AUSTIN, Texas >> In 2012, Angelique LaRue, a Los Angeles-based digital and social media manager for a restaurant chain, came to Austin for South by Southwest for the first time.
“I’d been with the company for only a year. I’d never been to this type of conference before,” she said.
She plotted out her schedule based on SXSW’s list of panels, but, when she actually got here, realized how much more goes on than watching speakers discuss technology, music, film and other topics on stage.
“It really kind of opened my eyes. I thought, ‘Oh, wow; I am not prepared at all.’ I didn’t know that such a big conference was not necessarily at the Convention Center,” LaRue said. “I was pretty overwhelmed in 2012.”
But she came back the next year, with a better plan and more of an idea of what to expect. Then she came back the year after that. And the next. “Being able to talk to my peers and get some insights I might not get at my company was crucial and valuable,” she said by phone from California.
When she arrives for SXSW 2018, it will be her seventh consecutive visit. Not only does she have a better grasp of what events she wants to go to, she’s helping others navigate the event now. What started as a chat thread with friends a few years ago is now a closed Facebook group called “SXSW Interactive 2018 Party Invites,” with about 1,387 members who post links to unofficial parties and events along with her.
LaRue is one of the tens of thousands of people who will come to Austin for the March 9-18 conference, which in 2017 had about 70,696 attendees. In total, South by Southwest last year had 421,900 direct participants, SXSW says. Its economic impact in Austin last year totaled $348.6 million, according to an economic impact report.
For 2018, its speaker list includes former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders; Oscar-caliber filmmakers Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”); philanthropist Melinda Gates; London Mayor Sadiq Khan; singer Keith Urban; the cast and creators of HBO’s “Westworld” and NBC’s “This Is Us”; retired New York Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez; writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill; TV journalist Katie Couric; and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, among many others.
But as with a lot of years, the conversation leading up to the launch of South by Southwest’s multiple March legs — Music, Film, Interactive, but also Comedy, Gaming, Style, Sports, Wellness and other topic areas added over the years — is less about who’ll be speaking and more about whether the event is still relevant to industry leaders in each area and whether big brands are still throwing their money toward Austin as much as in the past.
One article that has proved divisive in the past few weeks online among the so-called “digital creatives” that SXSW courts as attendees across different industries came from a media and marketing website Digiday. Headlined “Why agencies are skipping SXSW this year,” the article suggests SXSW has become overcrowded, expensive including with rising hotel costs and, perhaps most damaging to Austin’s reputation, “SXSW also became less cool.”
Some have taken the piece with a grain of salt; it concludes with a demonstrably false and inflammatory quote — “Breakfast tacos are so 2009” — but the article has created conversations around how South by Southwest has changed since its huge growth spurt from 2007 to 2012, when the rise of social media and mobile phones drove new waves of tech attendees to Austin every March.
One person positioned to weigh in on what 2018’s SXSW might bring is Jennifer Sinski. As vice president at Austin publicity firm Giant Noise, she handles events for such clients as Fox Sports, which is coming to SXSW for the first time, as well as CNN and The New York Times, which will each throw downtown parties and host panels for attendees as well as participating in official panels.
Big brands routinely spend an average of about $500,000 for SXSW events that involve food, drinks, panels and taking over a downtown space, she said, and it’s not unusual for some to spend much more.
This year, HBO is hosting a re-creation of the fictional town of Sweetwater from its sci-fi show “Westworld,” which could be the most expensive undertaking at SXSW 2018. Meanwhile, the upcoming Steven Spielberg film “Ready Player One” will take over Brazos Hall downtown with a multiday interactive experience to promote the film, co-written by Austin writer Ernest Cline.
But Sinski is also co-founder of RSVPster, a service launched in 2011 that auto-RSVPs people to hundreds of nonofficial parties and performances around the fest and conference.
She says that RSVP events have declined since 2015, and, for this year so far, she has about 250 events listed, compared with about 400 at this time last year with about 10-20 more added each day. But, she says, the number of event permits issued by the city of Austin went up from 146 last year to 160 this year, and she expects a surge of additional parties will be announced before Friday and believes that some brands are changing their strategy about what to offer at SXSW.
“We don’t see brands turning away from SXSW,” Sinski said, “We see a shift of what’s happening in a bigger picture in marketing. Are people shying away from larger parties? Sometimes that happens.”
Instead, she says, some companies are hosting all-day, unofficial panels so guests feel they get something more than free food and drinks. And she credits SXSW for keeping up with topics people want to hear about, such as equality in the workplace, wellness and politics.
“The Digiday article really bothered me,” she said, “Every year is slightly different, but I think South By is still incredibly relevant. I definitely don’t think it’s over.”
WHAT’S NEW, DIFFERENT
As far as what attendees can expect when downtown transforms for SXSW, the continued “convergence” of South by Southwest will continue as organizers and Interactive, Music and Film attendees continue to gain access to crossover content with their respective badges.
Last year was the first time, for instance, that Interactive badgeholders could attend more film screenings and music showcases. But the change created some confusion and line problems as the conference and attendees adjust to the change and less availability of tickets for people seeking walk-up passes for some events.
SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest said the conference is continuing to work to help attendees figure out what they have access to and what their options are on the fly, whether it’s for a music showcase, film screening or panel. To that end, SXSW is rolling out a tool that shows how much space is available at a given venue on a Red/Yellow/ Green system.
Also new for 2018: Despite some delays and recent problems, the new Fairmont Austin hotel will provide more than 1,000 new hotel rooms and lots of conference space for SXSW, making it one of the top venues for the event. Forrest said content that has typically been found at the Hyatt Austin Downtown will move to the Fairmont.
Last year, attendees were dealing with the absence of ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber in Austin. This year, both companies are fully operational in town.
SXSW also plans to do much more podcasting, making audio versions of some sessions available as early as the next day, Forrest said. There will also be a podcast stage at the convention center for live recordings.
Some sessions will also be scheduled to repeat: Forrest said encore presentations of some panels will be offered and SXSW wants to do a better job making sure attendees are aware of them in advance.
Health and self-care have been increasingly important topics at SXSW. For the first time, South by Southwest will host a free Wellness Expo at the Palmer Events Center March 10-11.
DISCUSSION TOPICS IN TECH
Last year, politics dominated SXSW with sessions under the title “Tech Under Trump” and keynote speakers including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Some recent additions to the schedule include a panel featuring Sen. Sanders and CNN’s Jake Tapper, a session with Schwarzenegger and Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and an opening session with Techfugees activist Josephine Goube called “Let’s Tech the Borders Down.”
This year, the #MeToo movement and workplace harassment will be much-discussed topics throughout SXSW.
Some panels on the subject of women’s rights include a keynote from philanthropist Melinda Gates, a panel on sexual misconduct in the music industry, an opening session from Goube and a panel on female voices in film who are prominent on Twitter.
A session featuring Christiane Amanpour and tech journalist Kara Swisher is also expected to delve into the subject.
Cryptocurrency will be a major tech track this year, so much so that SXSW is doing a set of programming on block-chain March 14-15 in addition to other related panels throughout the week.
Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are also the subject of many panels, demos and events.
On the SXSW Gaming side, which runs March 15-17, a major focus this year will be on esports and competitive gaming, with sessions focused on the new Overwatch League and more tournament streaming.
ON THE FILM SIDE
John “The Office” Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” will open the 25th South by Southwest Film Festival, while Wes Anderson’s highly anticipated stop-motion animated film “Isle of Dogs” makes its North American premiere as the fest’s closing night film.
Oscar-winning director, writer, producer and Knicks lifer Spike Lee; actress, writer, controversy magnet and director Lena Dunham; actor, writer and country music fan Ethan Hawke; “Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi” and “Brick” director Rian Johnson; and “Westworld” cast members Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and noted one-of-the-best-actors-alive Jeffrey Wright are all featured speakers this year.
The Austin Film Society’s Texas Film Awards are the unofficial kickoff for SXSW Film. Screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson will accept the inaugural Jonathan Demme Award, and Variety Executive Editor Steven Gaydos will present Armie Hammer with Variety’s “One to Acclaim” award.
The March 8 gala will be held at the Austin Film Society Cinema. Demme, a longtime Austin Film Society Advisory Board member, was considered a patron saint of Texas film. AFS worked with Demme’s family to select Anderson for the inaugural award. Anderson became close with the Texas film community when he shot “There Will Be Blood” in Marfa.
MUSIC QUIETER THIS YEAR?
It’s no secret that music has become a smaller part of SXSW in recent years, reflecting the overall decline of the industry compared with tech and other entertainment sectors. That trend appears to be continuing.
Four years ago, the likes of Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Kanye West attracted major attention, and subsequent years saw appearances by Drake and Snoop Dogg. The 2017 fest got a last-minute boost when Garth Brooks signed on for an Auditorium Shores show.
No such marquee surprises appear to be in store this year. Los Lobos will play Auditorium Shores, and the NPR showcase at Stubb’s will feature the new Common/Robert Glasper project August Greene. Veteran acts such as Todd Rundgren and Wyclef Jean will be here, along with rising stars including Sylvan Esso and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. But, as a whole, the 2018 lineup feels underwhelming.
“There are way less bands, brands, labels, etc. this year. Less party rentals and less options for night showcases,” said Graham Williams, owner of production company Margin Walker Presents and a longtime Austin music promoter, in mid-February. “Last year was less but solid — reminded me of SXSW 10 years ago or so, but this year seems lighter than usual. Still lots of good stuff, but I’ve been hearing from various (industry) folks that they have less events than in the past.”
Many Austin music venues rely on a March influx of cash to keep them afloat through the slow months of summer. From their point of view, the story of SXSW 2018 is: “How bad is it going to be?” Stephen Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room and Garage and the Parish, said a week before the festival.
With less brand participation and cash, there are fewer big names on official SXSW events, and it remains to be seen whether the up-and-comers will fill the clubs. At Empire, Sternschein added a few ticketed events, including a Dr. Octagon show March 11 to try to bridge the money gap.
“I can’t say if this is a blip or a sign of things to come, but I’ve seen SXSW and (other fests) go up and down based around good and bad years, and my gut doesn’t tell me this is the direction of SXSW in the future, but rather a moment (whether it’s a year or a few) where it’s not as big as it was at one point, which doesn’t mean it’s not bigger next year and even bigger after that,” Williams said.