Demystifying SXSW: “It’s Got a Life of Its Own”
By Serbino Sandifer-Walker
Landing an interview with Louis Black is kind of like winning the lottery or maybe on this day, for this journalist, being in the right place at the right time. Moving swiftly through a crowd of budding filmmakers at an enterprise he co-founded, Black says this 25-year journey has been one “hell of a ride.”
“I’m blessed,” Black says modestly like a proud father.
Blessed and some would even say the ultimate innovator. His innovation: South by Southwest (SXSW).
In 2012, it is projected that thousands of people from across the globe will pour into Austin, Texas to participate in this music and media enterprise from March 9-18. This year, the venture features multiple components including an interactive show, music and film festivals, education and environmental divisions. Last year, SXSW added nearly $170 million to Austin’s economy and drew a crowd of 286,000, says published reports. This year that number is expected to be much higher.
Black’s March 13 film festival awards, where he graciously takes a backseat role to young upstarts, is one of his favorites.
“There’s no arrogance here,” says Black. “The idea is that there is a huge community of creative people who are filmmakers and there is an audience for those films.”
Black says digital technology has made moviemaking less corporate and more authentic.
“The audience that watches the films and makes the films are the next generation of filmmakers,” says Black. “The idea is that given the current technology, modern technology, anyone can make a movie and everybody should. Everybody should have the same opportunities.”
Sean Baker is one of those young moviemakers. His film Starlet was recognized at the festival with a best performance award for lead actress Besedka Johnson. He says there’s no other Film Festival like SXSW.
“South by Southwest is known for its daring programming,” says Baker. “I just wanted to be a part of this.”
Francesca Silvestri is the film’s producer. She adds that SXSW lets moviemakers step outside of the box and create narratives that
resonate with American culture. She also credits Baker with being a gifted filmmaker.
“He has this amazing ability to zero in on niches in American culture and use a verities style to shine a light and tell stories in a beautiful natural way,” says Silvestri.
Grasping every component of the SXSW can be a daunting task. It started as a music festival in 1987 at the Austin Convention Center with 700 participants. It cost about $10 to attend back then; today prices range from $500 to over $1,000. Black, Nick Barbaro, Roland Swenson, who were all associated with the Austin Chronicle, an alternative news publication, laid the foundation for SXSW.
Today it attracts national headliners from pop, hip-hop and rock. Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech for the music festival on March 14. The interactive show attracted legions of entrepreneurs, bloggers, techies and start-up want-to-bes. Twitter and Foursquare got a huge boost from touting their ventures at SXSW a few years back. The SXSW-ECO is scheduled Oct 3-5.
Black theorizes that the rise of SXSW can be attributed to Austin’s eclectic culture and American ingenuity. It’s a place where legions are inspired and dreams become reality.
What happens next?
“My son is 21 and that’s like asking what is he going to do next. I don’t know. It’s (SXSW) got a life of its own. It’s been a hell of a ride. It has been an incredible ride and hope it keeps it up,” says Black with a tilt of the head and a bashful reflective smile.