Candy and Contraband in The Pez Outlaw
Sweet treasures at SXSW
It's often only in retrospect that you can pinpoint being in the right place at the right time. For Michigan native Steve Glew, it was a toy convention in 1994. A self-described hoarder, Glew was there selling off the remnants of the toys and novelties he had acquired from cereal box giveaways. Cereal boxes and their prizes were kinda Glew's thing at the time, so much so that he is personally responsible for the addition of four words that now grace all mail-in offers: Limit One Per Household. "My whole life, I've always leaned into things," Glew says. "Having one of something just doesn't do it for me. I like lots of something."
At that toy convention, Glew got a tip. A tip about Pez, the candy with a lighter-shaped dispenser, once promoted as an alternative to smoking. Place the head of a beloved cartoon character on top of it, market it to kids, and you have a keepsake woven into the fabric of pop culture. Needless to say, these objects were also woven into the hearts of nostalgic toy collectors. What Glew learned began an incredible 10-year odyssey involving clandestine Eastern Bloc rendezvous, devious corporate practices, cagey Austrian narcissists, financial highs and lows, and Pez. A hell of a lot of Pez.
Making its world premiere in the documentary feature competition at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, The Pez Outlaw, directed by husband and wife team Bryan and Amy Bandlien Storkel, is a cat-and-mouse spy thriller wrapped around an endearing portrait of a man who channeled his collectible knowledge and obsessive compulsive tendencies into a multimillion-dollar business. Glew, however, has a bit more sangfroid about it. "The charmed life of an imbecile. I did so many stupid things during my Pez years, yet somehow it worked. Until of course, it didn't."
What Glew did with that fateful tip was travel to a Pez factory in Slovenia, where he began buying gray-market Pez unavailable in the states, bringing them back to Pez-starved hobbyists. It wasn't exactly contraband (yet), but customs still presented a potential monkey wrench for the Pez pipeline. With his trenchcoat, long white beard, and ubiquitous bucket hat, Glew's appearance was the physical embodiment of clueless befuddlement, and he shrewdly played it up. "When you're standing there with four or five duffel bags full of Pez," he says, "and the customs guys are going, ‘Are you nuts? What are you doing?!' you go ahead and become the hapless, nonthreatening person. It completely disarms them."
In telling The Pez Outlaw, the filmmakers cast Glew as himself, reenacting key moments with a heightened style that complements this surreal tale of intrigue and hubris amongst the memorabilia subculture. For Glew, reliving his various escapades on film was "pure joy." Various producers had made Glew offers for his story rights in the past, but Glew, a man of instinct and handshake deals, had declined. Until the Storkels. "You meet people. And you like them or you don't," he says. "When I first met [Bryan and Amy], I knew them. It was an easy decision."
And with that, another right place, right time moment arrives.
Documentary Feature Competition
Saturday, March 12, 3:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Sunday, March 13, 6:30, 7pm, Violet Crown
Wednesday, March 16, 9:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Online: March 13-15