TAF is breaking up with SXSW, here's why
Two years in a row I haven’t found a single film at Austin’s South By Southwest worth an “A” grade. I’ve been attending the festival since 2011, seven years straight and while the impact of the movie portion of the event has grown substantially in popularity with attendees and Hollywood talent, the quality of films has decreased. SXSW is now ranked as the 9th most popular festival in the world, I’m not talking film, I am talking any festival. It’s ranked right above The Super Bowl and below St. Patrick’s Day.
So what happened? Why did something that I found so fascinating and rewarding a few years ago, turn into something I, and many other journalists dread and force ourselves to cover? Much of this has to do with the festivals organization. Let me briefly summarize. To guarantee you get into films (after applying for/buying a badge) they have what’s called an “Express Pass”. A percentage of these passes are given out for each film starting at 9am each morning. To get one, you have to be at the convention center at 8am (or earlier) to get in the line that quickly wraps around the block. The badge + express pass put you in one of four lines outside whatever theater the movie you need to see is showing. Good seating is always limited, as SXSW allows “filmmaker guests” in first not to mention another huge proportion of the seats are reserved for people who clearly are more important than the ones standing in line at the crack of dawn to get these special passes. Champagne problems for sure.
Red Carpet requests used to be fairly easy to access, whether you were E!, Texas Art & Film, or the UT film crew. The set up for each red carpet is arcane, poorly managed and does not encourage good interviews (most press not given access to film prior to interviews). Of course you must stand in line for hours to hold a red carpet spot, and that’s even if you are given the opportunity. “Wait listed” requests are only notified minutes before if they have a cancelation, so you have to carry around your equipment and red carpet duds all day just in case. And rain, if it rains (which is did this year and has in the past) there are zero provisions for media or their equipment, but don’t worry, the stars and SXSW personal are dry, starring at you. “Sorry about the weather”. SXSW does not require films to have a poster or trailer, which makes it difficult for outlets to market or showcase the films they are reviewing. A good journalist, trying to maximize their time reviewing films and getting content for reporting must work about 6:30am – midnight each day which leaves little time for rest, food, and writing reviews.
There are perks and wonderful things about SXSW and Austin, access to the trade show and other events happening in the festival with a badge are nice. Most of the great food in Austin is outside of stinky, grimy downtown, so if there is time to escape the SXSW boundaries, there is certainly a wealth of amazing BBQ and delicious offerings, just don’t go looking for healthy, hearty, or even tasty meals around The Paramount Theatre, you won’t find any. Staying downtown at one of the many high rise hotels is also the best way to maximize your time, but you better save up, the average hotel room during the festival is $300 a night, even Super 8, 5-10 miles away charges over $250. The Austin Convention Center press room is a wonderfully quiet place. This year sponsored by Home Depot with a glorious free breakfast Monday morning after the first few days of festing was a true blessing. Can I hug the Home Depot guy?
One of the few non-work items I wanted to attend was the Game of Thrones panel, the first time show runners David Benioff and David Weiss were in attendance, and as an added bonus Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, two of the cast members also on stage serving as moderators. Do you really want to know how long we had to wait to get a front row seat for this event … turns out, the GOT crew just wanted to be silly during their hour on stage. Barely speaking of upcoming season 7, no clips, no new trailer, nothing, a complete waste of time.
The quality of the films is really the nail in the coffin. Spending so much time and effort just to sit through a movie called Small Town Crime, then another Small Crimes that are nearly the same concept makes you wonder if Janet Pierson head of film selections at SXSW needs to let someone else pick the lineup. Headlining films that indicate what the spring/summer at the box office will look like failed pretty hard, action flick Atomic Blonde bombing the hardest. Netflix had a big presence at the festival this year, which made some critics wonder why they are standing in line for a movie they can just watch online a few weeks later. Many of the films programmed at SXSW are for “The Guys”. The same guys who like to high five during girl on girl action in Atomic Blonde, skull smashing in Free Fire or the fact that cult classic film The Room gets a big screen treatment by James Franco in The Disaster Artist. Reactions heard at The Paramount theater for a headlining film can never be trusted, this crowd will clap for anything, especially with the filmmakers sitting in the audience. They want to like it because they are having fun and the crowd is involved, not necessarily because it’s a great film.
So we come to the end of an era, SXSW will continue to rage on up there in Austin, and we wish the festival all the good will and improvements, but Texas Art & Film is waving goodbye and looking for other festivals to explore.