This year, I finally attended my first SXSW conference. After years of intending to go, followed by years of deploring it from a distance (see #4 below), I decided to dive in — and, as I’d hoped, I really enjoyed it.
(DISCLOSURE: What really made me pull the trigger this time? My girlfriend Ann was going there for work, and she reminded me that “you’ve been talking about going to this thing forever,” so I just tagged along and paid my own way in order to avoid the irony of her — who never really cared about the event — going there before I did.)
Now that I’ve been home for a few days, I already miss waiting in line for movies I’ve never heard of. I’m also already looking forward to going back next year, where I suspect I’ll be splitting time between my new day job (more on that soon) and my new creative ventures (more on that eventually).
So, while I have 12 months to decompress and digest what I just experienced, here are my 12 quick-hit thoughts on the ups, downs and possible future of SXSW.
1. Is SXSW a Festival or a Conference?
In my mind, a festival is a freewheeling celebration, while a conference is a buttoned-up professional networking event. Years ago, SXSW began as a festival, but I think the inclusion of the Interactive track has shifted its focus into some kind of festival-conference hybrid where artists, fans and socially inept “thought leaders” collide. I’m not sure what SXSW wants to be anymore, since the Interactive track is clearly the most popular (and, presumably, most profitable) track they offer, but watching the smashing-together of these different ideologies is less fascinating than it is awkwardly discomforting.
Nontheless, I suspect the attendees at SXSW were a lot less antisocial a decade ago, when they couldn’t hide behind their iPhones and tweet instead of talking. Speaking of which…
2. For God’s Sake, People, Look Up When You’re Walking
Every time you clog up a wide open walkway or sidewalk because you refuse to look up from the iPhone glued to your palm, your Klout score drops by 10 points. True story. (Also, it makes Ann want to stab you in the neck, and I can’t stop her forever.)
3. Don’t Go to SXSW Alone
The upsides to attending SXSW with Ann were numerous, including:
- We could split up and see two equally interesting panels at once, then reconvene and share our notes afterward
- We took turns picking the movies we wanted to see, so we each got a balance of “stuff we liked” and “stuff we never would have picked by ourselves”
- You look like less of an idiot when two of you are speed-walking through the crowd than just you, by yourself, would look if you were speed-walking alone, like a social misanthrope who can’t find the bathroom fast enough
But the best hidden reward of attending SXSW with a partner is that it doubles the value of any schmoozing you may do. Case in point: I attended this year’s event without a specific personal agenda (because I’m between jobs and creative ventures), but Ann was there with a very specific purpose in mind. Her On Screen / In Person film festival is looking for applicants for next year’s film cycle, so she was there to spread the word and meet new filmmakers with work that might fit their criteria. Thus, if I started talking to a filmmaker, I could funnel him / her to Ann, and (in theory) vice versa.
So yes, attend SXSW with a travel buddy — especially one from a slightly different field than your own, so you each have twice the reason to talk to everyone you meet. (If they ever look up from their iPhones.)
4. Panels Should Not Be Pitches
Maybe this is what happens when your Interactive panels are decided by a popular vote spread with frothing desperation by the biggest self-branding shills on the planet, but…
The problem in staffing panels with executives from digital startups is that these people, by and large, have trouble talking about anything other than themselves. This resulted in several potentially useful panels devolving instead into hourlong pitches for services which simultaneously refused to release hard numbers about budgets, audience, etc.
For example, the “Future of Entertainment: Viewer Becomes User” panel featured speakers from GetGlue, GroupMe, MTV and Showtime, yet their numbers were purposefully vague — probably because all current “second screen” experimentation is still in its infancy, and no one wants to release any data that could invalidate these ventures before they garner serious proof-of-concept wins. But if you can’t talk about anything other than your own services, you’d better be prepared to explain why your services matter with a little more tangibility than, “Well, our users love getting stickers…”
So, what does constitute a “good” panel in my opinion? Well…
5. People Who Get Paid to Communicate Are the Best Panelists
The four best panels I saw were, in no specific order:
- Entertainment After Transmedia, which discussed ways to tell the story of one piece of Intellectual property across multiple platforms (from books to films to video games) without destroying the narrative integrity of either the audience experience or the property itself.
- Festribution: Film Festivals as Distributors, which pulled back the curtain on how film festivals choose their films (and how many of them actually get “traditional” distribution vs. VOD, etc.)
- Does HTML5 Offer a Montage Moment for Cinema?, which blew my mind regarding the possible future of interactive video. (I’m still wrapping my head around it…)
- Art Criticism 140 Characters at a Time, which was the best pure discussion panel I had the pleasure of attending.
What did each of these panels have in common? At least one (and often several) gregarious panelists who spoke at length about theory, implementation and personal experience, all in a narrative-friendly format (e.g., “I grew up doing X, and then I did Y, and then we learned Z, and what we don’t know yet is B”).
Sure, some of them had something to sell, but even when they did, it was their passion for their own work — and their willingness to pull it apart and examine it in public, warts and all — that made it compelling.
But they all had one extra perk that cannot be underestimated:
6. A Competent Moderator Is a Panel’s Greatest Asset
Each of the panels I mentioned above had a moderator who was able to nimbly jump from one topic to another while guiding the next response to the most relevant panelist. I especially appreciated NPR’s Linda Holmes, whose moderation of the Art Criticism panel was the best I saw all week. One reason I think she excelled at guiding the conversation and keeping all four panelists actively included? Linda also hosts a podcast, which means she has experience moderating live discussions for an audience.
SXSW organizers: do yourselves a favor and seek out podcasters, deejays and other professional hosts to help corral next year’s panels, and maybe you can avoid the dreaded “here’s a 45 minute pitch for my new startup” trend from the panelists.
7. Hey Attendees: a Panelist Is Not Your Prisoner
Whether a panel was too densely-attended to tackle everyone’s questions during the formal Q&A, or whether people were hoarding questions they deemed too personal for the public portion, the end of every SXSW panel was the same: most of the audience left in a wild herd to stampede toward the bathrooms, while a small horde of eager beavers swarmed the panelists like mosquitoes desperate for a life-granting drop of personal validation.
Which is fine. That’s what social events like this are for.
But there’s a limit.
And when your question to a trapped panelist begins with a lengthy anecdote, and when you respond to their polite advice with “Right… Because ___,” and then you ramble for another five minutes while a line of stabby attendees who have their own questions is backed up behind you, and the poor panelist is making eye contact with everyone in that line to silently say “I’m sorry this person is so socially oblivious that they do not realize their time with me is up,” it makes life hard on everyone.
Especially when the room has to be cleared because the next panel needs to load in and no one other than you has had a chance to ask their own deeply personal question of this emotionally-scarred panelist who is secretly hoping s/he has enough money saved up next year to hire a bodyguard, to create some space between themselves and the people like you.
So, stop that. Ask a question, write down the answer, exchange a business card and move on. Two minutes, tops. And please save your long-winded counterpoint for all those tweets you’ll undoubtedly send as you trundle away from the panel with your face glued to your iPhone and my girlfriend following you with a pen ready to jam into your neck.
8. Communication with Your Shuttle Driver Is Key
The shuttle situation at this year’s SXSW was, according to repeat attendees, better than last year but still pretty bad in spots — especially if (like us) you were on the Green Line for hotels. That shuttle route was frequently so backed up that the line would be snaked halfway along the convention center when none of the other lines were even ten people deep.
Sure, SXSW will probably improve upon this for next year, but this year’s trudgery was a reminder that patience and communication were key. That includes little things like:
- Letting your driver know what stop you need (instead of silently presuming that they stop at all points along the route)
- Listening for your stop (instead of missing your hotel drop-off and then complaining about it because you were talking when they called out “Holiday Inn? Anyone for Holiday Inn?” seven times.)
- Not pretending that your messenger bag needs a seat all to itself.
Ann and I missed seeing a film we had SXXpress passes for (which should have nearly guaranteed us a seat) because we forgot to tell the driver we needed to stop at 2nd & Congress. Instead, he drove on over the bridge toward the Alamo South, and we felt that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs at realizing we’d miss the film we’d been waiting three days to see.
9. There Is Never Enough Time. Accept It.
Two panels you want to see will be scheduled at the same time, and you’ll have to decide what important information you need to learn less.
Two films you want to see will be scheduled at the same time, or — even worse — just far apart in terms of geography that you might make it if you leave Theater A before the end credits roll and race through oncoming traffic to reach Theater B before tickets sell out… but, probably (heartbreakingly) not.
But it’ll be okay.
You can probably catch a podcast of the “lesser” panel afterwards. You can probably see the film you missed on Netflix. You can probably schmooze around until you find somebody who saw what you missed, and maybe they can fill you in — or, if you’re lucky, maybe what you missed sucked, and they’ll let you know that you really didn’t miss anything after all.
(But even if you did, it’s okay. Focus on the positives. You didn’t come all the way to Austin just to see that one film, did you?)
10. Take a Chance on Something You Wouldn’t Normally See
I saw the Art Criticism panel because I had 45 minutes to kill and nothing else in the guide caught my interest. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining and informative panels I saw all week — and I would have missed it if I’d only stuck with content I’d chosen according to some pre-determined concept of “what I was really here for.”
(Special props to The New Yorker‘s Emily Nusbaumm, who made that panel a must-see all by herself.)
Ann and I saw the premiere of the film Wolf, a “cinematic punch to the gut” about a family coping after they learn their teenage son has been sexually molested. This is pretty far from the kind of film I’d normally queue up for, but Ann wanted to see it, so I took a chance. It turned out to have some of the best acting performances of any of the films we saw at the fest, and I would have missed it if I’d “only” stuck with films I thought I’d like.
So, you’re at SXSW for Interactive? Go see a film panel, just for the hell of it.
You say you hate documentaries? Go watch one, just for the hell of it.
SXSW is the perfect festival for taking chances on media you might otherwise overlook, and introducing yourself to ideas you might never expose yourself to in your “normal” pattern of media consumption.
11. There Is a LOT of Young Underground Film Talent Out There
Ann and I saw eight films in four days, although we could easily have seen 20 if we’d skipped all the panels. Some were great, some good, and some not so good, but either she or I really liked each film we saw. (Sometimes we even agreed.)
But what most impressed me was the vast array of young filmmaking talent with obvious skill and bewildering potential. For example, I thought Wolf (mentioned above) was a flawed film, but the director (Ya’Ke Smith) evoked an incredible performance from his lead, Jordan Cooper, who should be getting all kinds of buzz for his role as a sexually abused teen who isn’t so sure that the abuse really was abuse.
Even more impressive? In the Q&A, Cooper said this was his first film.
And he’s not alone. Electrick Children, which was my favorite film of the festival, was made by two Columbia film school undergrads (who, actually, still have not yet graduated), and starred three amazingly compelling young actors: Liam Aiken, Rory Culkin, and Julia Garner, who dropped jaws during the Q&A when she told us she’s still in high school. (If you saw Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, she had a scene-stealing role in that film too.)
Seeking Asian Female was my favorite documentary, and it’s another example of a strong young filmmaker (Debbie Lum) whose film was finished literally days before the festival began. And if you really want to see “young” talent, Funeral Kings — a film whose street team was handing out plastic squirt guns after the screening (one of which led to my luggage getting “randomly inspected” by TSA on my homeward flight) — stars a quartet of young actors who probably can’t even vote yet.
Truly, the future of American film is pulsing at SXSW. But speaking of voting…
12. Films in Competition for SXSW Audience Awards Need More Than One Screening
As explained here, any film in contention for a SXSW Audience Award — which could theoretically help validate a film in the eyes of the reviewing public — can only receive votes after its very first screening. The potential problems inherent in this practice are too numerous to mention, from audience bias to the quirks of audience moods, but the solution seems simple: allow ballots to be cast for at least the first three screenings of each film, and then average those votes all together.
It only seems fair that a film playing in as hectic a showcase as SXSW should get three chances to be judged by a jury of its peers.
BONUS: Austin Seems Like a Wonderful Place to Live
Finally, with this being my first trip to Austin, I just wanted to say: thank you.
From the volunteers to the festival staff, shuttle drivers, Alamo waiters, and everyone else we encountered in Austin, I got the overwhelming vibe that Austin is a pleasantly creative wonderland. And if that impression was only the work of the festival promoters, I’d be impressed, but this appears to be a longtime vibe among Austinites, which is even more inspiring. When your city loves itself, the events it hosts can’t help but be enjoyable.