By Jake Coyle / AP
Increasingly, the media zoo that is SXSW looks more like today’s overlapping media world.
The annual South by Southwest Conference and Festival, which begins Friday, gathers thousands of creators, performers, media and industry members for 10 days onto the boozy downtown streets of Austin, Texas. It’s really three festivals — Interactive, Film and Music — in one, but each bleeds into the other.
The annual buzz word at SXSW is always convergence. Just as the tech and entertainment worlds physically descend onto Austin, media forms, too, are diverging. Many of those technologies and companies that might be found at SXSW Interactive have greatly altered those at SXSW Film (video-on-demand, Netflix, Hulu) and at SXSW Music (Apple, Spotify, Pandora).
It’s a place where the question is always “what’s next” and one has the impression of meandering hordes traipsing the streets of Austin searching for answers to a confusing and ever-evolving media landscape. There will be hundreds of panel discussions, countless predictions and even man vs. machine competitions that pit algorithms against curators.
“It’s like stepping into a temporary world for one week where you’re maybe two or three or five years in the future,” says Amber Case, who’ll be making her fourth trip to SXSW as a keynote speaker for Interactive. She’s a “cyborg anthropologist” who studies the relationship between humans and machines, and founded the location-sharing platform Geoloqi.com.
Each realm of SXSW will have its own superstars. None will be bigger than Bruce Springsteen, this year’s music keynote speaker. (NPR Music and SXSW.com will live stream the event.) Interactive, though, will have its own rock stars, including Napster co-founder Sean Parker (famously portrayed by Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network”).
Many others will be there, too, often promoting new projects, including Jay-Z, Willem Dafoe (“The Hunter”), Richard Linklater and Jack Black (“Bernie”), Jack White, Joss Whedon (“The Cabin in the Woods”), Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow (HBO’s “Girls”), comedy podcast star Marc Maron, the Magnetic Fields and a few thousand more.
SXSW, effectively a trade show for industry and media members, has been around since 1987 and has historically been primarily a music event where labels showcase their acts and young bands seek their big break. Film and what was then called “multimedia” were added in 1994.
After some lean years supported financially by the music side of SXSW, the Interactive part of SXSW has in recent years swelled to become the largest aspect of the event.
“It’s not all that apparent what we’re doing different now, but knock on wood,” says Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. “There’s lots of reasons for the growth, but the general reason that encapsulates it all is the growth of social media and social networks.”
That’s been partly driven by the success some start-ups have found at SXSW. In 2007, a little thing called Twitter broke out from the pack in Austin, and two years later, Foursquare was also effectively launched into a nationally known location-based social networking site.
This year, SXSW is premiering a new Start-up Village that will gather young companies looking for the SXSW-bump — a goal not unlike those of thousands of bands that come to Austin, seeking hype. One of the buzzed-about start-ups coming to this year’s SXSW is Pinterest, a pinboard-style sharing site whose founder, Ben Silbermann, will be speaking.
One heavyweight, though, is expected to suck up much of the Austin air: Apple. Its new iPad, announced Wednesday, will surely be a major topic of conversation, both among those looking to purchase one and for app-makers scrambling to adapt to it. Last year, after the similarly timed iPad 2 launch, Apple set up a regularly mobbed pop-up shop at SXSW.
Running simultaneously with Interactive is SXSW Film, which has a tradition of hip popcorn films, low-budget American independents and midnight genre flicks. The naturalistic movies grouped under the umbrella term “Mumblecore” have often been celebrated at SXSW.
“We are definitely looking for an edge,” says festival programmer Janet Pierson. “We look for cultural zeitgeist. Subcultures are interesting to us. The intersection of film, music and interactivity is always interesting to us. In terms of documentaries, we definitely skew cultural rather than saving the world.”
This year’s slate of 132 feature films will include genre entertainment like “The Cabin in the Woods,” a horror film co-written by Whedon, and the comic remake “21 Jump Street.” The cross-pollination with digital life will also be on screen in films like “We Are Legion,” a documentary about hacker-activists, and “Wikileaks: Secret & Lies,” a documentary about the document-leaking website.
Writer-director Bob Byington is a resident of Austin’s thriving filmmaking scene that prides itself as a Hollywood alternative. While he would typically be fleeing the city during the mob rush of SXSW, he’ll be staying this year to showcase his comedy “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” starring Nick Offerman of NBC’s “Parks & Recreation.”
Finding distribution for an indie film like “Somebody Up There Likes Me” has become harder in recent years, but — for better or worse — such concrete results often take a back seat to promotion, networking and buzz-gathering at SXSW. Byington has, like many, found himself trying to keep expectations for tangible results (like selling his film) in check amid the mob scene.
“You do tend to get self-absorbed and you feel like you need to take every opportunity you have to market your own film,” he says. “I’d sort of like to have an attitude this year of just remembering the other films and the other filmmakers are there. That seems to be where more pleasure is possible.”