Episodic 2014, the first year television was officially featured as part of the SXSW festival, has come to a close. Without making too many waves, the six-series set showcased plenty of talent, drew (mostly) full houses, and put its offerings front and center in the TV world for a week — well, aside than the “True Detective” finale Sunday night. HBO’s series “Silicon Valley” took home the audience award, “COSMOS” packed the Paramount on opening night, and many other series received high marks after their first screenings. But what really changed about the festival compared to SXSW’s of old? What separated 2014 from the past few years that saw shows like HBO’s “Girls” and A&E’s “Bates Motel” premiere at the festival? What was the draw for the networks, filmmakers (as Josh Hartnett still calls them), and actors attending SXSW to promote their television show?
“I think the formalization of the program is a recognition on behalf of the festival about how the indie world and the premium television world are converging,” said Charlotte Koh, Head of Development at Hulu. “I recently had a conversation with the Head of Acquisitions for one of the major studios and one of the many major labels, and he said, ‘We don’t compete with major movies. We compete with television now.'”
Koh, who was there to help promote Hulu’s SXSW entry “Deadbeat,” argued that the real competition for viewership isn’t between independent film and blockbuster, studio films. It’s between independent film and TV where the audience is virtually the same. “You could stay home and watch another episode of ‘Mad Men,’ or you could go out and see a cool independent movie. But the audience for that is there, not choosing between, ‘Am I going to go see a tentpole franchise superhero movie or am I going to go see an indie movie?’ Which I think is a big shift.”
If this is the case, then these TV shows are right where they belong: packed into a tight schedule amidst budding independent films. Though they’re relegated to their own program, so are the movies. SXSW separates all their video content into various tiers like Headliners, Festival Favorites, and Midnighters. Episodic would be just another segment of upcoming narratives looking to make a splash.
Koh went on to say “SXSW in and of itself as a festival has totally changed its stature in the world of festivals, if you think about it 10 years from now to now. We’re riding the wave with them, and I think that’s the coolness of having your agenda dovetail your platform, your identity, your brand, and then the festival coming together. It’s pretty fun.”
Another belief is that television is just too big of a market to ignore, and festivals cannot turn away from the demand and excitement building around a medium that can be screened and sold in a similar fashion to traditional programming — more so even if you factor in the shorter running times of TV shows.
“The festival must be recognizing what everyone else is: that there’s really good TV happening and it makes sense for them to be participating in that and showcasing television,” said Chad Blankenship, Vice President of Marketing for Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network. “There’s just a demand and an opportunity for a different kind of narrative. Robert talks a lot about how the opportunities in television today are different than they were five or 10 years ago because you can tell a story like ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ in a 90-minute film format [but] Robert will say that it’s really almost not fair to the characters that Quentin created. Now we have an opportunity to do a nine, 10-hour movie with a much bigger canvas for character development and everything else.”
SXSW has always been a boon for advertising, as evidenced by the massive amount of publicity going on at all times and covering every inch of the city. Austin is taken over by the festival, but even more so by people trying to capitalize off the droves of people gathering at one location for 10 days. Booths open on the street. Food trucks offer treats in exchange for tweets. Vendors take over empty and active stores to promote their product.
Showtime in particular has made a significant push in advertising both this year and in 2013. Having an entry in the Episodic section, the new horror series “Penny Dreadful” with Eva Green, didn’t change their marketing strategy much if at all.
“It’s not terribly altered by having the screening there,” said Don Buckley, the Executive Vice President of Program Marketing and Digital Services at Showtime. “Last year’s experience with sponsorship of the [SXSW] app lead me to renew it immediately, before the festival even ended last year. I just thought, ‘We’re going to own this and try to improve it.’ Then ‘Penny Dreadful’ just became the natural candidate to use not only in the app but everywhere. The timing was perfect.”
Buckley was excited about the marketing campaign Showtime had in place at SXSW, even before the festival began. “I’m already sure this is a big win for us. One of my friends in the entertainment industry expressed jealousy of our app placement last year.” During the festival, buses covered with “Penny Dreadful” advertisements were seen cruising the streets sporting the screening date for Showtime’s upcoming series.
Advertising for TV shows certainly wasn’t dialed back at all in 2014 with the inclusion of Episodic in the festival. If anything, it expanded. Lines stretched outside and around the block to get into HBO’s “Game of Thrones: The Exhibition,” which featured a life size replica of the throne itself (also at last year’s SXSW). FX’s upcoming summer series “The Strain” rented out the entire ground floor of a business on Congress Avenue to promote their show via by-appointment sleeping pods, free bottles of water and mobile charging stations. “Bates Motel,” which made a splash in 2013 by screening at the festival and placing a prominent sign on 6th St, set up a fake hotel room this year with a vending machine dispensing treats.
So what makes the inclusion of a show as part of the festival more important than just its presence at SXSW via advertising? Koh argued it’s pretty simple.
“Content sells content,” she said. “I think that’s the recognition of the more sophisticated consumers of media. When you advertise to them, they’re so bombarded with advertisements that if you’re trying to make noise nothing sells it like showing what you’ve got and then having people talk about it. Most of the advertising you can do at a festival will be still images and things that are not video.”
“I also just think in general that there’s a lot of TV being produced these days that feels very filmic in the way that it’s crafted” Blankenship said. “The budgets have gotten bigger for a lot of television. The DP work has gotten more interesting. It’s stuff that looks like film [rather than] video shot on a stage.”
At least one actor agrees. Josh Hartnett, who attended the festival to promote “Penny Dreadful,” said, “The content is becoming content and not necessarily film or TV. Is it interesting content to go see? That’s a question I think people are asking themselves when they’re creating programs for the festivals like this.”
The question then becomes where the festival will go from here. With only six screenings in the Episodic section this year, it would be easy to fit in more next year and in the future.
“I think SXSW would be really well-advised to start increasing this aspect of the festival,” said Jonathan Lisco, showrunner of Episodic entry “Halt and Catch Fire.” “Why is that? Because people who are really credible in our business, the people who are making episodic television and movies, are realizing a long-form feature for grown ups is the cable television show. So if you can find a venue to tell that kind of story… well, obviously it’s already attracting a lot of A-list talent to the table to try to do that. So if all those people are flocking to it, I would think that SXSW would want to preview it even more.”
How much is too much? It seems like more of a question of “when” rather than “if” television will be featured in its own section instead of under the broader umbrella of film.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to start seeing television as a narrative form being more embraced by other festivals,” Blankenship said. “And it would surprise me — just based off the read I’m getting here on the ground — if SXSW didn’t choose to advance this.”