Why More Film Festivals Should Be Like SXSW

March 15, 2017
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A lot has been made about growth at South by Southwest. From increased commercialization to insane crowd sizes, the festival’s evolving size and scope has helped it endure for 30 years but hasn’t made it immune from criticism. However, the South by Southwest FIlm Festival, which has mostly avoided controversy, might be the greatest benefactor of the festival’s growth. In fact, the opportunity to explore a media market wider than just the film industry has made SXSW a truly one-of-a-kind festival for filmmakers. One that other festivals should look to emulate.

A Brief History of Film at SXSW

SXSW began as a music-focused festival with broad cultural intentions. It wasn’t until the festival’s seventh year, in 1994, that the Film and Interactive events were introduced. The presence of then up-and-coming Austin filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez paved the way for other festival regulars including Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Lena Dunham.

For the past decade, SXSW has featured an eclectic mix of movie premieres ranging from indie darlings to working cuts of big studio comedies. The industry panels are equally diverse. J.J. Abrams was a notable speaker last year and media-shy auteur Terrence Malick gave a rare public interview with Richard Linklater and Michael Fassbender this year.

Richard Linklater (right), Michael Fassbender (middle), and Terrence Malick (left)

All in all, the SXSW Film Festival isn’t super unique. It’s being surrounded by the rest of the festival that makes it a great place to be a filmmaker.

It’s All One Thing

One of my Media Studies (that was my major) professors in college had a motto that he described as the most important thing a student should know when studying media; it’s all one thing. Simply put, everything in media and culture is so interconnected that it shouldn’t be separated when analyzed. That’s what makes SXSW particularly valuable, lots of different things are being shared in the same place. When submitting a film to the festival, this is the first thing you read on the submission page:

“Premiere your film in front of press, film industry leaders, and film lovers as well as tech and music professionals. Submit your film to the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.”

The “press, film industry leaders, and film lovers” aspect to SXSW isn’t unique. Those are essential elements to every major film festival. It’s the latter part, the “tech and music professionals” part, that’s important here. Films aren’t created and enjoyed in a cultural vacuum. More importantly, filmmakers aren’t working in an industry centered solely around film, a concept that is only becoming more relevant each passing year. Showing films at a wide cultural venue not only provides exciting exposure for the film, it also provides filmmakers with exposure to the wider cultural landscape that’s critical to the way film and television is being consumed today.

The Interactive Element

From SXSW Interactive 2015

The Interactive Festival at SXSW is filled with a plethora of different networking and presentation options. This year, there’s a track on experiential storytelling, with speakers focusing on how new technologies are changing the way we view entertainment, and there are now submissions open for VR and AR cinema. Two years ago, there was a focus on the future of the FCC and broadband. The year before that, the focus was on participative media and how viewer data is changing the way we make content.

This is all very relevant information for filmmakers, and it’s not even part of the SXSW Film Festival.

The Startup Culture

From our panel talk today.

SXSW does a good job of embracing innovative ideas on all fronts, including those from the out-of-the box tech companies that are changing the way filmmaker content is being viewed. With SXSW’s Startup Village, filmmakers can immerse themselves in this culture for inspiration, networking opportunities, sweet swag, and important new-technology knowledge. In their own words, SXSW:

“The SXSW Conference provides an opportunity for global professionals at every level to participate, learn, and network. Featuring a variety of tracks that allow attendees to explore what’s next in the worlds of entertainment, culture, and technology, SXSW proves that the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together.”

To give you an idea, ShareGrid just hosted a panel discussion on “How to Turn Your Camera Into a Cash Machine.” We discussed how to make a return on your gear investments in 2017 as well as how to save money by renting from individuals on ShareGrid. So yes, we are committed fans of SXSW.

More Festivals Should be Like This

Praising SXSW for its embrace of new media is not an attack on the traditional film festival format. There will always be place in the world for the Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto-style festivals that grow and celebrate the most exciting cinema of each year, but there are a lot of festivals out there. If more festivals shifted to embrace a wider cultural scope, the films and filmmakers would benefit. After all, SXSW started narrow and widened over time. As their website puts it:

“Music was the uniting factor, but the group had a catholic taste for art and ideas. Inclusiveness and reaching for new things were core values.”

Inclusiveness indeed. If you’ve had a film screen at SXSW, tell us about it in the comments!

Happy shooting!

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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