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Though scuttled, SXSW still goes ahead with film awards

NEW YORK, N.Y. – South by Southwest, the sprawling Austin, Texas, conference and festival, was one of the first major gatherings canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. But its organizers, eager to lend a hand to the movies that had been set to premiere at SXSW, on Tuesday went ahead with the festival's film awards.

The announcement Tuesday made for a strange anomaly: prizes handed out, virtually, for a film festival that never happened.

But SXSW and its film director, Janet Pierson, wanted to salvage some of the lost exposure and buzz that are so vital for independent films in securing distribution or stoking word of mouth. SXSW, which had been scheduled to run March 13-22, plays a significant role in boosting the profiles of smaller, scrappy films, along with being a springtime launchpad for Hollywood genre fare.

Most of the high-profile films that had been set to debut at SXSW have reshuffled their release plans. (Judd Apatow's “The King of Staten Island,” with Pete Davidson, had been set to open SXSW.) But the festival was able to proceed with awards for its juried competitions, with self-isolating jurors watching films on screening links and making selections by teleconference.

It took some scrambling. Pierson and the festival had to reach out to dozens of jurors and all of the filmmakers to make sure they were still willing to participate. Some films might have wanted to preserve their “world premiere” status for another festival. But everyone wanted to do it.

"We remain completely devastated for the filmmakers and the whole economy of Austin, and everybody," said Pierson in an interview by phone. “What I've been trying to focus on is that nobody asked for this situation but it's one of these moments of: What happens now? It takes a new layer of creativity in terms of what will happen. Going forward with the awards was one way we thought could help.”

The grand jury prize for narrative feature went to Cooper Raiff's “S—-house,” a micro-budget coming-of-age comedy about a college freshman struggling with the transition. The 22-year-old Raiff wrote, directed, co-edited and stars in the movie. The jurors called it “refreshing and winningly sincere.”

Best documentary feature went to Danish director Katrine Philp's “An Elephant in the Room,” which tracks a group of kids who have lost family members and who are attending a grief counseling center in New Jersey. The category's jury called the film heartbreaking, but also “inspiring, uplifting and — especially in these troubled times — essential.”

The festival also announced its Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, a prize begun in 2017 named after the late Beastie Boy to honor a filmmaker with an original voice. The award was given to Frank Oz's “In and of Itself," a documentary of magician Derek DelGaudio’s show.

The pandemic has forced other festivals, including France's Cannes Film Festival and New York's Tribeca Film Festival, to postpone. Cannes organizers hope to put the festival on in June or July. Tribeca, which hasn't announced new plans, is releasing a short film a day on its website over the next month.

SXSW, which also features interactive and music festivals, was canceled entirely just a week before it was to begin when the Austin government — to prepare for a spike in infections — declared a local disaster and urged against large gatherings.

The cancellation of an annual event that attracts more than 100,000 people to Austin had enormous repercussions on the Texas capital's businesses, along with the hundreds of films, bands and start-ups that hoped SXSW would be their big break. Immediately after the cancellation, SXSW laid off about one-third of its staff, or around 50 people.

"When we were canceled by the city, we were ready to go forward. We were going to put on our best," said Pierson, who supported the city's decision. Asked whether's she's confident SXSW will be able to weather such a last-minute cancellation and return next year intact, she hesitated.

“I'm not confident about anything right now," said Pierson, who has headed film at SXSW for the last 12 years. "I'm just taking it one day at a time and being curious and hopeful. I never saw this coming and I don't know what the effects will be."

But she's been buoyed by the outpouring of support following the cancellation. And Pierson hopes the awards will give some of the festival's program a modicum of the attention they would have received in Austin. Eight of the 10 award winners were first-time filmmakers, she noted. A full list of awards can be found at Sxsw.com.

SXSW couldn't go ahead with every award it usually gives out. One that it couldn't announce Tuesday: the festival's audience award.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP