Art of the Film Deal: Is South by Southwest Becoming the New Sundance?

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Jemal Countess / WireImage

Tom Quinn of Magnolia Pictures speaks at a panel in New York City on Sept. 19, 2007

Though it isn't always official, every party has a guest of honor. And on a recent Saturday night at the Alamo Drafthouse theater in Austin, I found myself sitting next to him. Tom Quinn is senior vice president and head of acquisitions for Magnolia Pictures and a longtime attendee of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, held here every March.

For most of its 25-year history, SXSW has been primarily a massive, scruffy gathering of musicians and their fans, and while its movie showcase began in 1994, it has only recently become an influential stage for filmmakers to gain distribution. It used to be that acquisitions execs would wait weeks to bid on movies that had screened at SXSW, if they attended at all: usually a junior staffer would be dispatched on a scouting mission and, if something appealed to them, would ask for a copy to be sent to offices in Los Angeles, London or New York City. This year offered a very different scene: senior buyers from both coasts, as well as France, Italy and Australia, were on hand; festival submissions, meanwhile, were up 33%, with four additional theaters rented out to accommodate growth. Much of that is thanks to Quinn.

Quinn shook things up at the 2010 festival when he bought the barely finished film Monsters, a British-made love story–alien invasion film set along the U.S.-Mexico border, from an unknown writer-director the very night that it debuted, in a 12 a.m. slot reserved for horror/sci-fi films. It was the first time at SXSW that a movie had been snapped up so quickly — what's called an overnight acquisition — and it helped jump-start a lot more buying interest. "Last year, Monsters sold the same night it debuted, and I wasn't there," says IFC's head of acquisitions, Arianna Bocco, who returned this year with checkbook in hand. As Quinn put it before leaving for the festival from his New York City office in early March, his competitors "won't make the same mistake twice."

So it was that Quinn was back in the same theater, for the same time slot, this time bringing with him the founder of Magnolia, Eamon Bowles. Quinn and Bocco greeted each other heartily before the lights dimmed and Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse and the evening's programmer, stepped out onstage to get the crowd amped up for the evening's main event: Kill List, a horror film featuring an assassination assignment that goes bad, a pagan death cult and a marriage in trouble — the sophomore effort from another promising British writer-director, Ben Wheatley.

In place of a traditional introduction, League arranged a beer-chugging contest between Texan and British filmmakers — the largest groups in the room — leaving everyone sticky and breathless but also considerably more energetic, despite the hour.

As the two groups chugged, Quinn sat in the middle of the theater in an aisle seat, behaving as an ideal audience member: whooping, cheering and totally engaged. When the film came on, he was silent and on the edge of his seat, zoned entirely into the world of the movie. While I gasped and covered my eyes at the assorted animal sacrifices and gunfights — not to mention a disturbing scene that involved the business end of a hammer — Quinn kept the same enthusiastic look of interest on his face.

"The thing is, I don't want to overthink my swing," he said earlier about his approach to movie watching. "You know exactly what you love within 30 seconds of the movie. You can immediately sense what you're dealing with, so I just want to enjoy and appreciate what is going on as a generic moviegoer — without having overstudied the program."

Acquisitions executives are professional audience members. They are sent by distribution companies to evaluate films at festivals, and their opinion plays a large part in determining which independent movies make it to your local Cineplex. If you love Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you have an acquisitions executive to thank for discovering it and helping it get funded for wider release.

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