SXSW Film Fest Kicks Off Big With VR Everywhere and Uber MIA

Popcorn movies, headsets abound as Hollywood invades Austin

Hollywood has taken over Austin for the SXSW Film Festival, where VR is everywhere, Uber is banned — and the humidity doesn’t make the many lines feel any shorter.

Everything’s biggest in Texas — including the presence of studios like A24, riding high in the saddle after winning the Best Picture with “Moonlight.” We’ve been promised everything from nuanced indies to Tom Cruise frolicking in a virtual anti-gravity chamber. We’ll see if all the promises are all hat and no cattle — or if South by Southwest can drive us home.

Keep Austin Weird? That Was Last Year

The 2016 SXSW lineup felt much more experimental: A lot of the talk was about the Go-Pro innovation of STX’s “Hardcore Henry,” the water-testing Warner Bros. comedy “Keanu” from Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele and the lo- budget, high-brow mystery of Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special.”

This year it feels like the major players wants butts in seats. Sony Pictures has two big bets, the first being “Baby Driver” — which sees Ansel Elgort as a stunt driver who needs a fully stocked playlist to pull of his tricks. It costars Jon Hamm, “Cinderella” star Lily James and Kevin Spacey.

Then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds’ “Life,” which is slated as the festival closer. It finds the stars battling a rapidly growing life Martian life form on the International Space Station.

This year, instead of “Moonlight,” A24 is serving up the throwback action comedy “Free Fire,” starring Brie Larson and Armie Hammer in the popcorn-friendly tale of an arms deal gone wrong.

And Universal Pictures will debut its low-key but heavy hitting spy thriller “Atomic Blonde”starring Charlize Theron.

The indie spirit is alive and well, even if a studio is the one distributing. Many are curious to see Warner Bros.’ work-in-progress screening of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” this week. The director and star recruits his brother Dave Franco to tell the story of what many consider the worst contemporary film ever made — “The Room.”

Broad Green, which has pivoted to tentpole releases of late, is opening the festival Friday evening with Terrence Malick’s latest “Song to Song.” The music drama is set in Austin, and was shot in 2011 with a dazzling ensemble that includes Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Benicio Del Toro and Christian Bale.

The annual secret screening has not yet been revealed, but word is this title will not see its world premiere in Austin — which would mean it’s been screened abroad at a prior fest.

Virtually Everywhere
VR, AR and everything in between are using the Austin Convention Center to conduct an industry litmus test before asking consumers to spend big on new content and gear.

Universal Pictures has booked Cruise to show up with his “The Mummy” costar Annabelle Wallis to participate in a group VR experience that is supposed to simulate an anti-gravity chamber. Civilians will take in the experience with the movie stars.

VR company Within, run by field innovator Chris Milk, is showing demos of a buzzy project called “Life of Us” — another shared VR experience where multiple users experience the evolution of humanity. It includes molecules, dinosaurs, and the world’s most advanced life form: humans wearing skinny jeans and headsets.

A VR film titled “Buzz Aldrin’s Cycling Pathways to Mars” sees the iconic astronaut take users to Mars — a visual scaled to the dimensions of an entire screening room. Saban’s “Power Rangers” film setup at Lionsgate will offer a VR tour of one of the ninja-bot suits the characters use in the film. There’s also a “John Wick” VR demo.

Next week, SXSW will host a formal panel titled “Hollywood Goes VR,’ with IMAX chief business development officer Rob Lister and Skydance Interactive president Peter Akemann.

Fasten Your Tolerance for Party Chatter
Uber and Lyft are banned in Austin thanks to ballot measures in place through May, forcing habitual users to download Austin’s local apps like Faster, Get Me or Fare.

“What did you use to get here?” has been asked of TheWrap at least 20 times, in what feels like a Texas spin on the “Saturday Night Live” skit “The Californians.”

In a larger context, however, what a bad run for Uber: booted from flying choppers at January’s Sundance Film Festival, under fire for allegations of rampant systemic sexism, boycotted for its willingness to work with the Trump administration, embarrassed by a candid-camera rant from its CEO — and caught up in fisticuff allegations involving TJ Miller.

As they say in the South — bless their heart.

Get TheWrap’s ongoing SXSW 2017 coverage here.