With support from Film Hub North, part of the BFI Film Audience Network, and UK Trade and Investment, Live Cinema UK made our first international festival trip to SXSW 2016. Director Lisa Brook reports back:

After 10 months of planning, fundraising, panel submissions, panel productions, speaker drop outs and scheduling, we made it: SXSW. Not one, but three festivals: Film, Music and Interactive, plus a myriad of convergence tracks including SXComedy, SouthBites (food), SXSports, SXStyle, VR/AR track, and on and on and on…

Needless to say: do not do SX without a game plan. In our case, it paid off. Brands and start ups spend thousands of dollars on exhibition stands and sponsored parties. There’s even an annual Start Up Wake for brands that have tried and failed to take off at the fest. We took a different route: after a phone call in June 2015, one week before panel submissions opened, our friendly European SX rep advised we submit ideas, anything and everything. Rapid speaker gathering from the UK and across the world, and then submission. Then the 6 month wait to see if you’ve been selected. And we did. Panel number 1 in October, panel number 2 three days before Christmas. Festivals on the Big Screen: A Global Opportunity featured in the Music section (sub-track, Music & Film), and Live Cinema: New Art Form or Box Office Fad featured in Convergence programming, meaning i t was open to all badge types. . You can watch Live Cinema: New Art Form or Box Office Fad in full in three parts on YouTube here. We also brought DJ Yoda over to be on the panel with us, but to also help me fulfill a lifelong dream of having a show at the Alamo Drafthouse, where we presented DJ Yoda Goes to the Sci Fi Movies for the first time ever outside of the UK.

For us, the contacts made and project discussions underway already far outweigh the expense and dedication needed to do SX. If you’ve been thinking of going, here’s a bit of what we learned from the fest, and the entire 10 month process of getting there.

Plan to go to SXSW RIGHT NOW if:

  • You work across at least two of film, music and interactive. Film only programmers: it’s great for US indies and first looks, but you can see the non-US programming a lot closer to home, and for a lot less money.
  • You run a festival: just go and see how it’s organised. Event manager heaven.
  • You do a panel there: we submitted to PanelPicker in June and will be doing so again (anyone with innovative panel ideas do get in touch). This means you’ll get your pass fro free if you get in, and even if you don’t, you can blag the early bird rate to buy a pass even after prices go up.
  • You are looking for international partners for projects.

Don’t go if…

  • You just want to watch upcoming films. You can do that closer to home, for less money and with more diversity..
  • You aren’t interested in digital (but you should be…)

#FOMO

Every film screening at SX has a short film beforehand, culminating in a list of ‘no’s: No talking, no cell phones, no selfies…it goes on. Then there’s “No FOMO”. Fear Of Missing Out. We were warned about this: even though we had a meticulously scheduled plan A, B and C for any given timeslot for every day, we WERE going to miss something. And as we were there mainly for Film, it was Music that suffered. Some things we FOMO’d about include:

  • Bill Murray at the Rachel Ray party. This is not in the official schedule so we totally missed it. Apparently it’s THE celeb party. No idea how you get in, maybe next time…
  • Deftones at Lady Bird Lake:. A very late addition after Ray LeMontagne dropped out, we realised this was our last opportunity to see Operation Avalanche. A mini FOMO, as this film is OUTSTANDING.
  • Michele Obama’s keynote: our second panel was delayed due to her overrunning so we were just sat in the green room thinking “hurry up Michelle!” and battling with the Secret Service who were convinced we weren’t allowed in our room until she’d finished.. Otherwise we would have totally been there.
Bill Murray watches as Jenny Lewis performs at Rachael Ray's Feedback Party at Stubb's BBQ. © Charles Reagan

A masterclass in queuing

If you’re not in line 45 minutes before your film screening or band are playing, you ain’t likely getting in. This opens up a world of opportunity for the queue-ee: you HAVE to talk to people next to you! I know right, we’re British, we don’t do that. But this is Austin: as their official tag line says, keep it weird. Weird for us is becoming best friends with your queue neighbour: people have told me they have signed their next film deal from who has been stoof next to them at SX. We met some really nice folk, mainly filmmakers whose cards I have but can’t really help all that much, but you never know…

The queue system is incredible, never seen anything like it at a festival. Each film venue has:

  • 1. A SXXPress pass line (basically tickets for badge holders, collected from 9am that day, but you only get 2 per day)
  • 2. A badge line (none-SXXpress holding badges)
  • 3. A wristband line (for public wristbands)
  • 4. A public rush line (for individual tickets).

If you’re really into festival ticketing systems, they have an actual video to explain it. It seems complicated, but once you’ve been to a venue just once, you know roughly where your line will be. On top of that you have Venue Status Boards BUILT INTO THE OFFICIAL APP so you know whether to bother heading to the venue or not.

Aside from a few confused volunteers at extremely busy screenings, it is the perfect system. Other festivals: take note.

What we saw

The Greasy Strangler – Reeves and Mortimer late night special. LOVE the director of G for Grandpa in ABC’s of Death 2, but a feature of his trademark weirdo vintage daddy issues style grates on the brain with jet lag. We met the director after out front and he is British and seemingly sane, so that made us feel better….Midnight/cult programmers: get in line. Regular programmers: move on.

Trapped – abortion law doc from the outstanding Dawn Porter. Expect UK fest debut in June.

Midnight Special – ET for grown ups. Limited release 8th April. BOOK IT!

Another Evil – fun micro budget comedy horror, great for the Halloween fests.

Keanu – Work in progress screening of hit US comics Key and Peele’s first film. Cat gets stolen by gangasters: Key and Peele pretend to be gangasters to get it back. Fun fun fun.

Don’t Think Twice – improve comedy group falls apart after one gets an offer from a Saturday Night Live style TV show. Loveable indie comedy with stellar cast

Hardcore Henry – first person POV mind bending action starring Sharlto Copley. It’s Russian too, so double points for getting your world cinema stats up.

Under the Shadow – this year’s Babadook, but from Iran. Halloween fests: BOOK NOW. Amazing female empowerment theme throughout: hooray for feminist, ant-regime horror.

Chevalier – winner of Best Film at London Film Fest. Brilliant Greek female directed take on male bravado and one-upsmanship

What we played

8K:VR Theatre: I want to reach out and grab those Japanese rock superstars

Fulldome Pro VR experience: lying down and watching 360 video? Yes please.

360 music videos: in the post MTV era, bands should be on this. We played with a lot of music VR (see DJ Yoda having a go below: the epitome of what SX is for me!). Thankfully one of my favourite bands in the world is leading the way: after a BBC online doc which showcased at Sheffield Doc/Fest last year, Run the Jewels’ new vid is a VR experience available as a 360 Google Cardboard experience. And I got a bespoke Cardboard for participating.

Yoda goes VR at 3am after our Sci Fi show. "It's alright..."

Best of the conference

There are reportedly over 1000 panels at SXSW. You can watch one of ours here. With 80,000 delegates across three festivals, its amazing anyone turned up to our two panels at all given our international status (the vast majority of conference programming is VERY North American).

Stand outs where I walked away feeling like I’d learned from masters (Mark Duplass), or learned something in digital including Multi-Optional Movies. Maybe quantity overrides quality at SXSW but as I’ve heard from many UK exhibitors visiting US conferences: we are ahead, more diverse, and pushing the boundaries.

Huge props to UK Trade and Investment: as we were part of the official trade mission, we were able to participate in their exclusive Round Tables and B2B speed dating. Exclusvley for musiv this year (the tarde mission usually include just Music and Interactive), we gained more contacts in an hour than we thought humanly possible. We’re already talking about doing a Film edition next year, as UK film representation in the conference is saddeningly low: travel expense without public subsidy is probable cause, but I call for the UK film industry to push for more UK films in the programme, and more speakers in the conference. Hopefully we can achieve this next year.