Virtual SXSW allows wider reach, deeper experience

Converting classic Austin event to an online event wasn’t easy, perfect or without drawbacks, but it did create new opportunities to explore innovate technologies, network

This+year%2C+the+South+by+Southwest+festival+was+held+completely+virtually+as+a+result+of+the+COVID-19+pandemic.+The+conference+was+held+from+March+16-20+and+showcased+online+recordings+of+band%2C+films%2C+and+a+diverse+range+of+speakers.

Alice Scott

This year, the South by Southwest festival was held completely virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was held from March 16-20 and showcased online recordings of band, films, and a diverse range of speakers.

Alice Scott, staff reporter

In early March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun to make its way to Austin, shutting down the community and shuttering one of the cities most notable events: the South by Southwest Festival. Now, one year later, SXSW is back, bringing its classic music, film, comedy, and speaker content to a completely virtual audience.

“We realized we were going to need some sort of online component, fairly early.” Justin Bankston, a Chief Technology Officer at SXSW said. “Last spring we hoped we could do in-person stuff, enhanced with some virtual stuff, but as we got deeper into the summer and fall, we realized that we probably weren’t going to be able to do anything in person that was of any scale. So, we decided to double down on a fully online experience.”

The online festival was held from March 16-20 and allowed audience members to tune in to the conference from any device, on television with the SXSW app, or even through virtual reality with SXSW XR. 

Bands have a different sort of outlook on things than filmmakers or conference speakers, so there was a real challenge to design an overall program.”

— Justin Bankston, chief technology officer at SXSW

“I thought the XR component was amazing,” SXSW Senior Office Manager David Fox said. “SXSW made virtual neighborhoods re-creating the stretch of Congress that has the Jones Center and the Paramont and the State Theaters. They were all to scale so that you could walk into the buildings and walk around. It was kind of uncanny.”

The process for designing a completely online festival was difficult. An event that would normally take an entire year to prepare, required even more planning and rearranging to make the event safe, while still bringing the same energy of a live experience.

“Designing a scaled down version of our event for an online audience was the first step,” Bankston said.“I don’t think any of [the festivals] were easy; they all had different requirements. Bands have a different sort of outlook on things than filmmakers or conference speakers, so there was a real challenge to design an overall program.”

Despite the difficulties, the virtual format has allowed for the opportunity of more participants and speakers, who might not be able to attend in a regular year.

“What’s amazing is being able to welcome people to participate, who previously couldn’t perhaps because of travel expense, or just the general ability to get to Austin, Texas,” Bankston said. “Now people anywhere they are can participate in the event so that’s an obvious upside.”

The Austin Convention Center — where SXSW usually takes place — was left empty in early March 2020 after the cancellation of the South by Southwest Festival over fears of the novice COVID-19 virus beginning to make its way to Austin. (Alysa Spiro)

An extensive event — with showcases of over 280 domestic and international bands, keynote speeches from Stacy Abrams, Pete Buttigieg and country singer Willie Nelson, along with other notable speakers, and an extensive film festival with Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, Alone Together, and Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free headlining — the online environment also allows more flexibility in attending the conference’s different events.

“I’m excited about seeing more,” McCallum senior cinematic arts major Alex Martinez said. “Through the virtual setting, you’re able to jump from one event to another very easily, so I’m excited about that.”

One of the things that is most valuable about South By is the opportunity people have to meet new people and network and reestablish relationships with people. While the festival has tried several things this year to re-create that it is difficult to do online.

— David Fox, SXSW senior office manager

Martinez was not only an attendee, but was a participant in the film festival, with his short film Wired Shut being shown to those with passes to the festival.

“I submitted the film to SXSW a couple of months back, months go by and I got an email saying I was accepted,” Martinez said. “I suspected there would be more films to compete against, as artists have more time to create, and writers have more time to write. I didn’t think my film would get in, but I guess it’s just a weird year for films in general.”

Although films can easily be shown online, a drawback is lack of relationships that are formed during a virtual conference.

“This is very different from previous years because everything was in person in the past, but that’s how filmmakers met other filmmakers,” Martinez said. “That’s how relationships formed and that’s why this year is different. SXSW will be hosting Zoom meeting where people can mingle, but it’s not the same.”

For a festival that is built upon the principle of connections and the exchange of ideas, the loss of in-person interactions was a disappointment.

One of the things that is most valuable about South By is the opportunity people have to meet new people and network and reestablish relationships with people,” Fox said. “While the festival has tried several things this year to re-create that it is difficult to do online.” 

The losses, however, brought new opportunities and a presentation SXSW in a completely different way, making use of new technologies and creating a fulfilling event.

A mix of experimental and documentary style filmmaking, senior Alex Martinez’s short Wired Shut follows his experience in a major bike accident that led to having his jaw ‘wired shut.’ The film was shown virtually during SXSW Online through the festival’s limited time streaming platform. (courtesy of Alex Martinez)

“I’m really excited about our online event,” Bankston said. “I think it’s going to be outstanding, so I’m excited to present it to the world.”

For festival goers, the format of the event was different, but still held close the fundamentals of South by Southwest.

“I hope they’ll take away the same thing that they always have, which is inspiration, connections, you know, getting better results in their creative life.” Bankston said.