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SXSW Canceled Amid Global Coronavirus Outbreak

The city of Austin canceled the annual event, the first major American film festival called off due to the worldwide outbreak.

The Paramount Theatre in Austin south by southwest

The Paramount Theatre in Austin

Shelley Hiam

This year’s South by Southwest has been canceled, Austin city officials announced Friday. The decision by the city came as an increasing number of participants, including Netflix and Amazon Studios, pulled out of the annual gathering amid growing concerns over the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.

SXSW, with its parallel film, music, interactive, and education festivals/conferences, was set to begin next week, runningMarch 13-22. It marks the first time in the event’s 34-year history that it’s been called off.

Most cases of the nearly 100,000 global cases of coronavirus so far have been in mainland China, but numbers have increased in Europe and the US in recent weeks. That led to a flurry of event cancellations in Europe beginning last week, including France’s CanneSeries and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece.

SXSW’s cancellation, however, marks the first major American film event to be called off in the face of the outbreak. Two music festivals in Miami were canceled Friday: Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho, which were set for the end of the month.

As it stood, SXSW was beginning to get hollowed out as participants started dropping out this week. The festival’s television offerings, for example, had thinned considerably. With Amazon’s departure, premieres of series including Greg Daniels’ sci-fi show “Upload” and Matt Reeves and Nathaniel Halpern’s “Tales From the Loop” were nixed. Apple pulled out, canceling plans for premieres of the anticipated show “Central Park” from “Bob’s Burgers” creator Loren Bouchard and “Home,” a docuseries focused on innovative homes.

On the film side, no Apple meant the premiere of Spike Jonze’s documentary “Beastie Boys Story” was canceled, while screenings of the Apple/A24 release “Boys State” were in question.

And Netflix pulling out meant screenings of “Uncorked” and documentaries “A Secret Love,” “L.A. Originals,” “Mucho Mucho Amor,” and “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics,” would no longer move forward as planned.

Some disruption to SXSW’s planned events coincided with corporate policies limiting travel.

Twitter, for example, pulled out of the festival as the company halted all non-critical business travel and events and encouraged employees to work from home. That meant that CEO Jack Dorsey’s keynote was also canceled.

This scenario illustrates how corporate reaction to the outbreak — based on an overabundance of caution amid the unknown  — could play into the cancellation fates of other upcoming events.

Companies pulling out of SXSW and the event’s subsequent cancellation came amid earlier assurances from public health officials in Austin that the festival posed no threat to public safety.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s chief public health doctor, said at a press conference Friday there’s a “lack of conclusive scientific evidence” that canceling mass gatherings will impact the spread of transmission over time, but some evidence suggests that such events could make the spread happen sooner. No cases have been confirmed in Austin’s Travis County so far.

SXSW, with its plethora of concerts, screenings, and panel discussions, requires people to be crammed together in close quarters. That means that so-called “social distancing” is impractical, Escott said. The CDC recommends people stay six feet away from anyone who is sick and says the best way to protect against the virus is basic hygiene practices like frequent hand-washing, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are unavailable.

SXSW’s cancellation came as a result of the local government’s disaster declaration, which ordered the festival be called off. That order does not prohibit other mass gatherings, but officials said they would look at each one on a case-by-case basis. The chief administrator of Travis County, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, stressed the SXSW decision was one based on data.

“Panic will weaken us,” she said. “This is not a panic-based decision. This is a decision based on expert medical opinion that we should cancel festivals or mass gatherings countywide.”

One reason why organizers may be reluctant to cancel events comes down to insurance. Adam Siegel, entertainment manager at insurance company American Agents & Brokers Inc., told Variety that some disease-related coverage kicks in only if the government makes the call to cancel an event — rather than organizers doing it themselves.

A 2019 study commissioned by SXSW found last year’s festival infused $355.9 million into the city’s economy, some of which included money spent on year-round operations. It’s the most profitable event for the city’s hospitality industry, and the local government collected nearly $1.9 million in hotel taxes for SXSW-related bookings. Consumers and party organizers spent an estimated $16.7 million

Other upcoming events to watch are CinemaCon at the end of the month and April’s Tribeca Film Festival. Organizers for those two events say they’re moving forward as planned. Other upcoming festivals likely to show some impact include April’s SFFILM in the Bay Area, and the Seattle International Film Festival, which takes place in a city that has seen 10 coronavirus-related outbreaks in the past week.

A Change.org petition urging SXSW organizers to cancel the event amid the outbreak attracted over 55,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

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