The Tribeca Film Festival, which I also had the great pleasure of covering, was a similar scenario. There was a lot of salesmanship but there was also the films themselves standing on their own in small venues. Some of the best films I'd screened -- including a documentary on the New York Cosmos, the hip-hop documentary Rock The Bells and the low-budget horror homage Hatchet -- were seen at showings with only a handful of other attendees. That's the end product, and all the filmmakers want are enough eyeballs and word of mouth to get them to another platform: Indie theaters, movie channels, ESPN, etc.
Elements of this still exist at South By Southwest but are fading into the din. As noted by by colleague Rocco Pendola, who attended South By Southwest last year, this is likely the worst time to be in Austin as a music or film fan. There are long lines for everything worth eating or drinking and everybody around you is in pitch, sell or networking mode, which means almost nobody except the most drunken SXSW-goers are in their natural state.
That's not a festival, that's a bazaar. However, that's exactly why cantankerous old coots like myself and other naysayers should do the right thing and stay as far away from that event as possible. No, it isn't an ideal music showcase and companies like Apple (AAPL) and Chevrolet are only making it more difficult to squeeze emerging artists onto the stages, but hundreds of music writers and thousands of fans still make discoveries there anyway. No, SXSW isn't Sundance or Cannes, but great independent films like The Spectacular Now, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, Muscle Shoals and Before Midnight all took their first steps into the U.S. market there.
The panels and keynotes are still stacked and worth your while, the Interactive fest is as much a tech cornerstone as CES or E3 and it's still Austin. There are venues everywhere, shows every night and barbecue and Shiner all around. The whole thing brings about $200 million in business to Austin and boosts business at the venues 45% over the next most-popular month on the calendar.
It's perhaps a bit more business-casual than the festival title would imply, but there are a lot of folks who love mixing business and pleasure there and see a huge return on their investment. They don't need me or anyone else sulking and grousing about the commercialism behind what's now an inherently commercial exercise. That's like watching the Super Bowl and complaining the commercials and halftime show are ruining the game.
If you still want a music festival without the extra city's worth of people and vendors, the Austin City Limits festival comes around in October. In the meantime, let SXSW keep greasing the gears of commerce without a bunch of purists throwing a wrench into them.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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