SXSW more sponsors less creativity
Illustration by Hawk Krall

As more than 70,000 badge-holders converged in Austin for the 28th annual South by Southwest Festival, the sheer magnitude of films, startups and networking sessions should have produced the next great thing: a movie, social-media app or an undiscovered talent. But it didn’t.

Veronica Mars” director Rob Thomas told Variety that the film adaptation of the former CW TV network spy series, which premiered at the fest March 8, will most certainly reboot the character via other platforms, including books, but added that he wasn’t sure if Veronica would find herself on the bigscreen again. That may be a disappointment to the thousands of fans who made the pic possible via Kickstarter.

The media was abuzz over producer Dana Brunetti’s criticism of famous filmmakers — including Spike Lee, Zach Braff and Thomas — who use crowdfunding to finance their films.

“It’s a genius idea that’s gotten a little out of hand,” Brunetti said of the crowdfunding model during a panel the day after the screening. “I think it overshadows the little guys who actually need the funding.”

“The Mule,” a drama about a human drug courier from first-time feature directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson, was a popular topic of conversation in queues and theaters, as was “Wild Canaries,” an LGBT-themed, Brooklyn-centric comedy from director-actor Lawrence Michael Levine. But those films didn’t make the kind of splash  “Short Term 12” did at last year’s fest.

The movies arguably attracting the most attention were “Neighbors,” an R-rated comedy starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, directed by Nick Stoller and being distributed by Universal (see sidebar); and “Chef,” a comedy from writer-director-star Jon Favreau that’s going out via Open Road. Both films open May 9, and premiered to sold out crowds at the festival’s Paramount Theater, with lines winding around the block and up several streets.

Studio marketing dollars and festival-specific installations, as well as the arrival of several of the films’ stars, including Efron and Favreau, helped spark interest.

While Sundance has typically been the most acquisition-centric festival, SXSW has begun to see an increased level of buying both prior to and during the event’s nine-day film run.

“The festival has attracted hip, cool, edgy films, and the increased percentage of films premiering has made it higher profile for acquisition executives,” said Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate.

Lionsgate picked up domestic distribution rights to “Exists,” a horror film from “The Blair Witch Project” director Eduardo Sanchez; while Oscilloscope Laboratories acquired North American rights to Joel Potrykus’ comedy “Buzzard,” about a small-time con artist.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions scooped up international rights to “Space Station 76,” a retro sci-fi comedy-drama, on the eve of its SXSW premiere; the film is still available for the U.S.

Seeing as the fest was the place where social-media sensations like FourSquare launched, and where Twitter and the now Facebook-owned Instagram got their sea legs, it’s surprising that nothing innovative popped.

Secret, an anonymous messaging app that debuted a few weeks ago, has been buzzing around the tech community in Silicon Valley, but landed with a relative thud in Austin, despite the fact it’s listed as one of the popular items in the iTunes App Store social category.

Social-media directors and marketing heads from luxury fashion houses were in plentiful supply this year, anxious to network at the event. Estee Lauder, Chloe, Gucci and Cole Haan, for example, all marked their first year at SXSW and took particular interest in the interactive portion of the festivities.

“You get serious face-time with brands, which is much tougher to get in New York,” said Cannon Hodge, Bergdorf Goodman’s social-media manager. “You network over meals and get to see who else is here and what startups are presenting, and the possible effects they may have on the retail and merchandising arms of the business.” An early adopter, Hodge marked his third time at the fest this year.

Bottega Veneta’s worldwide digital media manager Nate Poeschl attended his third annual SXSW on behalf of the Italian luxury brand. While Nike and Burberry were making repeat visits, others like Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo were absent.

Although many brands carpeted the festival with representatives, no fashion company has ever sent its CEO, Poeschl noted, adding, “That’s when we’ll really see a shift in the thinking and application of social media.”

Throughout the film, interactive and music sections, the breadth of corporate sponsorships — from Chevrolet and AT&T to Miller Lite and Cottonelle — was abundantly evident in everything from free rides to complimentary mobile-phone cleaning cloths.

Doritos continued to sponsor a major music headliner with its #BoldStage initiative, now in its third year. On March 13, Lady Gaga took the stage on behalf of the chips company, in a move that critics said underscores the troubling notion that SXSW has become far too commercial for the festival’s ethos.

“It feels more crowded and corporate,” said “Neighbors’ ” Stoller. “Before, it was a little bit more ragtag; there was no Samsung lounge.”

In 2013, SXSW injected more than $218 million into Austin’s economy, but like many festivals, it has come to rely on corporate sponsors to help offset the costs that come with shutting down parts of the city, providing an additional police presence and other expenditures.

“It’s big and noisy, and there’s a lot going on,” said Janet Pierson, who is responsible for the vision, programming and execution of SXSW.

She admitted that with greater numbers of attendees comes less intimacy, something she looked to counteract with a greater number of breakout sessions and extended Q&A’s.

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