SXSW WALKS THE LINE

The last time I was at SXSW was 2007 – the year Kenny made it into the film program – they actually had to subtitle if for US audiences if I remember. Back then I was surprised how big the event was but…well now it’s a different thing.

To quote the film Alien, “that fucking thing is huge!”

For 9 days in March it dominates the Texas town of Austin whose CBD outside of SXSW times is pretty sparsely populated in that Adelaide wide street, very hot, not many people kind of way. During SXSW though the entire city is packed – in fact bar and music lined 6th Street is shoulder to shoulder on any afternoon into the night. The streets are packed with performers, hustlers, musicians, gutter punks and festival delegates. With literally every shopfront on the strip being a bar there’s also music of every kind blaring from every door until 2am.

STREET.jpg(Picture: 6th Street on any given night at SXSW)

I know the saying goes “bigger in Texas” but I’ve never seen queues the size of those I have here and you’ve got to be prepared to stand in them. You need to queue for everything here. For a film or band the sweet-spot is around 45minutes before the show.

The main festival hub – the Convention Centre – is vast and at various points hosts a gaming Expo (main banner pic), rock poster art exhibitions, live, talks and panels, moving image exhibitions, screenings, a trade show, round table mentor sessions and lots of other activity. That place too is buzzing all day but there are nice little hidden away spots like the Filmmaker’s lounge where you can catch your breath with free coffee and cookies.

For something so huge the festival is very well organized and it’s clear that aside from queues the organisers have the event down to a fine art. There’s lots of time between screenings so if you’re in one you can pretty well be guaranteed to get to the next. All the cinema venues across town are also serviced with a free shuttle bus that runs every 10 minutes. These were great and with a bit of organization I managed to see everything I wanted to and which numbered anywhere between 3-5 films per day.

STREET QUEUE.jpg(Picture: The constant queue outside and around the Paramount & Stateside Theatres)

The density of the event occupies every available space in town. Many of the talks were off-site in the various hotels which from the first day obviously posed a challenge to hotel layouts and infrastructure. One of the favourite off-site places to hangout seemed to be the Amazon Lounge located at the Intercontinental Hotel right next door to the beautiful Paramount Theatre.

Paramount.jpg (Picture: The magnificent Paramount Theatre)

Here I had a meeting with one of their representatives and he said straight off the bat that “we’re trying to buy everything here”. This of course gets back to my earlier blogs on the changing face of the film distribution and exhibition landscape internationally and indeed there was a major on-screen presence of films from both Netflix and Amazon Studios.

Interestingly the day before I left Austin the Alamo Drafthouse theatre group founder Tim League posted a very relevant open letter to IndieWire on the nature of the business as he sees it. Read it here.

So where does an event like SXSW sit in the film festival world?

Well firstly as a film program it’s patchy. That’s not to say there aren’t some excellent films in there but there are also so many Austin-centric titles and not all of them are good.

It’s also a crowd-pleasing film program so there is very little in the way truly adventurous or experimental work. If Terrance Malick’s awful Song to Song is about as experimental as it gets then there’s something to work on there. In fact there were some baffling film selections (in my humble opinion) with several very average performances, average scripts and semi-baked films that I saw from the American selection which was the main focus. But there are also some rippers and plenty of world premieres and stars.

HOTEL QUEUE(Picture: This is 50% of an amazing queue for a single talk session at a hotel. It snakes in both directions and is the same on the other side of the camera)

The mix of interactive, film, music, business, street hustlers and everything else really makes thing immediate and hybrid. You can see the edges of phony creeping in with some global businesses but that’s something for the organisers in the next three years to deal with but I don’t think you can get away with phony here at the moment…but you can certainly be hustled.

I think one of the big differences with other festivals and markets is that there’s time to talk to people with money and they’re genuinely interested in hearing ideas. That’s what the interactive side brings. One of the other great things is that the filmmakers, actors and everyone involved are right there in line or sitting next to you or in the foyer or at the bar…it’s all very approachable and a different kind of market.

There are two things to take away here:

  1. People here are genuinely interested in new ideas and there’s money to pay for them
  2. This event shows what a festival can actually be – fully integrated where one hybrid part feeds into another. That’s great for both audiences and producers of material in any one of the niches – there’s so much cross-pollination.

Overall I feel SXSW is on that enviable cusp of being a creative hotbed and content marketplace. That’s going to be a tough balance to maintain but for now it’s got a lot of good things going on.

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