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Achieving Creative Goals at SXSW National Science and Media Museum Festivals Director, Kathryn Penny, reports back from SXSW Conference and Festivals

Kathryn Penny (National Media Museum, Film Business Manager) reports back from SXSW 2017. Kathryn was supported to attend the event through the Film Hub North bursary scheme, for more information about the bursary scheme please click here. This is part two of a two part blog piece covering the conference, to read part one please click here

South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas is the world’s biggest creative conference. Its mission is to ‘help creative people achieve their goals’. So in writing this I thought I should reflect on what my goals were before I arrived. Other than having an amazing life and work experience I also wanted to:

- Raise the profile of the Widescreen Weekend film festival My role at the National Science and Media Museum involves delivering a number of events, but I was attending SXSW to speak about finding new audiences for celluloid film in the context of the Widescreen Weekend.

- Make new contacts. Specifically people who could bring great content to the Museum and our festival programmes.

- Watch films in the SXSW Film Festival. Despite working in a venue with 3 cinema screens, I’m currently watching an embarrassingly small amount of films in the theatre.

- See a huge international festival from an audience perspective

- Attend the SXSW games expo to source ideas for the new Yorkshire Games Festival.

Austin, TX
Austin, Texas

Here’s how that all panned out……

Raising the profile of Widescreen Weekend: The festival was profiled in the context of my panel Selling Celluloid. There was great enthusiasm for this panel and for hearing more about the Widescreen weekend amongst the SXSW staff. Austin is a city with a strong programme of 35mm and repertory screenings. Having an Austin based speaker on the panel (Lars Nilson, Austin film society) also went a long way to helping fly the flag of Widescreen Weekend to American audiences. I was surprised and pleased when I mentioned the Widescreen Weekend to a number of USA based exhibitors and distributors to hear it was already known to them.

New Contacts: Networking at SXSW is very easy. The largely North American crowd is a chatty group and the festival culture is to chat and share. I met some great people and scored some valuable business cards for future festival guests, included one printed on 16mm film. Best. Business. Card. Ever!

Watching Films: I naively thought that I would be zipping about from screening to screening each day. The reality was queuing for 90 minutes for the opening night film (Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) and not getting in. I did make it into the crowd for the world premiere of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. What an absolute blast to be watching a film like this in a 1200 seat theatre with a largely American audience who were not averse to whooping and clapping. A lot! Noel Wells’ Mr Roosevelt was also a highlight.

Edgar Wright and cast of Baby Driver
Edgar Wright and the cast of Baby Driver

Audience Perspective: It’s always reassuring to see that whatever the scale, festivals share the same common problems; AV not working, confused volunteers, late starting programmes. It was also reassuring to realise how acceptable this is to audience to a certain extent. In a festival that’s delivering 1000s of events, audiences expect and support a few niggles and teething problems. Delivering a quality programme is the best you can give your audience – even if it starts a bit late. I really enjoyed being an audience member in a variety of cinema screens during this trip and seeing the unique features of each one, including the slick food and drink service during screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse chain.

SXSW Gaming: Attending a gaming festival with no intention of playing games meant I could cover a lot of ground. I spoke to publishers, colleges, event organisers and indie companies to soak up knowledge and ideas to help develop the 2017 Yorkshire Games Festival coming this autumn. I have to mention going to the ‘Official Panel of Sonic the Hedgehog’. It was amazing to see the enthusiasm for this franchise and audiences going crazy for tiny glimpses of artwork from the new Sonic Mania game. I also thought it was a genius move of SEGA to get the audience completely on board with late delivery of their new product to ensure they could ‘give them the best possible game.’

Sneaky peek at new Sonic Boss
Sneaky peak at new Sonic Mania Boss

Live gaming tournament set up
Live e-gaming tournament set up

I would love to go back to SXSW. It’s a one stop shop for someone working across multiple creative disciplines. Passes for the conference and festivals are very costly though, so attending as a speaker is a good way to access a pass and raise the profile of your event or organization. I hope to have something suitable to share in the future that will take me back to Austin.