How SXSW Became a Haven for Mainstream Studio Comedies

AUSTIN, TX: “So do we like to laugh here at South by Southwest?” asked festival director Janet Pierson in the introduction to Monday night’s premiere of the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard, and the reaction was, unsurprisingly, affirmative. Yet not all festival crowds might react the same way. The common perception of the “film festival movie” is something staid and serious and perhaps even dull: micro-budgeted black-and-white relationship dramas, documentaries on puzzlingly esoteric topics, maybe a coming-of-age-in-the-summer movie with a few mild chuckles. Director Paul Feig announced Sunday night, at the premiere of his comedy Spy, “Film festivals are a very dangerous thing, because we’re comedians and we do comedy, and we tend to be looked at the bastard children of real movies.” But comedy filmmakers — even those like Feig who work with big budgets for big studios — have found an unlikely home at SXSW. “Austin really opens up its heart and just allows us to entertain you,” he explained to the sold-out crowd at the Paramount Theater, which cheered wildly in response.

That sound, of wild, raucous laughter at the festival’s biggest venue goes a long way towards explaining how SXSW has become an unlikely but essential destination on the whistle-stop publicity tour for a certain kind of studio comedy. Since Judd Apatow chose the Texas music, interactive, and film festival to unveil Knocked Up back in 2007, several projects related to him — either directly or featuring alums of his work — have debuted here, including Bridesmaids in 2011, 21 Jump Street in 2012, and Neighbors last year. This year, the lineup included premieres of three big studio comedies: Universal’s Trainwreck (produced and directed by Apatow), Fox’s Spy (written and directed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig), and Warner Brothers’ Get Hard (from frequent Apatow collaborators Ferrell and Adam McKay). Each one tells a slightly different story about what exactly their studio is selling, and how they’re choosing to sell it.

Paul Feig, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Canavale at the SXSW premiere of "Spy"

It’s important to note a couple of things about SXSW and its audience. In contrast to the Serious Film folks and industry types at a Sundance or Toronto, the audience in Austin tends to be looser, open to both goofy genre pictures and more mainstream fare. The atmosphere is more laid-back as well; the sun is shining, the beer is flowing, the food trucks are plentiful. And, most significantly, every time a film writer sees a movie at SXSW, he or she is seeing it with an audience. At most fests, critics see some films at public showings (when they can manage to wrangle tickets) but do most of their viewing at dour press and industry screenings. There are none of those screenings at SXSW. All movie-going there is a group activity — and so those who write about these movies aren’t seeing them with their jaded colleagues, but with an enthusiastic festival crowd.

And any comedy filmmaker will tell you that they would prefer, without exception, for their films to be seen by the largest and loudest group possible, because laughter is contagious. And so when Apatow and like-minded comic filmmakers screen their movies at the Paramount, they’re hoping for what happened with Knocked Up and Bridesmaids and Neighbors: the rowdy Austin audience eats it up and laughs their asses off, the reviews from SXSW rave about what a crowd-pleasing laugh riot it is, Twitter is filled with festival attendees singing its praises, and a wave of buzz is created that the picture rides all the way through the spring to its summer release.

The cast and crew of "Trainwreck" at its SXSW work-in-progress screening.

Trainwreck is certainly following that blueprint. It was presented as a “work-in-progress” (as was Bridesmaids, among others), which may be a case of mere semantics; talent is often contractually obligated to attend the film’s premiere, and they may want to save that distinction for the New York or LA premiere closer to release date. (But what star doesn’t wanna go hang out in Austin?) And they get the extra bonus of using the “work-in-progress” distinction if the movie doesn’t play (“Hey, we’re still working on it!”).

But Trainwreck did play, of course; that was never in doubt. Schumer is a favorite of this sorta-alt-comedy crowd, Apatow knows how to put together big comic set pieces, and the relationship at the picture’s center — how it happens, how it falters, how it can be saved — accumulates into what is, in many ways, a fairly conventional romantic comedy. At its best, it acknowledges and even sends up those conventions (there’s a great romantic montage sequence, scored to “Rhapsody in Blue” no less, that includes a Woody Allen jab and a deconstructing voice-over with lines like, “I hope this love montage ends like Jonestown”). But at heart, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and this crowd was pleased; the buzz on Trainwreck is now that it’s a must-see, and that buzz will sustain it for a while.

A good SXSW screening can also work as a bit of a corrective. Spy, the latest collaboration between director Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, looks like a pretty generic studio comedy. The centerpiece gag in the trailers finds the star trying to give chase on a scooter and falling over; it’s being sold as another slapstick McCarthy vehicle, like Identity Thief or Tammy. But audiences at its Sunday night screening (where it was savvily programmed directly after Trainwreck at the Paramount) were surprised to discover a sharp, edgy — it’s a good, hard R — energetic action/comedy that’s closer to Beverly Hills Cop than Spy Hard. The rap on Spy is now that it’s really worth seeing, and that rap can now spread among an audience that probably would’ve skipped it.

Kevin Hart, Etan Coen, and Will Ferrell at the SXSW premiere of "Get Hard"

However, the put-your-big-comedy-at-SXSW plan isn’t foolproof. Witness Monday night’s Get Hard screening, which started out like another high-impact premiere. Stars Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell gave a rousing intro that got the entire Paramount on its feet, and lest you think these festival screenings aren’t about social media buzz, here’s a direct quote of Mr. Hart’s instructions to the audience: “What I want from you guys is this. Right now, what we have the ability to do is immediately talk about something that we love. As soon as we’re done watching this movie, I wanna talk to y’all about it. Jump on Twitter. Talk to me. @-me. Tell me what you thought of the movie. Hashtag ‘GetHard.’ I will respond, I’ll talk to y’all back. If you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Vine, talk about it.” Hart has built his audience on social media, so he knows how the game is played; he also knows his movie opens in a week and a half, and it’s time to sell it.

Hart also offered up these instructions for those who didn’t care for his latest: “If you don’t like it, go out in the street, and kill yourself.” But based on the foot traffic on Congress Street afterwards, most of those who disliked Get Hard just went ahead and took those complaints to Twitter — or to director Etan Cohen, at a post-movie Q&A that got a little hostile. You can read about it here via the LA Times; I read about it as it was happening. On Twitter.

To be sure, a fair number of viewers were wowed by the chance to see Hart and Ferrell in the flesh and cut the film some slack, but the buzz on this one was certainly mixed-to-muted, particularly compared to Trainwreck and Spy. And for good reason; Get Hard is a bad film, hamstrung by a weak screenplay that leans too heavily on stock characters, tired stereotypes, and prison rape jokes. And it ultimately goes to show that you can’t take anything for granted. The SXSW audience may be loose, and they may be rowdy, and they may be primed to embrace your studio comedy. But at the end of the day, they’re still a film festival audience — and the one thing a film festival audience won’t abide is a lousy movie.