Every year, SXSW brings thousands of people streaming into Austin to see the best the tech, music and film worlds have to offer. It's not a small event (it's pretty freaking' huge!) and it's only getting bigger and more daunting with each passing year. The logistics of the entire thing is enough to give a mere mortal a headache and it's easy to imagine first-time attendees feeling overwhelmed, lost and confused amidst the crowds and lines.
With the film portion of the festival set to begin, I dusted off the old phone book and decided to put in some phone calls to people who have conquered SXSW Film before, veteran festival goers who attend every year for business and pleasure and always emerge victorious. My various conversations revealed the Seven Things You Should Know If You're Attending SXSW Film For the First Time.
1. Making and Breaking a Schedule
So you've spent hours agonizing over your schedule, making tough choices over what to see, hoping you can find some clever combination that will accommodate you in every way allowing you to cram in every movie that grabbed your attention on the schedule. Well, you didn't necessarily waste your time, but don't feel too bad if you have to lose the whole thing.
"You won't fit everything in. That's not possible. Your schedule will change," says Neil Miller of Film School Rejects. No matter how much you plan in advance, there will be a party you want to attend or someone will you tell you that you have to see something. There will be something cool that will totally throw everything off. That's got to be okay."
No matter how much you plan in advance, there will be a party you want to attend or someone will you tell you that you have to see something.
Says Eric D. Snider, a writer for Film.com and Movies.com: "You have to accept right from the start that you're not going to be able to see everything that you want to see. You have to come to terms with that fact, otherwise you'll be disappointed and frustrated.
The lack of a concrete schedule can work in your favor, allowing you to adjust where you're going and what you're doing on the fly. "You don't have to do everything" says John Gholson from Movies.com, "You don't have to stick to your schedule. Allow flexibility for where your mood takes you."
2. Taking Chances on the Little Guys
As is the case with any major film festival, a lot of major talent congregates around SXSW and with that comes major films screening and often premiering (this year's crop includes the clever horror riff The Cabin in the Woods and the updated take on 21 Jump Street). As cool as it may be to see a major film a few weeks or months early, remember that they'll be playing in thousands of theaters fairly soon, while many of the smaller films may quietly vanish if they don't find buzz.
"Skip any wide release film," Gholson says. "For every wide release film to see at the Paramount, you could probably see two indie films that you'd enjoy more. I wouldn't buy into the hype of the wide release Paramount screenings."
"For every wide release film to see at the Paramount, you could probably see two indie films that you'd enjoy more."
Renn Brown of CHUD.com elaborates: "Don't base your schedule just on watching movies that you've heard of. You're going to a film festival to discover things that you haven't heard of. A lot of the big things with hype may turn out to be junk. It'll be the small things that you discover… that's going to be the really interesting stuff that lasts.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Talk to other fest-goers, listen for the buzz and seek out what everyone is talking about. William Goss of Film.com and MSN Movies notes that "…they have awards screening slots in the second half of the week, where you can catch up on talked-about independent films. You don't want to miss something you won't have the chance to see again."
3. To Paramount or Not to Paramount
When asked about the SXSW venues, Scott Weinberg, critic and writer for FearNET, Twitch Film and Movies.com, instantly responds "Make sure you see at least one film at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. It's my all time favorite movie theater in the world."
The SXSW line-up is split across multiple theaters across the city. However, the major premieres are held at the Paramount, a beautiful, rightfully famous theater that tends to be slightly controversial among fest-goers.
"Drafthouse locations are the best ones because they have food and are more comfortable than the Paramount."
"The appeal of the Paramount is that it's an old school movie palace, but the seats can be quite a burden when you sit for back-to-back movies," says Goss.
Snider sums up the common opinion amongst this group: "Drafthouse locations are the best ones because they have food and are more comfortable than the Paramount. The Paramount is big and you'll always get in, but the seats are super-uncomfortable and you have no leg room. That's the trade-off. If you're seeing five movies a day, you'll do well to see them [elsewhere]."
4. External Threats
Building a schedule and getting to screenings on time aren't the only things to worry about while on your SXSW adventure. After all, the city doesn't stop so you can attend in peace! When asked what a first time SXSW-er should immediately concern himself with, Chase Whale from Twitch Film responds, "Book a hotel as early as possible. You want something downtown. You don't want to take a cab."
And when that's done? "Bring a water bottle. Always have a water bottle with you."
Although the water will protect you from the sure-to-throttle-your-mind heat, Goss notes that you should be prepared for all kinds of weather surprises, especially in an area as meteorologically fickle as Texas. "I know the current forecast says its going to rain, but it could be rather warm by the end of the week. Plan for several contingencies. You could be outside waiting in great weather or rain, he says.
"Bring a water bottle. Always have a water bottle with you."
Once you have a hotel, are staying hydrated and are wearing a poncho over your t-short and shorts, it's time to come to grips with the fact that you're about to leap head first into a series of five movie days. "You're not going to sleep very much. Anticipate that," says Todd Gilchrist, a writer for Indiewire and Movies.com. "Honestly, there are lots of ways you can prepare for that depending on exactly what you're doing at the festival. You're not going to sleeping nearly as much as you should and want to."
Finally, know when to fold 'em and now when to walk away. As SXSW Film bleeds into SXSW Music, some fest attendees get out while the getting is good.
"My first year attending SXSW, I made the mistake of staying too long," says Jen Yamato of Movieline. "Once music attendees began pouring into town, everything changed. Unless you enjoy fighting for breathing space as you walk down streets transformed into hipster encampments, avoid! And don't even think about trying to hail a cab at night!"
5. Getting Around Town
More than any other subject, the issues of parking and transportation came up amongst my SXSW experts.
"Parking is going to be a bitch and you're going to need to allow yourself more than the normal amount of time to get to a screening than you would other festivals," says Brian Salisbury, writer for Film School Rejects and Spill.com. "You're going to be running all over Austin. It's going to be overlapping the tech and music festivals and there are going to be so many people in town that you're going to want to allow yourself some extra time."
When you're not en route to another venue, you'll probably be standing in line.
Not allowing yourself that extra time between screenings can have serious consequences, as Brown discovered: "I've underestimated how long a line is going to be and ended up wasting a lot of time in a line, missing a screening and trying to make another screening, only to get there and miss that one too. I did a chain of three or four of those once. I ruined my chance of getting to see smaller, more interesting things that may have been easier to get into."
When you're not en route to another venue, you'll probably be standing in line.
"Be prepared to stand in line," says Brian Kelley of CultureMap. "There is no advance ticketing for any shows at SXSW. It's all first come first serve. With the express pass system, they've found a way to make people stand in line just so they can stand in line later."
SXSW offers badge holders a complimentary shuttle service to help you get between venues without having to battle Austin traffic yourself. Scott Weinberg is a big fan. "I've been to a lot of film festivals and the shuttles at SXSW are, no-joke, reliable," he says. "Not everything is in walking distance. They'll help you get around pretty damn easy."
Neil Miller disagrees: "Trusting the shuttle system has been one of my bigger mistakes. I've missed movies because I've thought the shuttle would only take twenty minutes from the Rtiz downtown to South Lamar. Then it takes an hour and a half."
If we can draw any conclusion, it is this: Make use of the shuttles, but be aware that they can't work magic.
6. Stay For Midnight
Much like the Toronto Film Festival, the midnight movies at SXSW tend to be among the most divisive and talked about films of the fest. The midnight slots are home to horror movies, science fiction tales and all kinds of unforgettable, shocking and often upsetting experiences, all of them guaranteed to wake you up from your long, weary day.
And this year looks like a good one. Well, at least it has Weinberg's approval: "The midnight slate this year might be the best I've ever seen at SXSW. I don't say that every year! I honestly don't! Tall Man, VHS, Rec 3, Aggression Scale, John Dies at the End… midnight aside, genre and horror are well represented."
"The midnight slate this year might be the best I've ever seen at SXSW. I don't say that every year!"
"Because Fantastic Fest is already here in town, some people think the genre stuff is just kind of secondary at SXSW," says Salisbury, "Let me put it this way: If I had missed Attack the Block last year because of that perception, that would have crushed my soul. It's become one of my favorite movies ever.
7. Film Festival Etiquette
The problem with the world is that everyone is a moron except you. This is painfully obvious for anyone who has ever sat through a Q&A sessions with cast and crew following a screening and has had to endure awful, baffling questions and the often equally awkward responses.
"Stick around for Q&As and prepare a good question for the filmmaker in case there's dead air."
Weinberg has had enough of this: "Stick around for Q&As and prepare a good question for the filmmaker in case there's dead air. A good question. Not about yourself, but about the film. If you liked the film, help the filmmaker out with a good question. Having a good question not only defeats dead air, it defeats dumb questions. You've just taken up eight minutes of time and have given some idiot in the audience less time to talk."
With all this talk of making schedule sacrifices, transportation problems and uncomfortable Paramount seating, it's important to remember one important, seemingly obvious thing… enjoy yourself!
Jen Yamato offers this tip, which, in addition to being true, offers me a sweet, good-natured way to close out this article: "Stop by the Highball after a screening at the Drafthouse to meet your fellow SXSWers and get in some post-movie karaoke. SXSW is nothing if not a social festival where film conversations can take flight will into the night over drinks and shared enthusiasm with strangers."