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SXSWestern Man: Matt Dentler interview

Matt Dentler is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference & Festival Producer (see SXSW Film site here). He is also a blogger; the keeper of an on-line journal, a fan & commentator on film who also shares notes and observations about his life and non-filmic passions. He may also be found at various film festivals around the country throughout the year as a panel member or a judge. I spoke with Matt late yesterday through the magic of e-mail regarding his SXSW career and related mysterious & exciting matters such as his current home town Austin, Texas - a place that, as I have been informed by several t-shirts, the locals are trying to keep "weird".

And while we are on the topic; click over at some point soon & check out some excellent shorts at the SXSWClick on line shorts fest. Now, the interview:

Sujewa: Matt, how did you get interested in working in or with film, and specifically independent film?

Matt: I've been a film buff/geek as early as I can remember. I grew up in a household where no film was off-limits, and I watched them all. In high school, I started making my own small little shorts, and working in video stores, movie theaters, etc. I thought I'd become a filmmaker, but soon realized I was more talented at exhibition than production.
Sujewa: Is it true that you are one of the youngest producers of a major American film festival? I heard that you are like barely 20 years old.

Matt: I don't think there's ever been an official survey, but yeah, I gather I'm rather young for the job. I'll be 28 in August.

Sujewa: How did you end up becoming the producer of SXSW at such a relatively young age?

Matt: I started as an intern for the festival when I was 18. I just kept working for them until they offered me a part-time job at the age of 20. Then, when I was 22, I got a full-time job with the festival. Very soon after that, I was promoted to what I am today, Film Conference & Festival Producer. I think it was a combination of luck and lots of hard work.

Sujewa: Are you from Austin and or Texas? How has Austin changed (for the better or worse, specifically regarding indie arts & culture) over the last decade?

Matt: I'm from Texas, but only started living in Austin in 1997. In the last 10 years, the city's arts scene has definitely changed for the better. The advent of digital technology and telecommunications has made it easier for artists to make better and better work within the Austin city limits.

Sujewa: One anonymous commenter (yeah, very brave :) left a comment in one of my posts about Mumblecore films & makers that those films are not deserving of the attention they are getting/have gotten and it is only because of your "misguided" support of those movies that they are as talked about as they are. Have you gotten a lot of criticism for championing directors such as Swanberg at SXSW or has the public feedback been generally positive?

Matt: I would say the feedback has been very positive, with regard to this whole so-called "mumblecore" movement. And, suggesting that I have anything to do with these films is both a compliment and inaccurate. These films were gonna get made no matter what, I think we just helped provide a venue and context in which they could be properly consumed and appreciated. We just show the films we like. All the media/industry attention that follows has very little to do with us, but I think it's nice when no-budget films can garner huge awareness like these have.

Sujewa: I saw at SilverDocs that putting on a film festival is a lot of work. What keeps bringing you back to all the work that SXSW must require every year?

Matt: I have a great gig. I'm part of an amazing staff of talented and driven people, and the SXSW vibe is very familial. So, it's very easy to get up and go to work everyday. Plus, once the festival arrives, it's such a thrill to see all these filmmakers and audiences from around the world, come together and celebrate. It's a blast.

Sujewa: By reading your blog it seems like that you are at a film festival every weekend of the year. Are you leading a strange & rare film festival based existence where you spend most of your days out of the year at various film festivals around the country and not at your home/city of residence? If so, is this a good, positive, enjoyable thing?

Matt: I don't attend THAT many festivals. I certainly miss big festivals each year. You have to pace yourself, I think, or you'll get burned out on festival travel. Besides, you always have to check in with your home and the real world. If not, I think you'd lose touch with the kind of audiences you program for. If my world and my friends were only part of the festival scene, then there would be no chance for growth. Either for me, or the festival. So, like a lot of things, it's all about moderation. I hate being away from home, and my fiancee is very understanding of the kind of travel and schedule this sort of gig requires. It requires so much because I choose to stay in Austin, making it necessary to travel more than I would if I lived in New York or L.A.

Sujewa: What's the state of the film festival industry in America? Is it stronger than ever or are there too many festivals and not enough good movies?

Matt: I don't think there are too many festivals, per se. But I do worry that there are too many festivals trying to be something they aren't. In other words, when people ask us, "Do you want SXSW to be the next Sundance?," I started replying with "No, I want it to be the first SXSW."

Sujewa: What spectacular plans do you have for SXSW '08?

Matt: We're just now beginning the planning stages, so I ask everyone to stay tuned to, for updates. Or my blog. That's a good one, too.

Thanks Matt!

- Sujewa


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