Below is an overview of my experience as a SXSW noob. Learn from my success and mistakes. Scroll down to the bottom for SXSW tips, guide and photos of this year’s conference.
Planning my SXSW Film Festival Experience
You don’t really grasp the enormity of the SXSW Conference until you begin forming your conference schedule. With over 130 narrative films to choose from and only nine days (if you’re lucky enough) in which to see them, crafting the perfect plan is near impossible. And even if you feel well-organized, you had better be flexible, or you could be in for disappointment. Limited seating and the distractions of (hundreds) of other SXSW events can sometimes be your enemy. It happened to me twice.
For a first-time attendee not knowing what to expect and surrounded by thousands of strangers, this conference is daunting. But this year marked the 31st year of the SXSW Conference and that’s 31 years of mastering their craft. SXSW has their process down to an art form. Transportation and parking, signage and directions, volunteers and security – nothing seems to be out of place or not meticulously designed in a way that limits attendee confusion. I was able to quickly receive my badge and secure press credentials without any stress or hiccups.
VR and SXSW Interactive
SXSW is currently broken into three genres: Film, Music, and Interactive. The latter of which covers everything from emerging technologies to politics, and everything in-between. I wanted to see if there had been any progress in the convergence of Virtual Reality (VR) and the film industry, specifically, film entertainment delivered through the virtual experience. I found a corner of the Austin Convention Center that was hosting The Mummy Zero Gravity Experience. While exciting and immersive, the experience was nothing more than a behind-the-scenes making-of promotion for the film. Not bad, but not what I was expecting. I’d later find out that what I was searching for was basically impossible. VR, in its current form, is best left to small chunks, not full length feature film experiences.
I highly recommend carving out time to visit the SXSW Interactive Trade Show. Located in the main hall of the convention center, the Trade Show features developing technologies from around the globe, as well as start-ups looking for support of their products and/or applications. I connected with a few businesses and look forward to sharing some of those products and how they relate to the film industry in future blog posts.
I eventually discovered the “SXXpress” line. This is something I wish I had known about earlier. This feature allows you to reserve guaranteed seating to the movie screenings of your choice, provided they have enough seats available. Basically, you get to skip the long lines outside the theater. You are allowed two per day, four if you’re press credentialed. Word to the wise: get to the convention center early in the morning to get your passes because they sell out of seats quickly. I managed to score a pair to the Ridley Scott Q&A and screening of the original Alien movie. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wake myself early enough the rest of the week. SXSW is a marathon of energy.
Opening Film: Song to Song
SXSW sets the stage for many world premieres of new films, but only one gets to be the opening night feature. This year that film was Terrence Malick’s Song to Song. It’s a love letter to Austin, set against the city’s famous live-music scene. Not many people enjoyed it. I reviewed it here. While I wasn’t a fan of the film, I made some new friends and fellow movie fanatics in line. It’s one of the best parts of the SXSW experience.
Never in my wildest movie dreams, did I expect to personally capture the likes of Jake Johnson, Armie Hammer and Bob Odenkirk, let alone get a selfie with the talented Aislinn Derbez. Granted, some of that was afforded by my press credentials, but celebrities almost always visited the fans in the wings. The filmmakers and attending cast also participate in audience Q&A, so have your camera ready. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you’ll get to meet some of your heroes, press or otherwise.
Braving 6th Street and my First Alamo Drafthouse Movie
I’m getting older and staying up late just isn’t in the cards anymore, but I did manage to squeeze in one “Midnighter.” The movie was Joe Lynch’s Mayhem (my review is coming soon) and it premiered at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Austin’s famed 6th Street. If you’re not familiar with 6th Street during SXSW, it’s basically one huge party that goes on for blocks. Some joker managed to unzip my photography gear pack which sent the contents spilling out among the hundreds of music fans and drunk partiers, but luckily, more people stopped to help than wanted to steal.
The Alamo Drafthouse is everything great that you’ve ever heard about the growing theater chain. There is an authentic love for film in these theaters. The Alamo is basically rewriting the rules of the movie-going experience, from assigned seating to offering real, delicious (and nutritious) food options. Also…they appreciate Hatch green chile, so bonus points right there.
Jill Soloway, Lee Daniels and Gareth Edwards Keynotes
The SXSW film festival is much more than just movie screenings. It also gives influential filmmakers the stage to talk about their growth in the industry. Lee Daniels struck his own path into film, leaving behind a lucrative healthcare agency (that he created) to champion the careers of some of Hollywood’s greatest black actors and create Precious, The Butler and more. Gareth Edwards absolutely grinded his way through the visual effects field until he finally struck a deal to direct his first film. Edwards directed, wrote, shot and created the visual effects for 2010’s Monster, which launched his career into overdrive. Where did it premiere? Right here at SXSW.
Everything I Screened at SXSW 2017
Did I mention there are over 100 films to watch? I was only able to screen 9 movies in total. I saw Song to Song, Alien, This Is Your Death, Win It All, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde, Mayhem, Free Fire and Colossal. I showed up 2 hours early for Life, but I couldn’t get in because apparently there was a pre-party with free booze. If there’s free alcohol at SXSW, you can bet the venue will be busy.
Tips and Lessons for Noob Film Attendees
1. Be flexible. Choose one must-see movie per day and schedule everything around that movie. If it’s a headliner, block out at least 90 minutes before the start time to wait in line.
2. Get your SXXpress passes. Arrive early to the ACC each morning and get as many SXXpress passes available to your badge-type. This is especially useful for movies immediately following a premiere; you don’t have to worry about growing lines outside while watching the preceding movie inside.
3. Programming is not exclusive. Just because you paid for the Film badge, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a SXSW concert or an Interactive event like the Joe Biden keynote. For instance, there are two lines at almost every Film event: a primary access line for Film and Platinum badge holders (Platinum get primary access to all SXSW events) and a secondary line for Music and Interactive badge holders. Once all the primary badge holders have gained access to an event, the remaining seats start going to secondary access. Something like the Trade Show and SXSW Gaming don’t really have lines, so go enjoy!
4. Be prepared for weather. Austin enjoys mild winters and long summers, but March is sorta in-between. From what I’ve heard, it always rains at some point during SXSW. That was true this year. Have an umbrella or rain poncho in your bag, and maybe a light sweater if the temperature drops. Otherwise, it’s shorts and t-shirts all day! I’d also wear comfortable walking shoes and carry a water bottle. Transportation is available, but walking is quicker. Water if free.
5. Bring business cards. I realize business cards are dinosaurs these days, but I found them incredibly useful when waiting in long movie lines. I made some new friends and my business cards contained every method to connect with me after the conference.
6. Use the Pocket Guide. The SXSW app for iPhone and Android is great, but I think the pocket guide is even better, at least for Film attendees. Every film and a synopsis is provided, as well as a detailed graph that breaks down the festival schedule by day and theater. Best of all, there’s no waiting for pages to load.
Bonus. Eat green chile. Go to the Alamo Drafthouse and order a green chile cheeseburger without the tortilla strips and mustard (must be an Austin thing) and thank me later. Don’t forget to tip your waiter. If you can’t have green chile, explore almost any street corner downtown to find a taco truck.
Images from SXSW Conference 2017