The cancellation of SXSW 2020 was a watershed moment in the coronavirus pandemic. The city made the announcement that the festival wouldn’t be happening just a week before it was set to begin, and within days, everything else got canceled, too: Major League Baseball, the NBA, the Final Four, Coachella, all new movies, weddings, birthday parties. You were there, you remember.
In the year since, we’ve all learned a great deal about how to experience novelty and creativity, mostly from within our own homes. Since SXSW was the first major event in those spaces to be canceled as a result of COVID-19, organizers didn’t have much time to develop a plan for a virtual festival in 2020. But over the past twelve months, events from Sundance to Austin City Limits to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference have given those at home some way to engage with the world. By now, we have some shared expectations for what a virtual festival looks like, and SXSW 2021 will use those expectations—and its staff’s experience in putting on a major event—to offer a version of SXSW that you experience through your screen. Texas Monthly caught up with organizers Janet Pierson, head of Film; James Minor, in charge of Music; and chief programming officer Hugh Forrest—to understand what the festival looks like in a year when you won’t be lining up for tickets or bumping into anyone while waiting for barbecue.
Organizers Have Been Preparing for a Virtual Festival
In October 2020, SXSW announced its plan to hold a digital festival in the spring. At the time, though, organizers held out hope that, while the mass gathering that has come to define SXSW wouldn’t be possible, a small amount of in-person programming might be feasible. When Austin moved to its highest-risk COVID protocols, however, the programmers embraced the fully virtual version of the festival. (The city is currently in its second-highest COVID alert, which still recommends avoiding travel and social gatherings with more than ten attendees.) “We had been running through many different scenarios, if the virus was mitigated or controlled, where we could do a small portion of in-person content here, something else there, and cobble together a mixture of the two,” Interactive head Forrest says. When it became clear that wouldn’t be an option, the groundwork for an entirely online event was already in place.
SXSW Film Is Completely Different
In recent years, SXSW Film has risen from a fun companion to the main events of Music and Interactive to one of the highest-profile American film festivals, attracting massive studio premieres and launching filmmakers’ careers. The kind of studio premieres that have come to seize many of the headlines at the fest—films like Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), or James Wan’s Furious 7 (2015)—were all out, because studio films haven’t been getting released during the pandemic. The window for submitting one of those career-making indies was condensed into a brief three-week stint in October, instead of an ongoing process that’s open for several months. The shortened window, SXSW Film director Pierson explains, allowed the festival to curate a tight lineup of independent films.
“It’s a smaller number of films than we’ve had in the past,” Pierson says, in part because a virtual festival presented unexpected scheduling challenges. With in-person screenings, the festival can slot a film at any time there’s an empty theater. A virtual festival, which theoretically could have an infinite number of screenings, raises the question of the “right” number to let in. Striking that balance was a high priority for Pierson’s team. “We had to turn away more movies than ever,” she says.
SXSW Music Is All Opening Acts, No Headliners
No aspect of SXSW changes more from in-person to online than the music festival. With a film, the size and location of the screen changes, but at the end of the day, you’re still just sitting down in front of a screen. SXSW Music, however, went from thousands of artists to just a couple hundred. Out are the experiences of standing in a line for badge holders or wristband wearers, darting around downtown from venue to venue, or grabbing a drink at the bar during a set change. “We’re approaching things by saying, ‘Let’s not even pretend that we’re trying to replace the live club experience,’” James Minor, who oversees SXSW Music, acknowledges. As with previous iterations of the festival, showcases are curated by a presenter—the U.K’s British Music Embassy, tastemaking blog BrooklynVegan, or various record labels, for example—but instead of bringing 45-minute sets as part of an six-hour event at a club, each showcase will be a single hour of entertainment. “People’s attention spans are a lot shorter online,” Minor says. And the big-name headliners that attract lines that run around the block are taking the year off. Instead, he says, this year’s festival will be focused on launching the careers of artists who’ve struggled with getting attention during the pandemic.
“We’ll be showcasing artists that have been on the cusp, but haven’t really been able to do much because of COVID,” he says. “It’s supposed to be the coming-out party for what happens next in music. I like to think that people are going to look at this year’s SXSW as sort of the north star for the year ahead.”
They’re Figuring Out the Networking Thing
SXSW became a vital event for folks in seemingly every creative industry by bringing a huge amount of talent and influence to the same set of blocks in downtown Austin. Filmmakers don’t just attend SXSW to screen their films—they attend because the producers, investors, and actors they want to work with might be there too. The same is true for Interactive, where a chance encounter or a panel appearance can lead to funding or career opportunities, or Music, where a buzzed-about week of performances can land an artist his or her dream booking agent or manager.
How will all that work on a virtual festival? It’s harder to answer that question, but Forrest says it will involve replacing serendipity with planning. “You’re not going to have that traditional SXSW moment where the person you always wanted to meet is in line in front of you at the Iron Works [BBQ],” Forrest says. “We can’t replicate that in a virtual world. Instead, I’d encourage our community to use the app to look up the people you want to network with, use our mentor sessions and the networking hour to connect. The people who’ve typically had the best results even in previous years are those who try to connect with others beforehand—I think what we lose in serendipity, we potentially gain in the strategic ability to connect using the app platform.”
How (and What) to Attend
A festival that, historically, has attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees as part of a complete ten-day takeover of downtown Austin is, this year, just going to be an app. That app will be available on a variety of platforms—you’ll be able to watch SXSW content on your laptop, tablet, phone, or on many smart TVs—and Pierson says the festival worked hard to deliver a “premium” experience. But still: attending SXSW in 2021 means opening the SXSW 2021 app on your device.
Some of those events come with capacity restrictions, including many of the film screenings and a number of the panel sessions. For those events, attendees can register in advance to secure their ability to tune in—waiting until the last minute, however, might result in disappointment. (Other events will be served on-demand, so even those who miss their first choice should have something to watch.)
And while the headliners this year are less stratospheric than in years past, there are still big-deal films, musicians, and speakers at SXSW 2021. In the absence of studio offerings, SXSW Film has turned to movies featuring high-profile musicians: documentaries starring Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters, dance music sensation Charli XCX, and North Texas native Demi Lovato are all in the lineup this year. On the music lineup, hosts like the British Music Embassy, Austin’s Black Fret, and Sounds Australia have curated impressive rosters of young talent. And even as the fest is focused on discovery, a handful of established artists will be participating, as well—country artists Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers will perform together, Danish heavy metal heavyweights Iceage will promote their forthcoming fifth album, and Montreal shoegazers No Joy promise to bring the sort of indie rock guitars that have long been a staple of SXSW.
The speaker lineup is perhaps even more impressive than in years past, owing to the ease with which busy speakers and panelists can attend a virtual festival from their own homes (Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey are two 2021 speakers who’d long been on Forrest’s wish list, he says). Stacey Abrams and Willie Nelson will deliver keynotes; filmmakers including James Cameron, Ava DuVernay, and Barry Jenkins are featured speakers; and panels that span the tech, music, and film industries all gather some of their smartest minds to address the big question SXSW is well positioned to explore as part of its “Uncharted Future” series: A year into the pandemic, where do we go from here?
The future of the festival—and, you know, every other aspect of American life—remains to be written. Hopefully, though, by the time SXSW 2022 rolls around, we’ll be chasing down free barbecue at day parties, cursing at the endless traffic, and dancing our faces off next to a middle manager from an events production company in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed.