This was my first time at “South By,” as the cool kids say, and my first time in the city of Austin. The energy during SXSW is electric and being amongst so many creative people is intoxicating. I came home feeling inspired and renewed as if I’d been at a week-long wellness retreat. I’m so fortunate to have been given this opportunity to attend, so I’d like to impart some valuable lessons I learned during my time there. Before we begin, my first piece of advice: if you get the chance to go to SXSW, go. It’s worth it.
- Beat The Crowd & Big Things Can Happen
I wasted no time getting out there on the first official morning of the SXSW Film Festival. At the top of my schedule was a panel called “Late Night With The Devil: 45 Years On From The TV Event That Shocked A Nation.” I was understandably intrigued by the title, and the cherry on top: David Dastmalchian was going to be there.
I weaved through handfuls and handfuls of lines, trying to figure out how long I’d been fated to wait. When I’d finally reached the door, to my surprise, there was no line. I walked right in. And there he was, David Dastmalchian, in a remarkable white and gray suit. I sat no more than 15 feet from him. He was in the middle of a conversation about his love of bats and trying to catch a glimpse of them at the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin with his family.
What struck me about David is that his presence is larger than life, but he’s so down to earth and easy to talk to. As the panel progressed, he touched on a lot of topics relating to the film and his role as late-night host, Jack Delroy. He admitted this role was so different than any other character he’s played but his motivation to take it on was a desire to stretch his creative capabilities, “I wanted to push myself and see if I could get there.” He also expressed his ongoing gratitude for overcoming his battle with substance abuse and getting to tell stories for a living, “We do this for the audience. I don’t tell stories to live in a bubble.”
This panel remains one of my favorite and most memorable experiences at SXSW. I’ll go in-depth on the film ‘Late Night With the Devil’ in a later article, but all this to say, it pays to wake up early.
- Keep Your Eyes Peeled
As the Keep Austin Weird slogan suggests, you just never know what you’re going to see at SXSW. Terry Crews cruising down Rainey Street in a monster truck as President Camacho campaigning for his mock 2024 re-election (If you still haven’t seen ‘Idiocracy,’ this is your sign). Giant, and I mean giant, statues of Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal promoting the new Paramount Pictures’ film ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,’ set to be theatrically released on June 9, 2023. Or Luis Guzman strolling around the Fairmont Austin hotel lobby and settling in before the world premiere of his film ‘Story Ave’ about a young graffiti artist from the Bronx struggling to stay out of trouble along his journey of self-discovery. So keep your face out of your phone as much as you can and try not to get too starstruck as you take a look around at all SXSW has to offer.
- Always Choose The Mystery Box
You just never know what you will find there.
I noticed something peculiar on the schedule in the SXSW GO app: A Special Screening. No description or hints, just a location. I saved it in my favorites as a possibility for later in the day if it didn’t conflict with my known schedule. At a coffee shop, with just over an hour until this special screening begins. I happen to mention wondering what it could be to the barista. Her reply was, “It’s John Wick 4. You better leave right now!”
Apparently, this secret screening was not so secret after all. I’m not on the John Wick superfan forums, so what I didn’t know was that this information had been leaked days prior. To top off the cruelty, I was the second person in line to not make it in to see the film. Moral of the story: Choose the mystery box and make it a priority (See Tip #1)
- Fortune Favors The Bold
My colleague and I found an unexpected opening in our schedule. On a whim, we decided to attend the premiere of the film ‘Hypnotic.’ We noticed Ben Affleck was the lead, read the description, and thought it sounded really interesting, so we rushed off to claim our place in line. We got in by the skin of our teeth.
We were already very excited to have made it in, but nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen. Out waltzes Robert Rodriguez onto the stage. We both look at each other like we’ve just won the jackpot. Robert Rodriguez is the co-writer and director of the film. He explained that he’s been working on ‘Hypnotic’ for many years and that the film is technically still “in progress” but set to be released in the U.S. on May 12, 2023.
But wait, there’s more. At the end of the film Robert (I just call him Robert now), graciously stayed for a Q&A. Anyone in the audience who had a question was invited to line up near the stage. We are in the balcony, mind you, and I’m comfortable, I’m introverted, I’m not getting up. My colleague, however, was squirming in his seat. I could see the wheels turning, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” and finally Boom! He’d made his decision and was already halfway down the stairs in the blink of an eye. He was going up there.
Flash-forward and my colleague got his question answered directly by Robert Rodriguez, got to hold the golden jackhammer stake that George Clooney held with his own hands in the film ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ received an original signed poster of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ and was invited on a private tour of Robert’s Troublemaker Studios. The lesson is clear: be brave, be bold.
- The Future Is Now
Finally, a very valuable and relevant discussion on the future of film festivals post-2020. I saw this panel on my schedule called “The Future of Film Festivals,” hosted by Glenn Kiser for the Dolby Institute Podcast, and knew we had to attend. This discussion posed questions to Jacqueline Lyanga, Curator of Global Cinema, and Eugene Hernandez, Director of the Sundance Film Festival.
Jacqueline discussed the importance of smaller festivals finding their niche, and cultivating it. She also talked about some research studies that have been done to curate audiences for specific films and determine the size of the venue. She said it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and Eugene echoed the same sentiment.
Eugene talked about how audiences engage with films differently since 2020 and festivals need to evolve into a hybrid model to grow with their attendees. But he was quick to point out that something magical happens when hundreds or even thousands of people gather together in person for a shared experience. Some films MUST be seen on a big screen and for others streaming at home, and making them more accessible to a wider audience makes sense. It depends on the film, and it depends on the audience.
One thing’s for certain, they both agreed: We’re not going back to 2019.
My colleague and I had some unforgettable experiences at SXSW. There’s so much to do and so much to see. The important thing is to go in with a plan and leave with a story.