‘Salem’ Party Kicks Off SXSW Film as Television Takes Over Annual Fest

SXSW brings film, tech and music to Austin, Texas, every year, but as television expands its reach and prestige, the small screen is making its mark at the fest in a big way — by kicking off the film sector with a party hosted by a television network.

WGN America’s “Salem” presented SXSW’s Film Opening Party to celebrate the 22nd annual event, plus the upcoming second season of the supernatural thriller, which debuts April 5.

“It says everything about what movies have become and what television has become, in the sense of a certain kind of drama, a certain kind of character-based genre madness that can’t necessarily even find a home in the movies, and it finds its home quite naturally in television, especially cable television,” “Salem” co-creator Adam Simon told Variety of the series kicking off SXSW film’s opening night. “It says a lot that SXSW — that actually represents, in a sense, the authentic voices, rather than necessarily the corporate speak — should actually grab a show like ‘Salem’ and say, ‘Yeah, that’s how we’re going to open.'”

Simon, hanging out with co-creator Brannon Braga, WGN America’s SVP of scripted programming, Jon Wax, and the show’s cast, chatted about SXSW’s potential to become as big as ComicCon, thanks to rabid television fans. “Salem” star Shane West agreed.

“I thought with a show like this that it might just be a cult fanbase,” West told Variety over drinks on the jam-packed rooftop at the haunted Friday the 13th-themed soireé. “I’m glad that they are so attached. We’re finding out that the fans are a little more mainstream, which helps out the network, as well, with its entire rebranding, too.”

West expressed his excitement to open the fest, but admitted he was a bit weary of the hyped magnitude of the party, before arriving in Texas. “I’m a little confused to begin with because this is my first time here, but I knew, regardless, that it was something special. We need to get the show out there as much as possible, and this is a great way to start the second season.”

Star Janet Montgomery, who plays witch Mary Sibley on the series, also headed to the festival for the first time this year and was pleasantly overwhelmed by the huge number of fans approaching her at the party: “People who have seen the show are coming up and talking to me!”

“It’s so exciting for me because I’ve actually never been to SXSW,” Montgomery said, of bringing the show to Austin. “I think it’s such a smart move to get the show seen by people who come here and find out about the show at a music festival.”

Following the party, “Salem’s” first-ever SXSW panel, featuring Montgomery, West, Simon, Braga and the newest cast member, Lucy Lawless, took place Saturday morning.

“With all the film actresses hauling over to television, I think it’s a natural quid-pro-quo,” Lawless told Variety about television’s ever-growing presence at SXSW. The “Xena: Warrior Princess” star is excited to expand her fanbase among TV viewers through “Salem.”

“I know that witchcraft, there’s some sort of growing movement, so I wonder if it appeals to something of these 21st century kids — the new viewer,” Lawless pondered, adding that it’s not just the viewer who’s changed, but also the characters onscreen. “What’s different about this generation of TV, these guys, they’re really antiheroes. It’s a real paradigm shift that your heroes do some pretty bad stuff nowadays. The new generation expects that, so it’s a real twist from where I’ve started at.”

“Salem” is just the start of television at this year’s SXSW, a sector that is sure to grow at the festival for years to come. Other series heading down South are Steve Carell’s TBS show “Angie Tribeca,” which is screening its premiere episode Saturday, along with a Q&A with the cast and creative team.

“Community,” which premieres its sixth season on Yahoo on March 17, is hosting a panel Sunday and party Saturday night, right after the CW and Buzzfeed’s party, celebrating the upcoming DC Comics-inspired “iZombie.” The series, from “Veronica Mars'” Rob Thomas and starring Rose McIver, is also premiering and paneling Monday afternoon.

Billy Crystal and Josh Gad are at SXSW to present their FX comedy “The Comedians,” while the guys of NBC’s “Undateable” kick off their comedy tour in Texas Sunday night. Julia Louis-Dreyfus will be on hand to talk “Veep” Monday, as will the cast of Lifetime’s scripted comedy “UnReal,” Comedy Central’s Amy Schumer, plus Oscar winner-turned-“American Crime” series creator John Ridley and “The Last Man on Earth’s” Will Forte, who are sitting in on Monday’s showrunner panel.

Now a SXSW staple, Jimmy Kimmel is transporting “Live!” from Los Angeles to Austin again. The latenight host will also host a conversation panel Saturday, leading up to his weeklong stay.

On Tuesday, Hulu is presenting “She-Runners: Hulu’s Funny Women Creating Today’s TV” with panelists Cody Heller (“Deadbeat”), Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider (“Hotwives of Las Vegas”). The same day, USA Network will premiere the Christian Slater-starrer “Mr. Robot.”

A&E’s “Bates Motel” is popping up an actual Bates Motel for fans to walk through, NatGeo is bringing their very own Escape the Room, freezing edition, to honor its series “Life Below Zero” with star Sue Aikens, and FX’s Fearless Factory will let festgoers in on “The Strain” evolution gallery, among other features. “Game of Thrones” is back this year with an interactive installation, complete with immediate shareable features so that Austin’s mock Westeros will spread across social media.

“I’m a 20th century guy with a 17th century brain at a 21st century event,” “Salem’s” Simon said of SXSW joining the forces of digital with television. “And that is what SXSW is about — the convergence of that media and the ways in which social media is leading, rather than following, the media.”

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