Anyone wandering through the first floor of the Austin Convention Center during SXSW this year could have spent an entertaining few minutes watching people take pictures on the “Game of Thrones” throne set up next to the display of posters from the film portion of the festival. Throughout the day, a photographer hired by HBO would take shots of passers-by who wanted to pose on the replica of the Iron Throne (yours to own for a mere $30,000). The activation was hard to miss, though HBO’s presence overall was more subdued this year than last, when the premium cable channel sponsored “Girls” coffee giveaways and bike shares as the first three episodes of Lena Dunham series premiered at the Paramount Theater. Even without a screening in the festival, HBO’s felt presence in Austin was important — and it was far from the only network to feel that way. 2013 was the year that TV fully arrived at SXSW.
If you missed the opportunity to get a “Game of Thrones” photo, Showtime’s invite-only lounge at the W Austin offered a chance to get your picture taken while strapped to Dexter Morgan’s Kill Table. The network also sponsored film shuttle buses branded to “Homeland,” “Dexter,” “Shameless” and the upcoming “Ray Donovan,” the pilot for which screened at a watch party held during SXSW’s first weekend. BBC America held events at its “Roadhouse” plastered with posters for new shows “Orphan Black,” “The Nerdist” and “Gizmodo: The Gadget Testers.” A&E sponsored the opening night film party, the network’s “Bates Motel” screening as a special event in the official Film lineup, followed by a Q&A with executive producer Carlton Cuse, while Warner Bros. had a “Tell-A-Vision” interactive experience set up at the Mexic-Arte Museum and IFC, one of the festival’s early adopters on the TV side, hosted comedy at its Crossroads House.
Aside from any associations the event might have with tech-savvy cord-cutters, SXSW does seem like a prime marketing opportunity for networks — particularly for the offbeat comedies and premium dramas mentioned above, which go over well with the hip, geeky, social media-happy crowd. And as packed with brands trying to get seen as the SXSW is, it’s still relatively open territory compared to San Diego’s Comic-Con. Dana Ortiz, the VP of Brand Marketing for Syfy, explained that the explorable downtown Austin shipping container village built to promote upcoming series and transmedia project “Defiance” was the network’s first foray into SXSW after eying the conference for years. “Comic-Con is our bread and butter every year,” Ortiz said, noting that Austin doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of marketing saturation that Comic-Con does, and that they were aware that they “needed a hook” at SXSW and the right kind of property to promote. She sees SXSW as a couple years off from being the kind of platform Comic-Con has become, while noting that the latter event has become a kind of “Mardi Gras” for network and studios at which it can be difficult to get heard.
But where will the growing TV presence fit at SXSW? The conference has expanded its scope in recent years, with SXSW Comedy bringing new evening options and an array of stand-ups into town, and the Digital Domain, a film offshoot, serving for the past two years as a place to house screenings and discussions of web series and other projects falling outside the traditional big screen focus. TV panels fell over the film and the interactive side, with ones like “How TV & the Internet Are Converging on TMZ” and “iCritics: Showrunners Friends or Worst Enemies?” being open to both, while “Changing Rules for Women and Sex on TV” fell under film and “Chuck Lorre: In Conversation with Neil Gaiman” was classified as interactive.
SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson noted that in terms of panels, there’s been an ongoing discussion between the two sides of the conference about where each event belongs, and that “we talk about it when we can.” And for all of the network brand presence at SXSW, the only actual screening of a TV series programmed in the festival this year was “Bates Motel” — which seems like a natural expansion of film to Pierson, who spoke of the interest in TV series from “The Sopranos” on from the film industry and crossover with indie directors working in both mediums. “Before we premiered ‘Girls’ here last year, I was very interested in bringing in what I felt was quality television content,” she added, pointing out that “Bates Motel” also has its roots in cinema with “Psycho” as its basis. “There were several other series that were submitted to us that we felt didn’t make sense,” she said, with the festival attracting a lot of interest from networks interested in a possible screening after “Girls.”
As audiences grow more platform agnostic, watching films and TV on demand at home on the same screen, the idea of high-end TV getting a rare chance at a communal projected viewing experience doesn’t seem outlandish, particularly at a festival like SXSW where the boundaries of film and its intersection with other mediums are explored. And from a business perspective, the possibility of additional sponsorships from networks with money to spend and shows to promote isn’t a negative, though Pierson made it clear that that would never effect programming decisions. One can’t help but hope that if TV is going to become another pillar of SXSW, that it be part of the film side rather than get pulled into the expanding maelstrom that is Interactive, not the least because Film would seem to put more of a priority on actually screening things as opposed to just putting them on display. The idea of SXSW serving as the latest Comic-Con-style platform for marketing could be balanced out by the welcome opportunity to watch and discuss the properties in question instead of just hyping them.