SXSW: A Beginner’s Overview

GP Productions

I’ve been to my fair share of film festivals over the years, so I thought SXSW was going to be manageable.  I knew there would be a number of screenings occurring from morning through midnight, some related exhibitors in an expo space, and a number of off site parties to partake in.  I alloted two days to take it all in.   SXSW, in its 20th year, offered far more than I anticipated.

Screenings

Eleven venues were screening movies simultaneously, each with at least an hour break in between the next viewing.  some of the theaters, such as the Paramount and the Stateside, are along side each other, where others, such as the Topfer and Rollins, are south of Ladybird Lake and a bit of a hike on foot from the convention center.  While a shuttle does run between the venues,  lines start forming well before start times so simply hopping from screening to screening isn’t an option.  Fortunately, the organizers of SXSW have wisely made the fest’s home-page a great resource with easy to find links, including one for the Venue Status Board (vsb.sxsw.com.)  For each screening, the VSB provides a green (lots of tickets), yellow (some tickets) or red (no tickets) allowing fest goers to manage their time well. 

With a lengthy wish list of films to catch, my time allowed for only one: "When Angels Sing."  As sweet and nutrias as a Christmas cookie, the holiday tale that followed a family learning the value of relationships, community and tradition was a tribute to the lifestyles and music of Austin.   Surrounded by many locals with background extra parts in the film, it was hard not to get swept up in the emotions and many a tear was shed.  With a 45 minute delay in start time, the cast members kept the Q&A short, with the most interesting anecdote coming from Harry Connick Jr. who admitted it was hard to be surrounded by pianos and guitars and not play music during the film’s shoot.

Before leaving the venue, I toured the theater to get a better look at this piece of Austin history.  Built in 1915 during the hight of vaudeville, the Capital Theater had several small balconies, lovely chandeliers, and a number of deco flourishes.  The ladies washroom boasted four seated vanities in a lavish "powder room," reminding the visitor of an era when going to the theater was a classy affair.  As I passed through the lobby with it’s high ceilings and hard wood banisters, I had a longing to soak up the Austin culture and lore,  Stepping outside into the massive crowd gathered for the next screening, I quickly snapped back into fest gear.  With no time to make another screening, I attempted to walk down to the "When Angels Sing" after party, only to to encounter a massive line snaking around the block.  While I was excited to hear some local bands and try to interview some talent, I had two other simultaneous party options and  networking opportunities to fall back on, and the promise of a line-free entry held a strong pull.

Convention Floor

The SXSW organizers did a great job in organizing the convention floor.  Booths were not clustered in categories including film, music and new media.  instead, there was a flow that always offered something new and unexpected, giving the viewer a chance to discover a new technology or device they may not have realized they were interested in. 

 

 

One booth I found particularly interesting was Suitable Technologies’ Beam.  Put simply, the Beam is a computer monitor on wheels that allows one to virtually interact anywhere in the real world in real time from their laptop.  Suitable Technologies employees sitting in their California offices were able to see and interact with booth visitors via a video camera on the Beam devise: a monitor connected by two five foot arms firmly affixed to a wheeled base.  in addition to a delay – free audio/visual feed, the user could, through the up and down arrows on their keyboard, wheel the device to any new point in the room.  Additionally, they also had the ability to back the device into a docking station that would provide a full day’s charge.   To learn more about the Beam, visit: www.suitabletech.com.

 

 

While countless other booths geared towards cloud technology, music libraries, file sharing, even motion capture, caught my attention, I was most intrigued by the hardware and video equipment on display.   Much of the gear was directed at low-budget indie filmmakers, and the price points were particularly amazing.

 

 

Coming in at under $80 was Olloclip.  A three-in-one camera lens designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Olloclip was light-weight and easily interchangeable, offering fish-eye, wide angle and macro adjustments.  (Learn more about this product at www.olloclip.com.)

 

 

Sessions, Workshops and Street Scene

 

 

There was a buzz of activity everywhere, ranging from comedy workshops offered by actor Jeffrey Tambor to Avid editing workshops. e 6th Street was the primary location for storefronts to become pop-up lounges for the week.  I witnessed the transformation of Bar 512, a fun if not slightly divvy establishment, into the swanky Buffalo Lounge.  Complete with a life-sized buffalo, the Buffalo Lounge was the home base for Oklahoma’s film and music scene complete with two stages were talent was presented daily.  

 

 

Following in the Comic Con footsteps, many film and television shows had set up inventive marketing ploys.  A&E’s "Bates Motel" had rented out a marquee and installed a "Vacancy" sign, and Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing" had an RV-sized installation.  At one point I passed by a block party complete with bands and a bucking pit-bull ride.  I don’t know what it was associated with, but it was clearly yet another missed opportunity to experience something new and different in a sea of countless options. 

 

 

I left wanting more, sad that I barely scratched the surface of SXSW as well as Austin culture.  For example, what exactly is a "fried pie?"  And just how many vintage stores are there in a one mile walk?  Knowing the lay of the land and creating a comprehensive schedule beforehand are key to maximizing one’s SXSW time, along with booking a room at least a year in advance.  Last lesson learned:  two days is just not enough for this amazing festival!