South by Southwest’s urge to converge

Film, music, interactive mingle as never before

The South by Southwest music fest had been rocking for eight years when organizers decided to add a combined “film and multimedia” component in 1994.

According to Hugh Forrest, event director of SXSW’s now-separate interactive festival, the two new disciplines didn’t exactly complement one another at first.

“When we started the thing as one event, it was more just a pragmatic thing,” he explains. “In that first year, we found that the movie people stayed on one side of the room and the geeks stayed on the other.”

But this year, attendees from all three disciplines — film, music and interactive — are mingling as never before, with SXSW’s panels and programming uniquely poised among fests to address convergence in those industries.

“Today, with the way the music and the film businesses operate, they’re all intertwined so much that it only makes South by Southwest more vital each year,” says SXSW film festival producer Matt Dentler, who organized such new media-themed panels as “Lonelygirl15: A Case Study” and “Video Mashups,” about copyright issues for amateur filmmakers in the viral video age.

“Austin is a really musical town,” says BMI vice president of film and TV music Doreen Ringer Ross, who returns to SXSW to moderate her annual “Music for Film” roundtable. “At Sundance, it’s more skewed toward an audience of filmmakers, and at South by Southwest, it seems to be a real mix of composers, recording artists and people hustling tunes.”

Where other festivals exclusively target the film industry, SXSW draws key players in the music community as well. Last year, the fest screened a doc called “The Refugee All Stars,” about a band that formed in a Sierra Leone refugee camp, and arranged a rare opportunity for the group to perform at the music festival.

“Not only did we show this terrific documentary about their story, but having the musicians there was a huge bonus,” Dentler says. “They finally signed a record deal in North America — all these things started happening as a result of that documentary playing South by Southwest.”

Music docs have long been a SXSW staple, with pics such as “Tupac: Resurrection” director Lauren Lazin’s “The Last Days of Left Eye” and Steven Cantor’s “James Blunt: Return to Kosovo” filling out the fest’s “24 Beats Per Second” program.

This year also boasts its share of technology-themed pics, including “Helvetica” (about the typeface’s influence on graphic design) and “The King of Kong” (about gamers competing to set the “Donkey Kong” high score). Fest will also announce the winners of “SXSW Click,” its summertime mobile shorts fest, and partner with to Webcast interviews with festival filmmakers from a booth at the interactive conference.

In the early days of Web-based video, sites such as Atom Films trolled film festivals for content. Reversing the equation, Dentler invited co-founder Jamie Patricof to curate a “best of” showcase in which short films featured on the online videosite will be projected on the bigscreen for fest auds.

“I think you’re going to start seeing new talent emerging from this world and going to TV and film,” says Patricof, citing Daily Reel discovery Lisa Nova, now a regular on “Mad TV.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these content creators has something official come out of the festival for them.”

Patricof also will appear on a SXSW panel open to both film and interactive conference-goers.

Says Forrest: “For ages, we at South by Southwest have preached this idea of convergence, and every year it becomes a little more realistic.”

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