South by Southwest (abbreviated as SXSW and colloquially referred to as South By) is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States. It began in 1987, and has continued to grow in both scope and size every year. In 2017, the conference lasted for 10 days with SXSW interactive lasting for 5 days, music for 7 days and film running concurrently for 9 days. Comedy and gaming components to the festival are particularly fast-growing.
SXSW is run by the company SXSW, LLC which organizes conferences, trade shows, festivals, and other events. In addition to the three main South by Southwest festivals, the company runs other conferences: SXSWedu, a conference on educational innovation, held in Austin, and (beginning in 2017) the me Convention, held in Frankfurt, Germany in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. Former conferences run by the SXSW organization were SXSW Eco, an environmental conference held in Austin from 2011-2016; and one in Las Vegas: SXSW V2V, a conference focused on innovative startups which ran from 2013-2015.
SXSW Music is the largest music festival of its kind in the world, with more than 2,000 acts as of 2014. SXSW Music offers artist-provided music and video samples of featured artists at each festival via their official YouTube channel.
The music event has grown from 700 registrants in 1987 to over 28,000 registrants. SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive events have grown every year, most recently bringing over 51,000 registrants to Austin every March.
Bands must cover their own expenses for travel and lodging at the event. All performers are offered a cash payment or a wristband package that allows access to all music events.
SXSW Film Conference spans five days of conference panels and sessions, and welcomes filmmakers of all levels. Programming consists of keynote speakers, panels, workshops, mentor sessions and more, with expert filmmakers and industry leaders.
In 2015, the SXSW Film Conference programmed over 250 sessions with 735 speakers. Past notable speakers include Jon Favreau, Mark Duplass, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Cage, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Tilda Swinton, Amy Schumer, Sally Field, Joss Whedon, Christine Vachon, RZA, Matthew McConaughey, Danny Boyle, Seth MacFarlane, Catherine Hardwicke, Richard Linklater, David Gordon Green, Harmony Korine, Henry Rollins, Sarah Green and Robert Rodriguez. Although the film festival often highlights independently produced films and emerging directing talent with unique visions, the festival has long served studios as a starting point for their comedies, using enthusiastic fans as a barometer of how they might play in wide release.
The SXSW Film Festival runs nine days, simultaneously with the SXSW Film Conference, and celebrates raw innovation and emerging talent both behind and in front of the camera. Festival programming categories include: Special Events, Headliners, Narrative Spotlight, Documentary Spotlight, Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition, Visions, Midnighters, 24 Beats Per Second, SXGlobal, Episodic, Festival Favorites and Short Film Programs. The SXSW Film Awards, which occur on the last day of the Film Conference, honor films selected by the Feature and Short Film Juries.
In 2015, the SXSW Film Festival programmed 150 feature films and 106 short films, selected from 7,361 submissions. Past notable world premieres include Furious 7, Neighbors, Chef, 21 Jump Street, The Cabin in the Woods, Bridesmaids and Insidious, and the TV series Girls, Silicon Valley and Penny Dreadful.
SXSW Interactive is focused on emerging technology, a focus which has earned the festival a reputation as a breeding ground for new ideas and creative technologies. The festival includes a trade show, speakers, parties, and a startup accelerator. According to a festival organizer Louis Black, SXSW Interactive "has probably been the biggest of its kind in the world" since 2007.
Inauguration – 1980s
In July 1986, the organizers of the New York City music festival New Music Seminar contacted Roland Swenson, a staffer at the alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, about organizing an extension of that festival into Austin after having announced that they were going to hold a "New Music Seminar Southwest". The plans did not materialize, so Swenson decided to instead co-organize a local music festival, with the help of two other people at the Chronicle: editor and co-founder Louis Black, and publisher Nick Barbaro. Louis Meyers, a booking agent and musician, was also brought on board. Black came up with the name, as a play on the name of the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest. The event was first held in March 1987. The organizers considered it a regional event and expected around 150 attendees to show up, but over 700 came, and according to Black "it was national almost immediately."
Meyers left Austin and the festival in the early 1990s, but Black, Barbaro and Swenson remained the festival's key organizers as of 2010.
Singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked was the keynote speaker at the 1992 South by Southwest. She caused controversy by delivering a speech, written by her then-husband Bart Bull, criticizing white musicians for stealing music from African American artists; and then later during the same conference when she tried to kick the band Two Nice Girls off of a benefit concert, a move that some called anti-gay, due to Two Nice Girls' overtly lesbian image.
That year, the three brothers of the band Hanson were brought to SXSW by their father in order to perform impromptu auditions for music executives, in the hopes of getting industry attention. Among the people who heard them was A&R executive Christopher Sabec, who became their manager, and would soon afterward get them signed to Mercury Records.
In 1995, the SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference was split into two separate events, "SXSW Film" and "SXSW Multimedia".
In 1999, SXSW Multimedia was renamed "SXSW Interactive".
British singer James Blunt was discovered by producer Linda Perry while playing a small show at the 2004 SXSW Music festival, and was signed to Perry's Custard Records soon thereafter, where he would go on to release all three of his subsequent albums.
The 2005 SXSW Film is considered by some to be the origin of the mumblecore film genre. A number of films now classified as mumblecore, including The Puffy Chair, Kissing on the Mouth, Four Eyed Monsters and Mutual Appreciation, were screened, and Eric Masunaga, a musician and the sound editor on Mutual Appreciation, is credited with coining the term "mumblecore" at a bar while at the festival.
The film Hooligans won both the Feature Film Jury Award and the Feature Film Audience Award for narrative feature, while The Puffy Chair won the Feature Film Audience Award in the "Emerging Visions" category. The documentary film Cowboy del Amor won the SXSW Competition Award and the Audience Award.
The 2007 music festival took place from March 14 to 18, and more than 1,400 acts performed.
The 2008 SXSW Interactive got media attention due to a keynote interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by technology journalist Sarah Lacy that was considered by some observers to be a "train wreck" due to an audience perception that Lacy was asking uninteresting questions, as well as mocking or terse answers in response from Zuckerberg.
In 2008, a comedy element was added to SXSW; it was held for one night. (By 2012, comedy performances occurred on all nights of the festival.)
The 2009 festival was held March 13–22. The Interactive section of SXSW in particular drew larger attendance levels; the influx strained the networks of providers such as AT&T (primarily due to heavy iPhone usage). Also new was the founding of an international organization for those not attending, dubbed NotAtSXSW. Coordinating through Twitter and other online tools, notatsxsw events were held in London, New York, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon and Miami.
The 2009 SXSW Film screened 250 films, including 54 world premieres. The event was notable for having the United States premiere of the film The Hurt Locker, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. The winners of the feature jury awards were, for documentary feature, 45365, and for narrative feature, Made in China.
The 2010 music festival, which took place March 12–21, was dedicated to Alex Chilton, who died shortly before he was to perform with Big Star. A tribute concert was performed in his honor on March 20, 2010.
At the 2010 festival, nearly 2,000 bands were officially scheduled to perform, and festival reps estimated that over 13,000 industry representatives attended. Though traditionally the Austin Music Awards kick off the festival, that year organizers slated it as the closing act. Local musician Bob Schneider earned 6 awards, including Song of the Year, Singer of the Year, and Band of the Year (with Lonelyland.) The 2010 festival was also notable for appearances by the surviving members of the band Moby Grape.
At the 2010 Film festival, Magnolia Pictures bought the film rights to the science-fiction film Monsters on the night it screened, in what was the first-ever "overnight acquisition" at SXSW. Journalist Meredith Melnick of Time magazine called this purchase a turning point for SXSW, leading to a greater interest among film studio executives in attending the festival in person. That year also saw the premiere of the indie favorite Tiny Furniture, which won the award for Best Narrative Feature.
The 2010 Interactive festival had an estimated 12–13,000 paying attendees, which represented a 40% jump over the previous year. This was the first year in which the interactive festival's attendance surpassed the music festival's. The keynote presentation was an interview of then-Twitter CEO Evan Williams by Umair Haque, an interview that many in the audience found disappointingly superficial. Also during the interactive festival, the first-ever (and so far only) "Hive Awards For the Unsung Heroes of the Internet" were held.
The 2011 SXSW festival ran from March 11 to 20.
The keynote presenter for SXSW Interactive was Seth Priebatsch, founder and CEO of the mobile-gaming platform SCVNGR. The 2011 Interactive festival was by far the largest it had ever been, with an estimated 20,000 attendees.
At least two films screened at the SXSW Film festival gained distribution deals: the documentary Undefeated (which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature) and the thriller The Divide. As a result, film critic Christopher Kelly wrote that in 2011, SXSW Film went from being "a well-regarded but fundamentally regional event" to having "joined the big leagues of film festivals around the world." That festival was also notable for having the premiere of the film Bridesmaids.
The March 15th screening of the Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth was followed by a surprise live performance by the band itself, with a setlist that included the entirety of the then-upcoming album Wasting Light.
SXSW 2012 ran from March 9 to 18.
The standout technology of the 2012 SXSW Interactive was generally stated to be "social discovery" mobile apps, which let users locate other nearby users. Social discovery apps that had a presence at SXSW included Highlight, Glancee, Sonar and Kismet.
SXSW Film saw the premiere of two major Hollywood films: The Cabin in the Woods and 21 Jump Street. Two films obtained distribution deals: Girls Against Boys and The Tall Man. Another film, Gimme the Loot, which won the SXSW Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize, got a distribution deal a week after the festival. Bay of All Saints received the Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary.
2012 was also the first year the music portion was expanded to Tuesday. The musical festival included rappers such as Talib Kweli and Lil' Wayne, along with surprise appearances by Big Sean and Kanye West; indie bands that appeared included MENEW and The Shins. Bruce Springsteen was the keynote speaker for the music festival.
SXSW 2013 ran from March 8 to 17.
The big-budget films The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Evil Dead premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film, and Spring Breakers had its U.S. premiere. The film Short Term 12 won the grand jury award for Best Narrative Feature. The films Cheap Thrills and Haunter received distribution deals, and Drinking Buddies obtained a distribution deal several days later.
The 2013 SXSW Interactive saw another huge jump in registration, now with 30,621 paying attendees. This was over three times the number that had attended in 2008 (9,000), just five years previously. The keynote talk for the 2013 SXSW Interactive was given by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The "Screenburn" and "Arcade" components were renamed to "SXSW Gaming" and "SXSW Gaming Expo", respectively. The Interactive conference was noted for its increased corporate presence, featuring major participation by Samsung, 3M, Target, American Airlines, Adobe Systems and AT&T, among others. CNN, CBS and CNET called Grumpy Cat the undisputed "biggest star" of SXSW Interactive over Musk, Al Gore and Neil Gaiman.
SXSW 2014 ran from March 7 to 16.
SXSW Film had premieres of the big-budget films Neighbors, Veronica Mars and Chef, and Cesar Chavez had its North American premiere. A clip for the big-budget film Godzilla was also screened. The films Space Station 76 and Exists got distribution deals at the festival, while Fort Tilden (which won the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize) and Open Windows got distribution deals shortly afterward.
A new section, "Episodic" (on television programming) was introduced to SXSW Film. Television series that previewed at the festival include Silicon Valley and From Dusk till Dawn: The Series. The talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! was taped for a week at the festival; it joined the talk show Watch What Happens: Live, which began taping at SXSW in 2013.
SXSW Interactive featured a keynote speech by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, via streaming video, about privacy rights. The festival also featured a talk from another famous leaker, Julian Assange, also speaking remotely. Besides privacy issues, another major focus of the Interactive festival was wearable technology, including devices for augmented reality, activity tracking, identity authentication, charging cell phones and others. Computerworld magazine called the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality gaming headset, the "sleeper hit" of the festival, although ironically it was displayed not at the Interactive but at the Film portion, as part of a Game of Thrones exhibit. The SXSW Gaming section introduced its SXSW Gaming Awards to recognize achievement in video and other types of gaming, which has continued through future SXSW festivals.
The keynote presenter and headline act this year for Stubb's was Lady Gaga. To promote her upcoming album, Food, Kelis cooked and served barbecue-style food from a food truck to festival attendees.
On March 13, 2014, a drunk driver, Rashad Charjuan Owens, drove his car into a crowd of festival attendees while trying to evade a traffic stop. Two people were killed immediately, another two died later from their injuries and another 21 were injured but survived. Owens was convicted of capital murder charges after a November 2015 trial in which eyewitnesses testified that about "a chaotic and harrowing scene" on the night, as hundreds of people ran and screamed as the car sped through crowds of people. Owens was given an automatic sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
On March 15, 2014, rapper Tyler, The Creator was arrested on misdemeanor charges of "inciting to riot" after yelling to fans to push their way past security guards at a sold-out show the previous day. In February 2016, the riot charges were dropped against Tyler, The Creator pursuant to a plea agreement with prosecutors (under which the rapper pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of disorderly conduct and paid a $100 fine, with the case to be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for three months).
SXSW 2015 took place from March 13 to 22.
SXSW Film screened 145 feature films, an all-time high for the festival. The big-budget films Furious 7 (which was a last-minute addition to the lineup), Get Hard, Spy, a rough cut of Trainwreck, Moonwalkers and The Final Girls had their world premieres, as did the documentaries Danny Says, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Brand: A Second Coming. Ex Machina had its North American premiere. 6 Years, Manson Family Vacation and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine all got distribution deals at the festival.
The 2015 festival hosted the swearing-in ceremony of Michelle K. Lee as the new head of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker administered the oath of office to Lee at the festival on Friday, March 13.
Various sources called Meerkat, an iOS app that had launched two weeks earlier that lets users livestream video via Twitter, the breakout technology of SXSW Interactive. Another product that got significant buzz was a prototype of the roadable aircraft AeroMobil, which its makers, the company AeroMobil s.r.o., said would be ready for operation by 2017.
SXSW 2016 began on March 11 and ended on March 20.
On March 11, President Barack Obama gave a speech at SXSW Interactive in which he called on the technology industry to help solve many of America's problems, such as upgrading outdated networks, helping balance security and privacy, and the FBI–Apple encryption dispute.
On the night of March 20, gunshots rang out on 6th Street causing mass hysteria and panic. No injuries were reported and a man from Memphis was arrested with discharging a firearm and disturbing the peace.
Films that premiered at SXSW Film include Song to Song, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde, Gemini, The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Spettacolo and The Disaster Artist. Television shows that were previewed include The Son, Dear White People and American Gods. To promote the Hulu original miniseries The Handmaid's Tale, an adaptation of the classic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, dozens of actresses silently walked the streets of downtown Austin costumed in red "handmaid" dresses. To promote the third season of the AMC original series Better Call Saul (a spin-off prequel of Breaking Bad), a pop-up "Los Pollos Hermanos" restaurant, representing the fictional fast food chain featured in both series, appeared in downtown Austin.
Guest speakers included former mayor of Newark, NJ and current Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), political activist and commentator Van Jones and former Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke about his cancer research initiative. Nile Rodgers gave the keynote address for the music portion of the festival, while filmmakers Gareth Edwards and Lee Daniels gave the keynote presentations for the film portion.
Major performers during the music component of the festival included Garth Brooks, Lana Del Rey, Lil Yachty, The Roots, The Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, Solange Knowles, Rae Sremmurd, Migos, and The Chainsmokers among others.
En route to SXSW 2017, Italian post-punk band Soviet Soviet, traveling on the Visa Waiver Program, was denied entry to the United States, detained overnight and deported after an immigration officer at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport claimed they were planning on conducting a paid performance, which would have required a work visa. The band presented a letter from their American record label stating that both their performances at KEXP (which was what had brought the band to Seattle) and at SXSW were for promotional purposes only, but this failed to convince officials at the airport. There was also a "Contrabanned" showcase on March 17, featuring various artists and musicians (residents of the U.S. and Canada) who are natives of, or have family connections to, countries affected by the 2017 U.S. travel ban on citizens from parts of the Islamic world.
Popular ridesharing services Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin in May 2016 as a result of a city ordinance mandating fingerprint-based background checks for ridesharing service drivers. As a result, SXSW attendees for 2017 had to choose among alternative services such as (locally-based) RideAustin, Fasten and Fare, with reported difficulties with hailing rides due to the demand.
SXSW is the highest revenue-producing event (outside of athletic and other events associated with the University of Texas) for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $190.3 million in 2012 increasing to $218 million in 2013, $315 million in 2014, $317 million in 2015, and $325 million in 2016. (In comparison, Super Bowl LI brought a $347 million economic impact to the Houston economy and the 2016 Final Four brought a $324 million economic impact to the economy of Phoenix, Arizona.)
Additionally, demand for hotel rooms in the Austin area continued to outstrip supply, pushing average nightly room rates up to an all-time high of $350 in 2016, a 60 percent increase over the average room rate seen during 2011's edition of SXSW. The average SXSW registrant also stayed in Austin longer in 2016, spending an average of 5.2 nights, up from 4.9 nights in 2015.
The 2014 drunk-driving incident prompted discussion about whether the festival had grown too large and raucous. The organizers of the festival—SXSW Holdings LLC and SXSW Holdings Inc.—were sued by families of the four victims.
In May 2014, partially motivated by the 2014 crash, Austin's Urban Transportation Commission announced that it was seeking to enhance safety at the festival, with an initial focus on implementing transportation measures to resolve issues linked to the festival. The Austin Music Commission also met to discuss music venues and sound problems linked to the festival. The city voted to limit the number of special events which would be approved to 114, a 32 percent decrease from the number of approved events during the 2014 festival.
Another frequent criticism of the SXSW festival is that it has become overly commercialized. In 2013, NPR writer Andrea Swensson wrote that she had decided to stop attending the festival, writing, "I can't help but feel that it has strayed far away from its original premise as a grassroots gathering place for new, undiscovered talent and increasingly feels like a big ol' Times Square billboard-sized commercial."
In October 2015, SXSW announced the cancellation of two video game panels ("#SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment In Games") scheduled for the 2016 festival due to threats of violence made to the festival hosting the sessions. In response to the cancellations, Buzzfeed and Vox Media made statements saying they would pull out of the festival if the two panels weren't reinstated. In response to the criticism, South by Southwest admitted that their decision to cancel the panels was a mistake. In lieu of a panel, South by Southwest hosted a daylong "online harassment summit" on March 12, 2016. Despite fears that violent hecklers would disrupt the summit, it was described by Brian Fung as "a largely peaceful affair", with protests limited to those who were angry about the bag searches conducted there.
In popular culture
- Comedian and actor Fred Armisen began his comic career with the short film Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW, released in 1998, in which he poses as various characters, asking silly questions of musicians and other attendees at that year's SXSW Music Conference.
- The 2011 documentary Winning America is about a US tour of Canadian band Said the Whale that culminates in that year's SXSW Music Festival.
- In the 2014 British film Frank, an experimental band (led by the title character) is booked to play a show at the SXSW Music Festival, but the gig leads to the band's breakup.
The creators of South by Southwest co-created two similar festivals in 1995: North by Northwest (NXNW) in Portland, Oregon (co-founded by the Willamette Week), and North by Northeast (NXNE) in Toronto (co-founded by Now). North by Northwest ended in 2001, and was replaced by MusicfestNW (MFNW), an event run entirely by the Willamette Week. In 2006, SXSW organizers created West by Southwest (WXSW) in Tucson, Arizona, a music festival which occurs directly before South by Southwest and mostly features bands that are scheduled to play at SXSW.
Other festivals inspired by SXSW include the following:
- 35 Denton (formerly known as "North by 35" or "NX35" and "35 Conferette") – Denton, Texas
- C2SV (formerly known as "SVSX") – San Jose, California
- Incubate (formerly known as "ZXZW") – Tilburg, Netherlands
- Live at Heart – Örebro, Sweden
- MidPoint Music Festival (MPMF) – Cincinnati, Ohio
- MoSo – Saskatoon, Canada
- South by Due East – Houston, Texas
- The Goa Project – Goa, India
- The Great Escape Festival – Brighton, England
- Tech Open Air (TOA) – Berlin
- XOXO – Portland, Oregon
- Yes and Yes Yes (YXYY) (formerly known as "Yes by Yes Yes") – Palm Springs, California
- South by So What?! – Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex.
Festivals inspired by South by Southwest have been collectively nicknamed "four-letter festivals". Metro Silicon Valley, which founded C2SV, wrote that such festivals have become important revenue sources for the alternative weekly newspapers that have founded them.
On October 3, 2016, a one-day festival, called "South by South Lawn" (SXSL), was held at the White House; it was a collaboration between SXSW, US President Barack Obama, and the American Film Institute.