On Tuesday evening the South by Southwest Film Festival was unofficially drawn to a close when the winners of the Festival Awards were handed out in a ceremony at the Austin Convention Center. Like most film festivals, the awards were split up into two categories: Jury Awards and Audience Awards. While the Jury Awards are highly coveted by filmmakers, it is the audience award that is most reflective of the best film of the festival — because lets face it, Jury’s are a group of 3-8 people, considered “experts” by the festival programmers. With an audience award, you generally get a sample of hundreds of die hard movie fans, those who wait patiently in line and diligently attend screenings on their own dime. There is no agenda for the audience, just a measure of film quality and entertainment value. And for the most part, the audience award is unable to be spoiled by corruption, falsification or other shenanigans — at least, until now.
This allegation of deception or foul-play is directed at this year’s winner of the SXSW Narrative Feature Audience Award Explicit Ills, directed by Mark Webber. Along with my friend Peter at Slashfilm (who mentions the following story in his blog here as well) I had the fortune of being one of the first people in line to see Webber’s film when it premiered at the Alamo Draft House on Saturday March 8th. It was an exciting event to attend, as almost the entire cast was present, including actress Rosario Dawson. Curiously though, as we watched the cast and their entourage enter the theater, we noticed that they were all receiving ballots for the audience award. This would not present a problem had their only been a few members of the film’s entourage, but there were a good many of them. In fact, there were so many that a very limited number of SXSW badge holders made it in to see the premiere of the film.
Before anyone was let into the film, Rosario Dawson, full of charisma and excitement, made an appearance before the group. Jokingly she said, “Here is how you fill out this ballot — you tear off the 5.” It provided everyone with a good laugh, but one would assume that everyone got the joke — at least everyone in the general audience. Her remarks could be taken lightly by any onlooker, had it not been for the fact that the general audience members did not receive ballots. Yes, you read that right. By my count, our group was within the first 15 general audience members to be let into the theater and by the time we made it to the entrance, there were no more ballots left. So in reality, the only people left to vote for the film were members of the cast and their collective entourage.
Of course there was a second screening of Explicit Ills on Monday, one day before the awards were announced, but a situation like this gives an unfair advantage to the film — an advantage over the other great films that we have seen here at SXSW. In fact, I only bring this story to light out of respect for the other narrative features shown here in Austin this week. It is disheartening and disappointing to know that something like this could have occurred at such an amazing event, a true celebration of great independent film.
As well, it should be noted that this is not a condemnation of Mark Webber’s film. In fact, he has delivered a very good film that is worthy of the award. Not only was it recognized with the Audience Award, it also received a Special Jury Award for Cinematography, an award that it certainly deserved. Ultimately, I question not the fact that Explicit Ills won the audience award at SXSW, but the manner in which is took home that award. To think that a film was given any unfair advantage in proceedings such as this is just disappointing. It leads me to say that for Mark Webber, congratulations are in order. For Matt Dentler and the folks running SXSW? — maybe some self reflection.
At this time, we are seaking comment from Matt Dentler and the heads at SXSW. We will provide updates when we receive word back, so as to give you both sides of the story on this particular issue.
UPDATE: I just got an update from Erik Davis over at Cinematical. He informed me that director Mark Webber actually apologized to folks who did not get in when he introduced the film on the second night — a classy move, indeed.
To view the complete list of Award Winners, check out the official SXSW Blog.