South by Southwest Festival: The Guide to 'Spring Break for Geeks'

 SXSW

Austin prides itself on keeping things off-balance and just a little strange. But the unique nexus of the South by Southwest festivals — music, film and interactive — has reached a point in 2011 where even it isn’t quite sure what the heck is going on.

Discussions about SXSW inevitably draw out the word “sensibility,” and this is one case where it actually means something. The festivals’ identities are inseparable from that of Austin itself, which has essentially become its own brand.

In short, taming this beast of a conference is going to take some planning. Here’s a cross-platform primer on what to see, hear and do.

MUSIC

Going into its 25th year, SXSW might no longer be the boozy college getaway it used to be, but when it comes to what’s long been labeled the music industry’s “spring break for geeks,” people of all ages still flock to Austin by the planeful in search of bands, beer and barbecue.

The gathering of music-makers, purveyors and influencers, which takes place March 11-20, will continue in that time-honored tradition. More than 500 artists are slated to play each of the conference's four nights in several dozen venues. By day, scores of label -- and brand -- sponsored parties will pepper the downtown area, and dozens of panel discussions will be held at the Austin Convention Center, covering a wide array of topics. On the 2011 agenda: Aware Records founder Greg Latterman and TopSpin CEO Ian Rogers will offer their thoughts on “The Next Generation of Music Executives,” Billboard editorial director Bill Werde moderates “You’ve Built a Social Network, Now What?,” and music bookers Jonathan Cohen (Jimmy Fallon), Scott Igoe (Jimmy Kimmel) and Jim Pitt (Conan O’Brien) break down the late-night tap dance in securing musical acts.

Since 1987, when SXSW drew 700 curious music fans in its inaugural year, the conference has become a mandatory stop for industry professionals, who come in from the coasts not only to get a frenetic sneak peek at the next buzz-band contenders but also to network — be it in the lobby of the newly constructed W Hotel, creekside at the Four Seasons or at a taco stand on Congress Avenue, Austin’s main drag. To bands, it’s an opportunity to be heard by the people that matter — A&R reps, bookers, managers, bloggers — though with the conference’s record attendance, it’s becoming harder and harder to get noticed, which is one reason why many acts schedule multiple performances, sometimes as many as three a day.

“We’re playing seven times in four days,” says Andy Cabic, frontman for San Francisco folk-rock outfit Vetiver, which is scheduled to appear at the Brooklyn Vegan party and the Bella Union event at the picturesque French Legation on the city’s east side. “The hardest thing is just making your way down the main streets with all your gear. You’re almost a fool to try, so you end up relying on the clubs’ back line or schlepping your stuff for blocks. You can’t get anywhere you have to be, and there are so many people with iPhones that the system just shuts down.”

Indeed, the conference’s popularity is both a great achievement and a curse. Because of its credibility as a gathering for true music lovers, SXSW has attracted some big names to its podium over the years, from Johnny Cash, who delivered the keynote in 1994, to Neil Young, the featured speaker in 2006. This year’s draw has a distinct ’80s theme about it, as Bob Geldof will address attendees on the morning of March 17 and Duran Duran will be interviewed by former MTV newsman John Norris that afternoon. Throw in the three OMD performances, and you’ve practically completed the Pretty In Pink soundtrack.

Connecting music’s storied past with its tech-savvy future is something SXSW excels at. Many of the movies screened there have a music theme (this year’s lineup includes the Alan Berg-directed Outside Industry, a doc that chronicles the festival’s meteoric growth, and films focusing on such bands as Foo Fighters and Motorhead), as do the scores of digital startups hoping they, too, will get noticed.

With so much to choose from, are overloaded senses inevitable?

“Go with no agenda,” Cabic advises. “Most of the big shows are slammed, and if you try to plan anything, your hope of communicating with your buddy is shot, so the best thing to do is just walk around, run into people and see what you see. It’s a good time.”

MUST-SEE MUSIC MOVIES

REM’s Collapse Into Now
A compendium of films inspired by R.E.M.’s new album directed by such filmmakers as Sam Taylor-Wood (Nowhere Boy), James Franco (Saturday Night) and Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan (30 for 30) will screen. Michael Stipe will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening Wednesday night.

Foo Fighters
James Moll (The Last Days) has captured one of rock’s most likable bands in his latest, Foo Fighters, and the scuttlebutt is that Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foos will perform Tuesday night after the world premiere of the film.

Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel
P. David Ebersole’s doc tells the story of Patty Schemel, the gay drummer of Hole, a band whose frontwoman, Courtney Love, was married to Schemel’s friend Kurt Cobain and has since played nemesis to Cobain’s former bandmate (and drummer), Grohl.

It’s About You
Shot on Super 8 during the course of John Mellencamp’s 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, It’s About You is phototgrapher Kurt Markus’ stripped-down look at the recording of “No Better Than This,” Mellencamp’s back-to-basics album recorded on on a mono tape recorder.

FILM

Every successful film festival evolves in unpredictable ways, but the impact the SXSW interactive conference is having on the town, the film program and its growing sales market is coming to define the experience.

“Two years ago at SXSW, it felt like I’d walked into a different festival,” says Magnolia Pictures exec Tom Quinn, who has been attending and acquiring at SXSW for nine years. “The dot-commers had finally taken over. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were at Sundance in the late ’90s, when Main Street was one big dot-com scrum. This SXSW phenomenon, however, seemed earned and organic. SXSW Interactive is that rare occurrence where old and new media meet face-to-face. Our new SXSW siblings are essentially connecting-the-dot-commers.”

The Interactive Conference is absolutely a key component to SXSW Film’s allure and success, just as is its proximity to SXSW Music, adds SXSW film conference and festival producer Janet Pierson, now in her third year at the helm. “We’re a solid film festival by any measure, but nowhere else do you get the depth of creative artists, early adopters and entrepreneurs across all fields, congregating at the same place at the same time.”

For years now, the studios have eyed the freewheeling Texas fest as a strong launchpad for certain kinds of midbudget genre or comedy releases. This year’s opening-night time-jump thriller Source Code, from Moon director Duncan Jones and Summit Entertainment, follows such films as Kick-Ass (Lionsgate), Drag Me to Hell and MacGruber (Universal) and I Love You, Man (DreamWorks) in high-profile premiere slots. Directors such as Sam Raimi, Jonathan Demme and Todd Phillips typically come to host panels, and a few promotional stunts — like Robert Rodriguez “sneaking in” footage from Predators in 2010 and Universal slipping in a work-in-progress screening of Bridesmaids this year — inevitably pepper the program.

Summit is shaking up the system a bit this year with the anomaly of The Beaver, a family drama from director Jodie Foster (who is planning to attend) that features the embattled Mel Gibson as a depressed father and husband who starts engaging the world through a hand puppet. The film was radioactive for a year until Summit found a friendly slot at SXSW ahead of a May theatrical release. Implicit in the decision is the sense that the Texas capital — whose unofficial catchphrase is “Keep Austin Weird” — is the only festival forum where the film could get a fair shake. A decent reception there could give it some much-needed momentum up out of the hole that Gibson’s antics had put the film in.

“We feel privileged that we’re showing The Beaver,” Pierson says. “We think it’s an extremely moving, beautifully directed film by Jodie Foster that will be greatly embraced by our audience. We feel like we’re just the right environment to be able to present the film on its own terms, away from all the tabloid noise.”

With only-in-Austin-flavored fixtures like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and Mondo Tees, such quirky events as Fantastic Fest, Austin Film Festival and Butt-Numb-a-Thon, and alumni/boosters Harry Knowles, Richard Linklater, Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the festival has become a reliable bazaar for offbeat indie and genre films, local flavor and music docs.

“Austin is a great launchpad for films — it’s one of the most appreciative and adventurous film audiences in the country,” Quinn says.

Indeed, it birthed its own movement — mumblecore — and in one of its many unique twists on the format, the festival even gives prizes for title design and poster design.

“Austin has always been a buyers’ market for us, which until last year was kind of our own little secret,” says Quinn, who always walks away with a few films, including last year’s Monsters and Barry Munday. “This year, though, the floodgates are open. Everybody’s coming, and that’s an awesome thing for all of us. It couldn’t have happened to a better town or a better group of festivals.”

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