SXSW 2019: politics, movies, and experiential bleeds

Originally published in The Drum

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That’s a wrap on SXSW 2019! As we mark the closing of the annual tech, film and music festival which since launching 31 years ago has morphed into a branding and marketing Thunderdome of sorts bridging the worlds of film, tech and music and providing compelling looks into the near-future and in some cases longer-term vision of the marketing and advertising trends. The London Times says SXSW still “sets the pace for music, film and technology.” and AdAge still calls SXSW the “world’s biggest experience stage.”

This is after-all fertile ground for marketing, innovation and re-invention, itself metamorphosing from a local music showcase with a $10 cover charge into a watershed cultural moment.

Austin becomes a crucial stop for 2020

Austin — itself a liberal enclave in the widely conservative state of Texas has never shied away from politics as SXSW has played host to Joe Biden and Barack Obama in previous years but this year’s keynote roster looked like a whistle-stop tour of aspiring 2020 presidential candidates like Elisabeth Warren, Senator Amy Klobuchar, freshman representative and media darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (not a candidate but notable attendee, nonetheless) to ex-Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz and Beto O’Rourke showing up in and around various SXSW events.

Their presence did not go unnoticed, though. Elisabeth Warren made shockwaves in the tech industry when a highly-publicized blog post dropped just before SXSW advocating the breakup of tech monopolies with sights clearly pointed at the FAANG crowd (that being Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who is still only months into her newly elected position as representative entered the fray at SXSW sitting on a panel advocating for the rise of automation in the workforce while also mentioning a proposal from Bill Gates, referencing a tax on robots that replace human workers.

Last but certainly not least, Beto O’Rourke spent the week leading up to the debut of his documentary film Running with Beto shrewdly dodging requests to confirm his official candidacy for the 2020 presidential bid. However, in the final days of SXSW, all was revealed in a Vanity Fair cover story boldly declaring “i’m born to be in it.”

Either way, 2019 has shown that SXSW 2020 will now become a crucial stop on the political roadmap ahead of the November 2020 Presidential Primary and a compelling way to connect with young, liberal tech-savvy voters in a swing state.

Some films go big — and some stay home.

SXSW has in previous years become a massive stage for films of all sizes from the celebrated bows of films like Spring Breakers, Neighbors, A Quiet Place, and Ready Player One. 2019 was no different though on the premiere front as filmmaker Jordan Peele unspooled his latest horror film Us — which came home from Austin sporting a 100% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To go along with film premieres, it has become de rigueur to also have an accompanying experiential “activation.”

However, it was a bit surprising to see this year that some of the studios with the biggest upcoming IPs opted to sit out SXSW all together. Notable that Disney with it’s fast-incoming Dumbo only debuted a fairly straightforward AR poster photo booth while all but opting out of promotion on the Austin stage for the eagerly-awaited Avengers: Endgame and reboots of The Lion King & Aladdin — as SXSW becomes more Comic-Con-ified, it’s a bit surprising to see that Disney has yet to really establish an identity or a foothold here as the studio-to-beat each year in Austin.

One other thing to note about the film programming this year…typically studios save their best bets as opening salvos for the first weekend of the film festival as we’ve seen in previous years with Baby Driver and Ready Player One opening within the festival’s opening weekend and this year followed suit seeing the bows of Jordan Peele’s Us, Seth Rogen’s Good Boys and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart as part of the opening weekend wave — but it was Paramount Pictures seemingly saving the best for last by premiering Pet Sematary Saturday night as a way to close out the festival with a bang.

Premium Experiential Bleeds

Following 2018’s Premium experiential explosion in the form of Westworld’s Live Without Limits Weekend and The Ready Player One Experience — all eyes were trained on SXSW for the next ubiquitous experiential moment. This year did see HBO return in a big, bloody way in the form of Game of Thrones: Bleed for the Throne — an innovative partnership with the American Red Cross designed to use blood donation as a way to pay homage to the well-known characters who have shed blood for the titular Throne and also as a method for entry to an activation recreating key set pieces from the series and then allowing attendees to interact with costumed characters.

It certainly wasn’t the sprawling scripted immersive experience of Live Without Limits but it was impressive nonetheless and captured/recreated the series fandom and fervor faithfully — and for a good cause.

The next in line for the experiential throne would have to be Netflix who created an immersive theatrical activation in support of the upcoming original film The Highwaymen in the form of a 1920’s speakeasy filled with actors in-character interacting with guests and leading them deeper into the film’s hunt to apprehend Bonnie & Clyde.

Eager Streamers

Between WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming platform, Disney’s forthcoming Disney+ and Apple’s imminent unnamed content offering, 2019 is already shaping up to become a streaming battleground. SXSW could be the first shots fired in the war-to-come as we saw Amazon Prime Video made bold moves by planting a flag in SXSW’s annual SX-bites food truck lot to unfurl the sprawling Garden of Earthly Delights in support of forthcoming series Good Omens onto the large plot of land at the mouth of the bustling Rainey Street Historical District. The activation was hard to miss occupying a prominent street corner at SXSW’s ground zero and featured a cornucopia of delights earthly and otherwise drawing guests in.

While the activation was impressive and ambitious for its sheer size and real estate it was definitely lacking the immersive narrative elements of Netflix’s The Highwaymen.

Worth noting: Hulu which has in recent years used SXSW to hype upcoming season bows of The Handmaids Tale — opted to stay home this year.

In Closing

This year’s SXSW has once again raised the stakes for marketers and brands and culture-makers at large ahead of the 2020 Presidential Primary proves that next year’s stage is now potentially bigger than Austin itself.

Entertainment Industry Consultant w/15+ years of entertainment industry experience. Voracious consumer of content and pop culture.

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