SXSW 2020 Canceled Amid Coronavirus Fears

A Crowd of People Walk Along
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SXSW has officially been canceled amid growing fears over the spread of coronavirus. As of Friday afternoon, there have been 17 confirmed cases in Texas, where the annual entertainment, music and technology festival takes place.

At a press conference at Austin’s City Hall on Friday, a number of city officials updated the media on the status of the city’s upcoming festivals.

“It’s really unfortunate to be canceling SXSW, it’s tied to who we are in this city, and I look forward to the next iteration of SXSW when it comes,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Festival organizers shared the following statement online, adding that they are “devastated,” but will follow the City of Austin’s decision:

The City of Austin has cancelled the March dates for SXSW and SXSW EDU. SXSW will faithfully follow the City’s directions.

We are devastated to share this news with you. “The show must go on” is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.

As recently as Wednesday, Austin Public Health stated that “there’s no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer.” However, this situation evolved rapidly, and we honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision. We are committed to do our part to help protect our staff, attendees, and fellow Austinites.

We are exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants, starting with SXSW EDU. For our registrants, clients, and participants we will be in touch as soon as possible and will publish an FAQ.

We understand the gravity of the situation for all the creatives who utilize SXSW to accelerate their careers; for the global businesses; and for Austin and the hundreds of small businesses – venues, theatres, vendors, production companies, service industry staff, and other partners that rely so heavily on the increased business that SXSW attracts.

We will continue to work hard to bring you the unique events you love. Though it’s true that our March 2020 event will no longer take place in the way that we intended, we continue to strive toward our purpose – helping creative people achieve their goals.

Between Thursday night and Friday morning, three more cases had been confirmed in Texas. There are currently 66 confirmed cases in California, where many of the participating media and tech companies are based.

Prior to the announcement, much of Hollywood and Silicon Valley had already canceled their plans for the annual festival, which was scheduled to run from March 13 through March 22.

Amazon Studios, Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and Starz had been among the companies that had canceled their SXSW plans, while Starz parent Lionsgate and HBO Max and CNN parent WarnerMedia had scaled back their activities.

AMC had pulled its featured session with Jason Segel to promote his new series, “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” Meanwhile, NBCUniversal had decided to no longer participate in SXSW this year; NBC News first reported the news on Thursday. No panels had been officially announced, but NBCU had intended to once more set up its Comcast NBCUniversal House, which last year featured immersive virtual reality, gaming experiences and panels.

Additionally, Sony had canceled its panel for AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Co-creator Peter Gould tweeted late Thursday that he was “very sorry and disappointed” that the event had been dropped from the schedule.

AMC’s panel for “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” had also been canceled, following the withdrawal of media hosts IGN and Mashable.

A number of upcoming festivals and events, including the National Association of Theatre Owners’ (NATO) CinemaCon and the Cannes Film Festival, have said they’re monitoring coronavirus. In response to SXSW’s cancellation, Patrick Corcoran, vice president & chief communications officer of NATO, said in a statement, “We remain in contact with the CDC, WHO, and state and local health officials. We continue to monitor the situation with their guidance.”

One key element in the SXSW cancellation was the city of Austin going on record as officially forcing SXSW to shut it down, just as the city of Miami officially forced a cancellation upon the Ultra Music Festival this week. Indeed, Austin even made a “disaster” declaration, even though there have been no confirmed cases in the city yet. In both instances, waiting for the city to act in a way that left the festival with no choice but to comply was likely what the festivals were waiting for and wanted, in order to be able to collect insurance, which would almost certainly not kick in if they made the decision unilaterally.

Music industry experts Variety spoke with after Ultra’s cancellation and before SXSW’s said that most major music festival promoters would have purchased a communicable disease add-on to their cancellation insurance (or, actually, a buy-back, since disease coverage is usually marked as an exclusion on policies). But insurance would only kick in if a festival was forced to shut down by the authorities Mere prudence, an abundance of caution or even a public outcry would not count as legitimate reasons for promoters to cancel, by insurance standards.

Adam Siegel, entertainment manager at American Agents & Brokers, Inc., an insurance company that has the Ultra Festival as a client, said Thursday that he was “sure that the city (of Austin) is speaking with the (SXSW) promoter and talking about what kind of preventative measures they would be able to offer… (But) I don’t know how you can really prevent that. You can have hand sanitizing stations based all over the place, but when people are that close… and we know they’re saying it could be in a drop of someone’s cough or a sneeze.”

But Siegel understood the hesitation to cancel. It’s not just the promoter taking a hit — at a music festival, it’s the artists, who will be out their guarantees, since very few of them would have paid extra for communicable disease coverage before the current outbreak. And in the case of a SXSW or Coachella, it’s a significant hit to the entire local economy. SXSW said last fall that the 2019 festival brought $356 million into local coffers, and many Coachella Valley businesses draw much or most of their annual income just from the three weekends of Coachella and Stagecoach every April.

“As far as impact, it’s going to affect the promoter most,” Siegel said. “Look at every vendor and every advance they’ve put out already and all the investment in marketing. But, I mean, look at what an Uber driver is expecting to make that weekend. It’s going to affect a ton of people in all different segments of the food chain, basically. … Coachella is still a little bit further out, and they’re certainly waiting to see what’s happening.” But once the precedent has been set by Ultra and SXSW, other festivals are likely to follow suit, “now that they see: ‘Okay, this is what happened here, so it makes sense to do it, because our situation is similar.’ It’s a matter of protecting people. They certainly don’t want to be the epicenter of an outbreak.”

Just prior to the SXSW cancellation, James Sammataro, one of the top entertainment attorneys in the music biz and a partner at Pryor Cashman LLP, told Variety: “We’re all trying to straddle the line between prudence and panic…. There are two tipping points in my mind. One is, what does the NCAA do in terms of March Madness? Are they going to really play in empty arenas? If they do that, that’s going to cause a lot of people to rethink their policies. Because that’s obviously a huge money making event, and sure, they still make money from TV, but if they’re going to be canceling essentially 32 games out of the box, that’s going to be a bellwether. And if the NCAA was to proceed, what does Coachella do? Coachella is the industry setter in all things, so if Coachella was even close to canceling, it’s going to have a lot of people rethinking what they’re doing.”

Shirley Halperin contributed to this story.

From last year’s SXSW: