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Explicit Ills Takes SXSW’s Top Award; But Was it an Honest Win?

Mark Webber’s directorial debut may have won the big award in Austin, but was it a fair contest? After reading this, you may not think so.
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By  · Published on March 13th, 2008

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 Drafthouse (The Ritz) 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 there 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, but it also received a Special Jury Award for Cinematography, an award that is certainly deserved. Ultimately, I question not the fact that Explicit Ills won the audience award at SXSW, but the manner in which it took home that award. To think that a film was given an unfair advantage in proceedings such as this is just disappointing. It leads me to say that for Mark Webber, congratulations are in order. For the folks running SXSW? — maybe some self-reflection.

At this time, we are seeking comment from 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.

UPDATE: The following comment was provided by SXSW.

Hey there. I appreciate the concern, because we at SXSW always want everyone in attendance to feel we’re open and honest. So here’s the reality of this situation: in total, there was probably only 25 cast/crew/friends of the film in attendance. I was on hand and made sure not all of them received ballots. PLUS, I also made sure that as many public, press, distributors, and film fans got inside as possible. In fact, I made it a point to get a bunch of online writers inside at the 11th hour (including AICN’s Capone and Cinematical’s Scott Weinberg, who wrote positive reviews on the film).

The audience-award-when-cast-and-crew-are-present question is a valid one, but it’s something that is gonna happen at ANY film festival. But, know that coming from me, the “friends of the film” were quite a small percentage of the entire audience. And, if the passionate reviews the film has received is any indication, the audience award appears to be well deserved. Thanks, and as always, lemme know if I can help!

Matt Dentler
Festival Producer, SXW

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)