Tens of thousands converged in downtown Austin last week for the increasingly popular SXSW fest and conference, a mix of film, interactive and music events aimed mainly at casting a spotlight on the new and intriguing (with a generous nod to the establishment).
In recent years, SXSW's interactive conference has emerged as a vital start-up showcase. Four years ago, Twitter exploded on the scene, while at subsequent editions Foursquare and Groupon broke through. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Craig Newmark of Craigslist were just two keynote speakers in recent years.
Meanwhile, Mumblecore gave the SXSW Film Festival a raison d'être, introducing American indie filmmakers including Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Barry Jenkins and Lena Dunham over the past decade. Alongside films by emerging directors, the fest has also become a launching pad for genre movies and studio comedies because the event embraces the youthful and eccentric audience that inhabits the collegiate Texas capital.
SXSW's annual music fest anchors the proceedings, now in its 25th year, the essential stop for new bands has morphed from a place where A & R executives discover new acts to a key showcase for influential music bloggers. Up and comers play forty minute sets alongside classic acts like Duran Duran or OMD, 80s bands hoping to rekindle some excitement among a younger set of tastemakers.
After ten days in Austin surveying what's new in film, music and interactive, here's a quick tip sheet of five discoveries that made an impact on me.
Photo above: Tom Cullen & Chris New in the film, Weekend.
While SXSW's film festival began with thousands inside the Paramount Theater cheering Moon director Duncan Jones and star Jake Gyllenhaal at the opening night screening of Source Code, across town a British indie import, inspired in parts by Joe Swanberg and the French New Wave, nearly stole the show. The most buzzed about film of the fest's first few days was Weekend, a modern relationship movie directed by Andrew Haigh. The story of two guys who meet at a UK dance club, swiftly hook up and then subsequently spend some time getting to know each other better, struck an immediate chord in Austin. Tenderly told, the film packs an emotional punch that drew gay and straight audiences alike. An executive called it one of the best queer films of the past decade and then quickly acquired it for U.S. distribution. By day five of the fest, SXSW organizers had slotted an extra screening of Weekend to meet its fest buzz. It should be in U.S. theaters later this year. Pictured right: Cinematographer Urszula Pontikos, director Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher. Photo courtesy indieWIRE.
2. iPad 2
Some of the best reviews of the week were for the second edition of Apple's in demand tablet computer. On sale the day that SXSW's interactive event opened, the launch of the iPad 2 drew long lines at a temporary downtown Austin pop-up store that Apple opened for the week. Throughout the fest, countless SXSW attendees were spotted using the event's popular mobile app to manage their busy schedules or holding up the device to snap photos with its on board camera. New apps for the iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices were aggressively promoted all week on the bustling trade show floor and outside the Austin Convention Center via street teams that pressed flyers into the hands of anyone wearing a branded event lanyard. Pictured right, the first buyer of an iPad 2 emerges from the Apple pop-up store in Austin. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.
The tech innovation crowned belle of the ball in Austin this year was mobile device application GroupMe, the new social messaging platform that takes texting to the next level. The app was ideal in a festival environment, enabling subscribers to quickly connect with gangs of friends via one short mobile phone message. In fact, organizers said that the new service broadcast some 2 million messages during SXSW alone, connecting users at the various parties that subsumed SXSW Interactive's many scheduled panels discussions and keynote speeches.
4. James Blake
Early on the second Friday of SXSW, a lanky twenty one year old British lad — his head covered by a hoodie — sat down at a keyboard inside an Austin Presbyterian church and electrified the crowd. James Blake's SXSW Music showcase, in the wee hours of the fest's second weekend, was hosted by music guide Pitchfork and capped a night of stirring new music by a trio of breakthrough musical acts that also included Twin Shadow and tUnE-yArDs. Crowds clamored outside the church to get in and once inside the accredited attendees sat quietly in pews, erupting in extended applause at the end of his set. The Brit musician rode into Austin on a wave of anticipation and just as his eponymous new album was released. With a sound hailed as 'post-dubstep', Blake electronically manipulates and loops his own voice during his live set, creating layers of sound that are often backed by simple beats and keyboard strokes. Pictured right: James Blake performs at Austin's downtown Presbyterian church. Image via Pitchfork.
5. Natural Selection
Last year it was Tiny Furniture. The indie film swept the SXSW Film Festival's awards en route a victory lap that continued through a successful national theatrical and VOD release and was capped by honors at the annual Spirit Awards on Oscar weekend. This year, Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection was the big winner with the SXSW jury, awarded a number of prizes including best narrative feature, an audience award, as well as acting and writing nods. Pickering, a Texan and graduate of NYU film school, started to make a name for himself in commercials and shorts before directing this first feature, the story of a sheltered Christian housewife who learns that her dying husband has a 23-year old illegitimate son. Like most of the film, music and interactive fest breakthroughs that made a mark at SXSW this year, the buzz title is anticipating even wider awareness in the wake of this year's event. Pictured right: Crowds inside the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.
Photo below: Matt O'Leary and Rachael Harris in the film, Natural Selection.