SXSW and the Threat of Counterculture Compromise

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SXSW and the Threat of Counterculture Compromise

It’s SXSW, and the films haven’t started yet. Time is on my side for the first and last time this week. The crowds are still manageable, the heat not too intense. It’s feeling fine in Austin, Texas, the bastion of safety for the liberal minded Texans and the countless transplants that inhabit the landscape. But soon this city will be flooded with film and tech enthusiasts, all anxiously waiting to witness the next step in our entertainment evolution. Shortly after, the music will start, the bars and clubs will be packed to the gills, thousands of musicians will try to win the ears of the masses, and debauchery will ensue. Oh, and President Obama is going to be giving a speech, the first sitting President to speak at SXSW.

SXSW has continued to grow since its inception in 1987. Starting as a music festival, the founders quickly added film to the roster, and in 1994 an interactive section, which has taken a strong shift toward tech in recent years. With over 84,000 attendees last year and expectations of surpassing those numbers in 2016, it’s hard to tell how the festival could grow anymore without requiring the election of public officials and establishing its own capital. But it’s this steady growth that has in many ways undermined what makes the festival unique.

The issue is cohesion. When a small festival turns into an annual cultural moment, change is inevitable, and with each passing year, the climate drifts further away from its original tone. Of course growth isn’t bad, but with said growth comes a specific kind of money, and that money stems from groups that are only interested in SXSW culture as a means to push an agenda. You can’t walk anywhere near the convention center or downtown without being bombarded with flyers advertising startups or corporate products. Every pedi cab is covered in ads for cable TV shows. Posters for comedy specials that have nothing to do with SXSW, and don’t happen during or around the festival, are plastered everywhere. No surface is safe from an advertisement, and the city knows this and prepares for it by wrapping every light-post, pillar, and electrical box with plastic wrap.

Some corporate sponsorship is integral to funding festivals. Without money from Coke or support from Southwest Airlines, festivals would not happen on the same level that they do now. So, while corporations and creative endeavors can and do coexist, it’s a delicate ecosystem, and once a festival grows to a certain size, the power shifts. This isn’t necessarily the festival organizers’ fault—there are plenty of ambushers (companies that use the SXSW brand for their marketing without contributing to the festival itself) that end up creating a contextless experience.

Sundance suffers from this same syndrome, and much like SXSW, it too started as a small destination festival, which is now plagued by ambushers. However, Sundance has a distinct advantage, taking place in a small town the amount of available real estate naturally creates a form of corporate population control. But in Austin, there’s plenty of real estate available, and soon every corner is covered with logos and promos. This oversaturation technique is utilized by large companies all the time, and the methodology behind it is innate in the corporate structure. Their goal is to grow their brand recognition as fast and efficiently as possible. But their target audience has shifted. It’s no longer the suburban housewife or the “working man” that companies target, it’s the creative types, and a festival is like shooting fish in a barrel. These companies throw money to shop owners, buy out bars, have deceptively interesting activations with free swag, and people get lost in the magic trick. Strategy is everything, and feeling like you’re at a party instead of experiencing a sales pitch, is one of the best strategies there is.

But the root of the problem is that these installations and parties don’t always make sense in relation to the festival’s ideology. When official sponsorship is on brand, there’s nothing offensive or out of place or nefarious about it. Take a look at the presence of the horror-streaming service Shudder at any number of festivals and events over the past year. It doesn’t feel like corporate shilling because it makes perfect sense—it’s introducing a target audience to a service they would love. It’s cohesive. It’s organic. And SXSW moving more toward this goal with its official sponsorship would be taking a huge step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, in its current state, it seems as though the corporate goal of most official sponsors or unsanctioned ambushers isn’t to fit in, or push forward the work of independent creators. The goal is to break down the idea of corporations as negative or unchic, and to shift the view to something “cool,” a place to get out of the sun and get a free drink while you take branded photos and share them on social media for your friends to like. It’s about hashtags and clicks. You want a free book, a free hat, maybe a free phone charger? All you have to do is take a photo and hashtag it with our brand on your social media accounts. Why pay Instagram or Twitter huge sums of money for an advertisement when you can get thousands of ads up for the cost of a bulk t-shirt order (which can be written off as a business expense)? This kind of marketing is everywhere, but it’s extremely concentrated at SXSW. It’s so well done that most people don’t even notice its presence when it’s packaged as an activation; they just enjoy the free Mountain Dew Bacon Tacos (yes, that’s a real thing), the T-shirt that makes the wearer a walking billboard and the engaging free app that uses an individual’s data to source information. It’s when you take a step back and ask yourself, “Why the fuck is there a 10-foot-tall transformer here?” that the veil begins to drop. While some will argue that ambushers and corporations aren’t actually part of the festival, the sad truth is that they make up a large portion of the festival experience. By taking over the public space, enticing people to attend parties, and some giving nothing back to the festival itself, save except a few items of swag, these businesses give the impression of impact but with no communal participation. It might have been completely off brand and absurd that McDonald’s had a lounge, but at least their official status implies some level of actual monetary support for the festival.

It’s hard at times to see the festival through the ambushing, but it’s still there, for now. One of SXSW’s greatest strengths is its curation of diverse experiences. Whereas some festivals are focused on a singular mission statement, the wide reach of SX gives each patron a unique experience. No single badge holder has the same exploits. While one person is seeing a block of short films another may be at the Duplass brothers conversation, or on the tech floor creating a hologram self-portrait. It’s an environment that can be overwhelming at times, and badge holders inevitably have to prioritize one experience over another, but this is a good problem to have.
Time folds in on itself after the second day. En masse, attendees lose track of meals, forget to drink enough water, and keep forgetting what’s on their schedule for later. The excessive partying gets to some, and they end up in bed until noon. But, they were out till 4:00am and it’s hard enough to stand in the sun-soaked lines sober and well-rested, doing it hung over is hell.

“Get your queue cards out and have them ready at the door” a volunteer yells down the line. People slowly begin to shuffle forward, heading into the Paramount Theater. On display out front is a black Trans Am that any film fan would recognize as Burt Reynolds’ ride in Smokey and the Bandit. Phones begin to come out of nowhere as people try to snap last-minute photos of the car before sitting down to watch the new Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) doc The Bandit, a glimpse into the making of the aforementioned classic and the lives of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. It’s a fun, nostalgic look back on life in the movie business and a certain kind of movie that isn’t made anymore. Gone are the days of car chase action comedies. They’ve been replaced by muscular men in capes with “sharp wit” and the uninteresting yet persistent problem of saving the world. However, the influence of the past is very present at the festival and not only in the documentary section, which tends toward biopics. There are a number of period piece films (Everybody Wants Some!!, In A Valley of Violence, The Arbalest, Carnage Park) as well as films that have adopted an older aesthetic or design (The Trust, The Alchemist Cookbook, The Other Half, The Greasy Strangler). It’s clear that nostalgia is part of the cinematic climate right now, and that to move forward a lot of people are looking back.

This revitalization of genre filmmaking in the independent market is an effective and strategic change, and its presence has become greater each year. As the market continues to change and distribution moves more and more toward browsing-based online formats, the need to grab a viewer’s attention is more important now than ever, and using a familiar genre helps a great deal in getting clicks. Joe Swanberg’s keynote address focused on this idea—the business side of filmmaking—while also encompassing the importance of community in the independent and DIY film scene. Swanberg learned the biggest lesson about business and community from his friend Ti West (whose film In a Valley of Violence premiered at the festival). While working on a webseries for IFC and Nerve, Swanberg was getting paid pennies, but was content, until he found out that West was getting paid $5,000 an episode, which changed everything. “If we just talked to each other we’d fuck shit up,” remarks Swanberg. He’s right, and SXSW creates this kind of fruitful dialogue for both aspiring filmmakers attending, as well as those screening at the festival. It allows the conversation to shift from finished product to process.

The festival’s biggest strength has always been its enthusiasm for filmmakers that have original voices and show potential, even when said filmmakers’ films aren’t completely polished. This is the festival that gave the Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Andrew Bujalski, Hannah Fidell and Adam Wingard a platform for their smallest movies. Those directors all work on much bigger projects now, but the impact that SXSW had in legitimizing them to the world is greater than one might think.

Another strength, especially this year, is SXSW’s focus on films with a positive message of social change. This is particularly noticeable in the documentary programs. While films like Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, Ovarian Psychos, Tower, Asperger’s Are Us, Gleason, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story, Newtown and Trapped are all very different films, they are similar in that they examine our changing society and communities, and the deeper implications inherent in them.

But what makes the festival great is in direct opposition to the outside interests that have flooded the scene, and it’s created a strong unintentional irony. David Foster Wallace once said, “The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates.” It’s a kind of irony that is hidden beneath layers of entertainment, but it’s there.

You can’t have something that’s built on the backs of filmmakers and artists, that don’t have, or necessarily want corporate support, and at the same time have a suffocating corporate presence with no repercussions. It’s the same problem that Austin itself has. To maintain a reputation of counter-culture-ism and then silence those works by people who are by definition counter-culture is counterintuitive. I witnessed it happen firsthand with Canadian street artist MissMe, who is the subject of a doc short film that played the festival called MissMe: The Artful Vandal.

We went out at midnight to put her work up. The first thing she points out is that there is virtually no graffiti, no street art, not even a sticker presence in the city. There are murals, but those are commissioned and meticulously planned by those who commission them. These paintings are carefully designed with a message in mind, and that message is imposed upon the public. But the public space doesn’t belong to one brand or company; it belongs to everyone, and having all dissenting voices silenced through bad cover up paint jobs leaves a kind of subconscious psychic scarring. Wandering around Austin, even the alleyways are spotless—the dumpsters have paint patches and every nook of the downtown area is clean. The city looks like it was taken out of the box yesterday.

We stay out until three in the morning and she puts up about 30 pieces around the city. Two go up on the Mr. Robot installation, which has the appearance of street art all over it before we touch it. But the next morning only seven of her pieces are still up, and the two on the Mr. Robot wall are gone.

“They put up fake street art and I give them the real thing and they fucking take it down!” she exclaims.

This isn’t a surprise to her—she half expected it—but I didn’t. In my naivety, I thought that they’d be up for a few days at least. I think about the Banksy piece at Park City that he put up when his film Exit Through the Gift Shop played at the Sundance Film festival. Now his stencil is behind a protective frame. Yet, here’s another street artist, with a film in a festival that takes place in a “counterculture” city, but, her work comes down immediately.

The big difference between the two is obvious—money. A Banksy piece is worth money. A wall filled with fake street art to promote Mr. Robot is worth money. A piece expressing discontent about the way society sees women, put up by an artist that doesn’t sell her work or attempt to buy into the art world—that comes down. And this is an excellent example of how SXSW and Austin are on the brink of losing the identity that they strive to hold on to.

If your city rips down street art the same night it goes up, you can no longer identify the city as being counterculture. Suppressing street art that is not commissioned while solely embracing a planned counterculture aesthetic creates a split identity, one that perpetuates the illusion of the counterculture world, but the reality of conditional corporate agendas. While this might not be indicative of the city as a whole, it is what the SXSW audience is exposed to, and what some can’t help but take away from it.

Clearly, it’s a period of transition for Austin and SXSW. The locals recognize it, but they’re optimistic. Whenever I ask how they feel about the changes, they say the city has morphed but the weird spirit is still there, and I can feel it within the community.

As the festival moves forward, its dedication to supporting the outsiders and up-and-comers will be more important than ever. The entire film business is shifting, and it’s getting harder for Independent filmmakers to make their pictures, let alone to get them seen. SXSW provides that opportunity to filmmakers and gives them a certain level of credibility, which is integral to those attempting to have a career. SXSW connects people, it cultivates a community that spans further than the Austin city limits, longer than the festival and that needs to continue. This year alone I heard countless stories of long-lasting and successful collaborations borne out of the festival—not at the networking sessions or red carpets, but at Cheer Up Charlies’ cash bar at the end of a five movie day, or flagging down the RVIP with a group of strangers after closing night ends just a tad too early for all this adrenaline. The community is as vibrant as ever, and maybe it’s worth it for McDonald’s to have an absurdly out-of-place activation at the fest if we can all laugh at that absurdity together.

But it’s also important that both attendees and festival organizers recognize the forces pushing against them, and that action is taken. The same goes for the city. It’s not a lost cause. Both Austin and SXSW have a huge advantage—a strong community and a large fan base. But reputation and fans go away if they aren’t looked after. It’s not enough to say “Keep Austin Weird” or to simply program independent and forward-thinking artists. It requires action and an understanding of what could be lost.