to premiere as part of last year’s event, including Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli’s “Best Summer Ever,” Malcolm Ingram’s “Clerk,” Elle Callahan’s “Witch Hunt,” Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s “Without Getting Killed or Caught” and Justine Bateman’s “Violet.”

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The Sundance Film Festival just released the numbers for its mostly virtual 2021 event this week, reporting an increase of more than 2 1/2 times the number of views from its prepandemic, in-person event last year.

More information about this year’s SXSW Film Festival and the full lineup can be found at the festival’s website, www.sxsw.com




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