SXSW is no stranger to big-money activations, where corporate sponsors pay a fortune to turn an Austin parking lot into something massive and unusual to promote their brand. AMC once put a miniature re-creation of Coney Island, complete with a Ferris wheel, on Congress Avenue. Doritos used to pay artists like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube to perform from inside a 40-foot-tall vending machine. And while SXSW has changed in recent years, the ridiculous events are still very much a part of the festival in 2019.
This time out, the buzzword is “immersive,” and two of the biggest names in entertainment—HBO and Amazon Prime—are both competing for the title of the fest’s most-talked-about event, as they promote Game of Thrones and the forthcoming miniseries Good Omens, respectively.
The “immersive” part of the experience that each brand brought to Austin is a theatrical spectacle in which visitors interact with costumed characters who are essentially live-action role-playing their way through the event. This stuff isn’t new—the New York theater performance Sleep No More popularized it as high art in the early ’10s, and it’s not really much different from a haunted house or a renaissance faire—but as brands continue to look for ways to bring something to SXSW that can inspire the sort of you-had-to-be-there FOMO that gets the festival crowd talking about whatever it is they have to promote, something that can only exist on an in-person basis is a strong fit.
These things, for the most part, are pretty neat. At “Bleed for the Throne,” HBO’s event at East Austin’s Fair Market, visitors (who are encouraged to donate blood for the Red Cross) experience a brief multimedia tour through the show’s history before being ushered outdoors to what feels like a full, Game of Thrones–based ren fair. There are Wildlings, Dothraki, and Stark and Lannister bannermen in costumes that presumably came directly from the set of the show; sword fights; fortune tellers secreted away in tents to read palms; bards playing a selection of tunes from the show’s soundtrack; horses; and intense “red woman” witches prone to making dramatic eye contact. Inside the Fair Market Hall, fans are treated to a 24-piece choral concert, accompanied by a full early music orchestra, performing 30 minutes of the show’s score as priestesses honor the names of those who’ve bled on the premises.
At Amazon’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” meanwhile, the things that HBO turned up to 11 are adjusted to, say, a 6 or a 7. Good Omens is based on a cult favorite 1990 British fantasy novel about an apocalyptic biblical prophecy—not the sort of thing that has the wide cultural saturation of Game of Thrones—and so part of the immersive experience is simply getting people to check it out. To that end, there are people dressed as angels and demons wandering the entire downtown area, asking passersby their plans for the apocalypse and encouraging them to visit the site of the event, across Cesar Chavez from the Austin Convention Center. Inside the activation, there are more angels and demons, the odd witch, and a string trio performing pop hits by acts like The Beatles and Lady Gaga. There are also animals—a “Hellhound Puppy Pen” full of animals from the Austin Animal Shelter—and assorted “earthly delights” like manicures and a makeshift hair salon, along with props from the series.
The two events aren’t in direct competition, but SXSW often feels like a zero-sum game when it comes to audience attention—and that seems to be how Amazon is treating it, as they included a line in an email to media on Friday about how “we heard something about bleeding for another activation, but instead of blood and little baby sword fights,” SXSW attendees would be much happier at their activation.
Watching giant brands attempt to out-ridiculous each other is something of a SXSW tradition, but the nature of what that looks like in 2019 has changed, in other words. In years past, it might have been Vevo bringing Kanye West in for a secret show, while American Express smuggles Jay Z into town, or Samsung putting Prince into a tiny club while Doritos puts Lady Gaga into the Stubb’s backyard amphitheater. These days, those brands are less inclined to try to tap the shine of superstar musicians for their events, and the biggest money is spent by entertainment companies using a chance to interact with the programming itself as the draw. As the festival continues to evolve, it’s likely that the immersive experiences will end up more as a late-’10s fad than the future of the fest itself—but dressing local actors in costumes from the prop department, giving people some puppies to pet, and benefiting organizations like the Red Cross and the local animal shelter doesn’t seem like the worst way for brands to spend their money.