SXSW: ‘Spring Break for Geeks’

 

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 four nights in several dozen venues. By day, scores of label- and brand-sponsored parties will pepper the downtown area, and 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 Super8 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.”

INTERACTIVE

When Dennis Crowley arrived at SXSW two years ago, all he had was an idea: a platform for smartphone users to blast their current whereabouts.

This month, the shaggy-haired entrepreneur, 34, is back in Austin with more than 7 million users. His “check-in” company — Foursquare — which adds 35,000 new sign-ups daily, secured $20 million in funding on a premoney valuation of $95 million in June.

Crowley, whose first startup, Dodgeball (think Friendster for cell-phone users), was acquired by Google in 2005, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the increased competition from Facebook, the plan to make money and the one topic that everyone at the festival will be buzzing about.

You’ve started to build a nice business for merchants. How — and when — does Foursquare start to make money?

We haven’t started to monetize things yet, but it’s pretty easy to see how you can do it. We’re building something that these merchants haven’t seen before: a Google-style analytics dashboard for their coffee shop or their cafe. It’s not just interesting data on who’s coming and going: These are your best customers; these used to be your best customers; these can potentially be your best customers — it’s about building tools on top of the data, and we’re just starting to get to that point now.

When Facebook announced its plan to launch its location feature, Places, many wrote off Foursquare for dead. What did they miss? And how do you stay competitive?

I don’t think it’s that they missed anything. Facebook has a lot of different products rolled into one, and one thing that they’re very good at is allowing people to connect and share online. What we’re doing is different — we’re helping people connect and share offline.

If you were to sell Foursquare tomorrow, what would be your next venture?

I don’t think that I’m going to be able to do anything until we get all of these ideas out there in the wild. Part of the reason we did Foursquare, which is similar in some ways to Dodgeball, is that we didn’t get to do all of the things that we wanted to do with Dodgeball. But there are other spaces that really interest me.

Such as?

I like the stuff that’s going on with social TV and seeing the effect Twitter has on making live TV relevant again. I’m enjoying watching how that stuff is starting to evolve.

Hollywood has exploded with check-in services such as GetGlue and Philo. What can you offer this industry that the others can’t?

We’ve deliberately tried to stay away from the “check-in to TV” business because we think it’s a bit of a distraction from our core focus, which is to try to make the real world easier to use.

What we’re starting to see as we get more celebrities on board is that Foursquare is becoming a good way for them to leave different experiences around. So Ashton [Kutcher] and Demi [Moore], who are investors in Foursquare, will leave tips about their favorite burger or their favorite hair salon. Or you can go on and see someone like Mario Batali leaving little nuggets about his favorite restaurants in New York. It can be a way to experience different parts of a city through the eyes of celebrities.

You walk into a meeting with a studio executive here in Hollywood, what’s your pitch?

It depends on their goals. When it comes to trying to get more people into the theater, we’re working on more ways to do that. I don’t think we have them just yet. But when it comes to being able to deliver content to fans of a movie or a show, that’s something we can do very well.

Locations services are likely to be a hot topic at SXSW again this year. What’s new to learn?

The big thing that we did last year right before SXSW was launch a trending feature, which would show you which two places have the most people. In New York, you’d usually see the movie theater or the supermarket trending. We brought it down to Austin and you could see that one party was starting to pick up while another one was starting to die down. We had all of these people who were deciding when it was time to move based on how the scales would tip on the Foursquare numbers. We made some tweaks to that feature for this year’s SXSW, and now you’ll be able to see a little more.

What’s the one thing that everyone will be buzzing about at this year’s festival?

I think the category that everyone will be discussing this year will be the group texting services. But in general, you’re seeing this bigger movement behind building things that make your everyday interactions a bit more interesting. I think Foursquare and all of the apps that are being built on top of that ecosystem are playing a big part in that. I don’t think anyone that is doing location stuff right now is just focused on check-ins; you’re doing locations plus social plus mobile.

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