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A New Type of Festival and an Integration of Multiple Art Forms: The Case for SXSW

by Marie Louise Zimmermann and Elyssa Jechow

SXSW” has become a term of ever growing awareness in the language of film and music lovers. For those who might not know the acronym, though, it stands for South by Southwest – an annual festival held in Austin, Texas. Among the qualities that defines its uniqueness now is its concept of presenting three festivals in one – a music festival, a film festival, and SXSW interactive (a showcase of emerging technologies and new media). Each one operates with substantial autonomy, but only together do they form the festival. The format is not only intriguing and unique, but indeed also indicates some of the dissolving boundaries between art forms. New media offering new opportunities and inspirations, as well as new products for the consumer.

A Conversation with Todd Phillips, moderated by Elvis Mitchell (Photo: Erin Fotos, courtesy of SXSW)

The festival did not begin as having all three components, but it always held an innovative approach to creative enterprise. The first SXSW was a music festival in 1987, with film and new media joining the party in 1994 as what was initially known the “SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference.” SXSW has since evolved into a venue know for cultivating the new and for presenting emerging trends and technologies in the arts and creative industries. As they write of their own history, “SXSW’s original goal was to create an event that would act as a tool for creative people and the companies they work with to develop their careers, to bring together people from a wide area to meet and share ideas. That continues to be the goal today whether it is music, film or the internet.”

In the 25 years since its inception, SXSW has strengthened its reputation and gained increasing recognition for its unique approach. Despite the challenges and complications of presenting three components, SXSW has established an identity in the growing world of film festivals, especially as “film” has evolved in technology and come to encompass forms of the moving image that have arisen with technological innovation. In the process, SXSW has become a credible voice in multiple art forms, and it continues to thrive.

With growing national and international attention the festival now attracts thousands annually. SXSW reports that 66,842 attended the festival in 2011. The film programming included 140 feature-length films and 153 shorts curated from a submission pool of 4,911 submissions. New development is a centerpiece of the mission and the content — with 66 world premiers, 15 North American premiers, and 15 US premiers — and creative pioneers find a venue for connecting innovative concepts with an audience and with potential collaborators.

For music, that dynamic puts musicians, studios, and music lovers all in the same creative space supporting the new, and 2,098 acts, including 596 international acts from 57 countries, performed in 2011. The Music Startup Village supports new artists with funding and mentoring. The blending of the three separate audiences creates an atmosphere conducive to the exchange of knowledge and ideas. The conference panels cultivate cross-pollination of disciplines and press the limits of new ideas. Audiences come to seek a wide range of styles and artistic voices, and the concerts and screenings attract more and more each year.

What do we learn from the example of SXSW? The success of the festival can be interpreted as a rave review for pluralism in the entertainment industry and for independent artists. More than a film festival, SXSW is a festival of unique approaches and clever implementation, as well as an enlightening experience for festivalgoers.

Auditorium Shores at SXSW (Photo: Extreme Air Shots, courtesy of SXSW)

For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Kaleidescope of Film Festivals

Film and the Burden of Success

Further Resources on Film Festivals, in Pittsburgh and Around the World

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