SXSW: A Beginner’s Guide

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I’d always been told that the Grand Canyon was huge, but I didn’t really comprehend just how enormous it was until I was actually there. Exactly the same thing can be said of South by Southwest.

This was my first year attending SXSW Film, and it was a fantastic experience. I plan on doing it again someday, but next time I’ll have a much better idea of what I’m doing, and I won’t need to just muddle my way through again.

I very quickly learned some important lessons on how to do SXSW properly. The first of those was that we’d arrived too late. In order to keep accommodation costs down, we’d decided that only doing half of the film festival (5 days) would be enough. We decided on the second half as it overlapped with the music festival. We did this before the schedule was released, and so did not realise that all of the special panels and most of the filmmaker Q&A’s happen in the first half of the festival. And while we did still get to see a lot of very interesting people speak, we didn’t get any of the big names (Joss Whedon had left Austin by the time I saw Much Ado About Nothing, for example). So the lesson there is to be in Austin for the duration of the festival (it’s worth the extra hotel costs).

The other advantage of staying longer is that you can take things a little slower. We really just crammed in as many films as possible in the time we were there, and while this was enjoyable, it would have been good to see some more music (though the one band I saw was the Smashing Pumpkins).

sxsw2Clockwise from top left: 1. The queueing system; 2. The panel for Zero Charisma; 3. The busy Austin streets; 4. The panel for The East.

The second lesson was that buying a Gold (Film + Interactive) or Platinum (Film + Interactive + Music) pass would absolutely be worth it. They seem rather expensive, but if you arrive right at the beginning on the festival, and leave at the end, you’d undoubtedly get your money’s worth. This is definitely what I plan on doing next time.

Another is that a mobile internet connection is important, as is organising it ahead of time. The T-mobile store I attempted to visit turned out not to exist, so I had to do the week without internet. This meant no Twitter, no Facebook, no SXSW Go app. This also meant that I had no way of keeping up with the hundreds of daily official and unofficial events, which are often announced at the last minute. There almost seems to be just as many unofficial SXSW events as there are official events. Every company from Pandora to Doritos to Tumblr to Dr Martens put on events. I was so busy cramming in films that I didn’t really have much of a chance to see any. But, if I did SXSW properly, and had the time, I would need to be across everything that’s going on.

Another piece of advice is to talk to people. At Australian festivals like MIFF, I find that everyone keeps to themselves while waiting in line. This isn’t at all the case at SXSW. Everyone was really nice, both our fellow travelers and the native Austinites. This is also a really good way of working out what’s worth seeing and what’s not, and finding out what new events have been announced, and who’s rumoured to be appearing at or attending them.

Speaking of lines, SXSW involves a lot of lining up. Having a badge shortens your queues quite a bit (compared to wristband holders, and people seeking single tickets), but there is a way to shorten your lines even more. This is the SXXpress pass. Your badge entitles you to two of these a day, which can be picked up from the conference centre from 10am. This pass gets you into an even shorter line, and basically guarantees you a seat in the theatre (SXXpress pass holders get first priority seating, before badge, wristband and ticket holders respectively). Using these passes strategically will improve your experience a lot.

However, if you don’t get into the event you want to, I found that you can just walk into the Vimeo Theatre, however late you are, so it makes a good backup.

sxsw1Clockwise from top left: 1. Texas-shaped waffle at the Ramada; 2. Food trucks; 3. A SXSW balloon/sign thing; 4. Texas State Capitol.

As for accommodation, booking early is important. The good and cheaper places book out very early. Also, an official shuttle pass makes getting in and out of town a breeze if you’re not staying downtown (which, if you’re on a budget, you will not be). I stayed at the Ramada, which I can highly recommend, especially for the free Texas-shaped waffles. The shuttle can be very busy at certain times of day (10am-12pm and just before 3am), so sometimes you’ll need to wait a while, if you can’t avoid those times.

Another essential is food. The answer here is food trucks. They are awesome in Austin. Outside Rollins Theatre and in the Southbite Food Truck Court, your options are diverse and excellent. Again, you’ll probably need to queue up, but if you time your visit strategically, you can streamline your eating.

Slightly as an aside, I recommend checking out the Texas State Capitol. It’s bigger than the US Capitol, and also offers free tours inside. It’s not very rock and roll, but it is very interesting.

I’m sure there’s a lot more that I could say, and I’m sure there’s plenty of things that I’d only learn after a second or third visit, but this will do for now. At least, until I make another guest post reviewing some of the films I saw.

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