Make a Scene: Lessons From South By Southwest

Four SXSW success stories share their advice for an effective festival showing.

For Lena Dunham, this year’s South By Southwest festival may be like coming home. Kicking off today, the Austin, Texas-based fest was where the then 23-year-old’s first major film, Tiny Furniture, premiered in 2010 and wound up snagging the Best Narrative Feature prize, a boatload of critical praise, and a distribution deal with IFC Films. Dunham returned to SXSW in 2012 with Judd Apatow to debut her HBO series, Girls, and returns again this year as a keynote speaker. Dunham is one of a long, long list of creative professionals for whom SXSW has served as an invaluable career launch pad. With debuts ranging from Twitter to The White Stripes, the festival has developed a well-deserved reputation for helping relative unknowns become major players. To celebrate this year’s conference we asked a few of SXSW success stories to weigh in on what they learned from their festival experience. While this advice definitely applies to those whose projects make it into any artist festival, it also works for creators who are showcasing their work in an unofficial capacity. 

Think Personally

SXSW is less about uncovering the next trends and more about showcasing projects that change the way people think. Year after year, the breakout films, music, and interactive projects are oftentimes the ones that push the envelope in terms of how their message is delivered and how audiences and users can apply it to their own lives.

Laura Ruel says that her group’s efforts to create new ways of storytelling is a significant part of how they ended up walking away with a 2012 SXSW Interactive Award in the student category. An associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s journalism school and an executive producer of Coal: A Love Story, Ruel and a team of 11 other students and faculty created an interactive narrative that blended traditional video documentary with online tools that allowed viewers to see how the use of coal issues affected them.

It wasn’t just one type of media that really sold the project, but I feel like it was the way we put together all the different forms of media and had them coalesce in the way that was overwhelming and bigger than any individual piece in and of itself,” Ruel says.

Thinking personally also applies to both projects and potential collaborators. Even if you don’t have a project to show off, officially or unofficially, reach out to creatives you’d like to personally connect with while there and do it early.

[SXSW] is not the kind of place where you just would go and say, ‘Well, I’ll just show up there and see what comes to me,’” says Ruel. “[It’s about] really figuring out what you want to see and who you want to meet. [Our students] did do quite a bit of prep before they went and they put themselves in a good position to meet people.”

Get Feedback

It’s easy to get caught up in the parties, the networking and the press opportunities, and completely forget that festivals like SXSW are really an opportunity to see how your project fares with the people it was meant to serve. Jeff Malmberg, the director who won the 2010 Documentary Feature grand jury prize for his film Marwencol, advises new festivalgoers to pay attention.

South By Southwest was the first time that a real audience saw our movie, so it was really the birth of the film in my mind,” he says. “It’s one thing to have your friends and family say, ‘Oh, nice job. We love your movie,’ but it’s another thing to have a real audience, so to speak, respond in the way that they did. I remember after that first screening just feeling that huge sense of relief that they got it.”

Noting how viewers engage with your work can also help make your project better in case it is picked up for wider distribution.

Even after [the film] played South By Southwest, we made edits based off that audience reaction because it was really a chance to see your film kind of start to take its first steps out into the world,” Malmberg says. “Amid all the hubbub, don’t forget to appreciate and watch closely the experience of an audience taking in the film.”

Get Help

One way to carve out more time to observe audiences is to have help. Before debuting Brooklyn Castle, a documentary on an after-school chess program in an inner city New York high school, director Katie Dellamaggiore enlisted the help of a reputable sales agent and publicist.

My big piece of advice is to have a publicist, especially at one of these larger festivals, that’s not only working for you but that really cares about the film,” she says “When you have a publicist that’s pushing the film, that in turn pushes the interest from distributors because they’re reading about it in the papers, hearing the buzz. It all kind of goes hand in hand.”

Of course ponying up for a publicist may be outside the budget for many smaller projects. A cheaper alternative is to create a publicity strategy for your project and enlist a few eager volunteers help juggle the responsibilities.

Work the Media

Whether your project has officially made it into the festival or you’re promoting it in an unofficial capacity, it pays to have a media outreach plan. That means doing some serious public relations work before making the Austin trek, says Brett Bagenstose, founder of Neo-Pangea, a Pennsylvania-based digital production boutique agency. Last year, the group snapped up a finalist spot in the SXSW Interactive Awards for Intern Abuser, a device that allowed users from all over the world to remotely trigger a NERF gun and amusing booby traps on a live “intern.” Launching before SXSW, the Intern Abuser event lasted about 20 hours and brought in approximately 20,000 participants from 67 countries worldwide.

We saw a lot of people [at SXSW] who just showed up, had their project in their booth, and just kind of let people come to them, but the more successful projects that got the most attention were people that before they went, they set up media interviews and they got their press releases out there. They already had a full day booked with interviews with press outlets,” says Bagenstose.

To drum up media attention before reaching the festival, the Neo-Pangea crew sent “intern repair kits,” complete with a dart gun and bandages along with their press materials to publications who may be interested in the project.

Dellamaggiore says that newbies without strong name recognition can also publicize their project by finding a local angle, even if the project has a strong national focus. Before Brooklyn Castle won the 2012 Documentary Spotlight Award, Katie’s team helped promote the movie by arranging a chess match between some of the kids featured in the film and children from local Austin schools.

We were able to make it into a community event that I think definitely helped with building the buzz in a way that’s hard to do sometimes with smaller films like ours that are at a big festival,” says Dellamaggiore. “You have to find a way to make it relevant to audiences that have a lot of films to choose from.”

Stay Flexible

Having a plan to maximize the festival is a smart idea, but stay open to things you may not be able to plan for, advises Ruel.

Be able to capitalize on impromptu opportunities that come to you when you’re there,” she says. “I think when our students were there, that was probably the thing that made [SXSW] so successful. They kind of knew the things that they wanted to go see, but they were also open to meeting somebody new and talking with somebody new and going to different events that maybe weren’t on their radar initially.”

Only a few projects land major festivals awards and an even smaller number gain viral media attention, but many attendees leave the fest with valuable networking contacts, new collaborators, and fresh clients they may have hobnobbed with simply by chance. Bagenstose says that his company’s SXSW experience led to Neo-Pangea adding VH1 and Smithsonian to their roster of clients.

The greatest part for us was meeting those people,” he says. “Now we get to work with some of them too.”

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