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Eugene Hernandez: 5 Hot Topics at #SXSW

Eugene Hernandez: 5 Hot Topics at #SXSW

It might be a stretch to say that South by Southwest is having growing pains, but such a statement is actually not that far from the truth. When all is said and done, 2010 will be remembered as a watershed for SXSW. In short, it’s the year that the film and interactive events dwarfed the annual music festival for which South By is famous.

Attendance at the film conference and festival jumped at least 25% this year, SXSW organizers told me. And on the interactive side, registrations soared a whopping 40% or more.

By those numbers, that means SXSW welcomed at least 25,000 attendees for the first weekend in Austin devoted to the film and interactive conferences. About 13,000 music and band attendees made it to SXSW last year, with an increase expected, but not on a level to top the film and interactive side.

Suddenly, SXSW is a film and interactive event first and a music festival second.

As SXSW hit the midpoint, many movie and internet insiders were heading out of town just as the music folks arrived. Unlike any previous year, as the music scene settles in here in Austin, those who have been here since last Friday can now get a bit of elbow room.

At Tuesday night’s film fest award ceremony, SXSW co-founder Louis Black apologized to attendees for the crowding here in Austin this week. A rush of badge bearing attendees made moviegoing a challenge, especially at smaller venues like the popular Alamo Ritz. Never mind trying to grab a quick bite in downtown Austin in between screenings, long lines everywhere lead to frustration.

The Paramount Theater in Austin, near the State Capitol building. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Large crowds good-naturedly milled around the massive Austin Convention Center during a festive, sunny weekend, taking in the circus atmosphere. But by Tuesday, when heavy rains and cool temperatures arrived, and some frazzled attendees began to complain about the crowding.

Navigational issues aside, there’s no question that SXSW emerged as an even more important event this year. Its three pronged festival of movies, music and new media became a vital stop on the festival circuit for attendees from multiple industries.

The SXSW Film Festival lured high profile, star driven movies to screen alongside a fresh crop of micro budget indie films. Saturday Night Live cast members made the rounds promoting “MacGruber” in Austin, while “Kick-Ass” unleashed a promotional blitz to hype the film’s opening night slot. Meanwhile, the mumblecore scene that grew at SXSW a few years ago, matured with the presentation of a number of new films from the extended group of collaborators including Aaron Katz with “Cold Weather” and the Duplass Brothers with “Cyrus.”

On the interactive side, the best and brightest who are leading a new wave of media joined thousands of bloggers, entrepreneurs, designers, and tech folks for an eclectic array of panel discussions, parties and a bustling trade show.

Shadow Shadow Shade at last night’s IFC party. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

As the indie film community grapples with the future of film distribution in an emerging on demand era, never has the link between the SXSW film and interactive festivals made more sense. Cross promoted panels over the weekend drew large crowds, raising intriguing questions and inspiring new ideas.

Along the way, there were numerous opportunities to huddle and compare notes with film and interactive attendees (while eating Austin’s oft discussed breakfast tacos).

Then, on Tuesday night, the music crowd arrived.

Over at the IFC Crossroads House, the cable network showcased an up and coming band, with a growing following, but no distribution deal, that immediately blew many people away.

Shadow Shadow Shade played their first of three sets last night at SXSW. When their gig ended, people cheered and folks were on their mobile devices trying to get more information on the band. They have one song on MySpace and have been popular in L.A., but their EP is still to be released (as I blogged late last night).

I ran into band member (and opera singer) Claire McKeown after the set and she said that if they don’t secure a deal to release their album, they’ll just find a way to do it themselves. I noted the parallels with the current state of indie film.

“We’re trying to find a deal this week,” she told me, “Or we’ll just do something radical.” “You can release your album independently,” I noted, saying that more as a rhetorical question.

“Rather than call it independent,” McKeown said, “I like to think of us as autonomous.”

— on page two, the five things people are buzzing about here in Austin —

Here’s 5 hot topics that had people buzzing during the first half of SXSW.

1. Atwitter About Tweeting

Last year at SXSW in Austin, Twitter seemed to hit some sort of tipping point. AT&T’s mobile network ground to a standstill under the weight of so many users and the provider faced a PR nightmare. This year, AT&T network has been exceptional even with the influx of so many more attendees. And Twitter has become an integral part of the SXSW experience.

Folks attending the conferences here write their Twitter handles on their badges, why bother trading business cards when you can just ask someone for the Twitter name and immediately add them to your follow list.

Big screens stream Tweets in a regularly updated lists at panels, and films at the festival are getting immediate 140 character reviews from critics and everyday attendees alike. The service drives buzz in such an immediate way that people check Twitter at about the time an anticipated screening is ending to get an immediate snapshot about a movie.

John Pierson and Michel Gondry during a Q & A at SXSW over the weekend. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Over the weekend here at SXSW, immediate buzz was so strong for Aaron’s Katz’ “Cold Weather” that one exec from a leading New York distribution company Tweeted, “Whoever releases ‘Cold Weather’ should pull quotes from Twitter! Congrats Aaron and everyone involved.”

Last year, Twitter was breaking through in a big way, this year they hosted one of the most popular parties of the first weekend.

2. Finding Foursquare

Location based apps are all the rage this year in Austin with Foursquare leading the way here at SXSW. The rapid growth of the iPhone platform has enabled a prosperous marketplace for new mobile applications and paved the way for numerous apps aimed at linking users based on their location.

On Foursquare (fueled by GPS systems built into phones), users check-in on the go to notify a network of friends where they are eating, drinking, shopping or hanging out. During a busy festival like SXSW, with so many competing movies, parties, and panels happening at the same time, an application like Foursqure can be a lifesaver. Attendees easily find each other and make plans to experience part of the fest together, and they create flash mobs that descend on an event quickly.

With only half a million members, so far, observers are watching how location-based services grow with expectations that they will become even more vital parts of popular services like Facebook and Twitter.

Over at the New York Times, Jenna Wortham has an informed round-up.

“Just as people had to get into the habit of tweeting, they’ll have to learn the habit of checking in,” Josh Williams, from Foursquare competitor, Gowalla, told the Times.

Downtown Austin, TX, as seen from the Penthouse atop the Hilton. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

3. Film Distribution’s Future is Now

Debates about big screens v. small ones, corporate v. DIY releases, computers v. TVs and windows & revenue streams were among the hot topics over the weekend.

In a room of about 50 people on Saturday, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker proclaimed theatrical as the “gold standard” for film distribution. He said it is the best way to position a film for a long shelf life. Another Sony executive, Thanda Belker agreed, “The conventional windows and conventional release pattern are the strongest way to retain revenue,” she said, but added, “One day [digital] will live up to its promise.” But, for now, “The conventional windows and conventional release pattern is the strongest way to retain revenue.”

While few seemed to disagree, here in Austin many of the emerging filmmakers at this festival may have to build a release plan on their own, so they are asking questions. During a busy panel schedule Barker’s session which showcased a smart, eclectic mix of industry insiders, faced stiff competition from a compelling event nearby.

Down the hall at the Austin Convention Center, at the same time, more than 150 people were engaged in a focused conversation about distribution. “Nobody Wants to Watch Your Film Online,” was the catchy title that drew the crowd. A large screen was set up next to the stage so that attendees could comment, via Twitter (#watchyourfilm), during the session luring even more into the session as it continued.

Netflix, IFC Films, Criterion, The Auteurs and YouTube were among the platforms that stirred the most talk (and debate). Magnet Media has a detailed report on the panel discussion, including a compelling comment from Criterion head Peter Becker that stirred a lot of Twitter talk:

“There are lots of people showing movies successfully online: YouTube is among them. We’ve been experimenting with all kinds of platforms. There are tons of people who want to watch your movie online…Documentaries have been incredibly successful in developing an audience online, due in part to the searchability of the web and the film’s topic areas of interest,” Peter Becker said, “There are lots of promises of what the web represents that are coming true…slowly.”

“The question is still: who is going to pay for this?,” Becker noted, later asking, “…all of that has to be paid for. Pay the machines, pay the people, pay the rent. How do we not just make room for greed in the world, but make room for work in the world? All these entrenched behaviors and business models have to work for the content to be seen by everyone who’s interested in seeing it.”

Earlier in the week, HDNet’s Mark Cuban faced off against Avner Ronen of Boxee to debate whether TVs or computers would become the screen of choice in the future. As reported on the SXSW website, “The issue isn’t about technology – it’s about the business model,” Cuban said. “The internet will continue to be a complimentary content delivery model, like it is now, but it won’t replace digital cable.” Ronen countered that over the next few years, platforms will evolve to change the playing field.

Based on continuous conversations at festivals, filmmakers seem more open than ever to experiment with release patterns and windows. At the same time, there are still a lot of questions to be answered and data required to help producers and directors make informed decisions about the right path for movies. It’s an area that indieWIRE will increasingly explore this year.

Inside the Paramount Theater on opening night at SXSW. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

4. Filtering Film & Video

With more an more films and videos available online, how do you find what to watch? At multiple seminars, panelists bemoaned the growing volume of film and video content available in theaters, on cable TV, and online. How do you filter increasingly large libraries of movies, TV shows and short form content. How do films find intended audiences so that the creators can monetize their movies?

I heard a lot of people talking about different guides for online viewing, from Clicker to SpeedCine for tracking legal movies available online.

The missing piece? Critical insight from established reviewers, engaged viewers, bloggers and others to help drive viewers based on their own interests and insights. It’s coming.

At a panel dubbed, “Saving Cinema in a Digital Era,” a group of us pondered many of these issues and brainstormed ideas. More to come on this. Stay tuned.

5. Documenting Memories While Living Experiences

A vital discussion thread that stuck with me all week at SXSW came from French director Michel Gondry over the weekend. It’s an appropriate place to end this mid-fest wrap-up.

After a Saturday night screening of his documentary, “The Thorn in The Heart” and then on Sunday during an on stage Q & A that I moderated, Gondry reflected. He said that at a younger age he spent a lot of time photographing, until he realized that the snapshots were affecting his memories and personal experiences. I found it a relevant topic at an event that is being documented, captured and shared in real-time.

“The photos or the documentation preserve the memory but erase the feeling of living the moment,” Gondry said, captured in — of all things — a clip from the Q & A. “You recollect the image and it takes it out of your brain,” he warned.

Appropriately, the moment was framed succinctly on Twitter by user, bluetopaz.

“Michel Gondry says it’s ambiguous: film preserves memory but seeing the world through a frame can keep you from living in the moment #sxsw.”

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