Film Festivals: Ellie Stackhouse

After another successful year for both RiverRun and Reynolda Film Festivals I thought I would look into another festival I have always wanted to attend: South by Southwest.

In 1987 a music festival was started in downtown Austin by staff members of The Austin Chronicle, Ronald Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro with the help of a local booking agent Louis Meyers. They named the event South by Southwest, playing on the location and the famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest. Expecting a very small crowd, the group was shocked when over 700 people from a variety of locations attended the first event. Despite being isolated in the middle of Texas, the popularity and size only grew. The local music scene was intriguing and it quickly attracted national and international attention. As the music scene in Austin grew it brought other creative industries to the city like film and technology that in 1994 South by Southwest chose to highlight by adding a film and interactive component to the conference. The conference has never stopped growing, now bringing over 48,000 people to downtown Austin every March. The music festival is now one of the largest in the United States, boasting 2,000 performances in 90 venues. The interactive conference has become a major breeding ground for new and creative ideas and technologies. The film festival focuses on highlighting new directing talent. It is able to draw attention to itself by hosting big Hollywood premieres or having famous guests, but it continues to find and highlight new and relevant directing talent and films. The Austin culture, the different events the festival hosts, and it’s ability to value add have created a unique festival culture that has become a household name and a prominent part of the festival circuit.SXSW

One of the key features of the festival is it’s dependent relationship with the city of Austin. Austin boasts that it is “Live Music Capital of the World” and the “Film Capital of Texas.” It is described as a place where a “big city meets laid-back college town.” (Austin) The cosmopolitan nature and energy of the University of Texas, the history of the state capital and the creativity of downtown blend to give Austin its extremely unique and entertaining culture. Austin ‘s culture creates a perfect environment for SXSW and the events of SXSW attract large crowds to the city and promotes the culture Austin is trying to project. SXSW would not be the same without Austin and Austin would not be the same without SXSW. SXSW is able to take advantage of the already present Austin culture and expand on it and bring attention to it and it has become the event that brings the most revenue into the city. The setting of downtown is the perfect mix of venues, a party scene, and culture. The Austin local business mantra, “Keep Austin Weird”, is truly represented in the atmosphere of 6th and 4th street right in the center of downtown. The Festival is hosted in 10 Venues throughout downtown Austin. The theaters holds audiences ranging from 1200 to 39. This gives the festival the ability to make a screening as intimate or grand as they want depending on the film. The creators of the festival saw the potential of Austin to be the host for the world of creativity and new ideas.

The Festival hosts a number of competitions, events and screenings that help to create its identity. Film Awards are given to both feature length and short narratives and documentaries. Awards are given based on the opinion of a jury panel and the audience favorites. Awards are also given for title sequence and poster design. This year just under 2000 feature length narrative and documentary films were submitted to the competition and 16 were selected. Other feature length films shown are either as Headliners or Narrative or Documentary Spotlight Films. Headliners “bring star power to SXSW, featuring red carpet premieres and gala film events with some major and rising names in cinema.” ( Spotlight Films provide a premiere for a variety of higher profile films. By separating films into three levels the festival is able to provide a variety of needs and host a variety of options for its audience. The festival also host a Texas High School Film Competition for short films made by Texas high school students. There are also a variety awards given in more specific categories for each film. Some aspects of SXSW screenings that have become tradition are “Bumpers” the short and unique clips created by a group of directors and shown before each screening and “Midnighters” screenings that are reserved for “scary, funny, sexy and controversial” films. ( The festival also includes a variety of panels, interviews, and workshops for audiences. There is also the opportunity to sign up for specialized hands-on workshops, meetings, and participate in a mentor program. “The SXSW Mentor Program allows SXSW registrants the opportunity to sign up with a well- established industry professional for short, one-on-one sessions to ask questions and discuss career-related advice.” ( The festival attracts a very unique and broad audience of filmmakers established and aspiring, distributors, press, critics, and just film fans, the variety of screenings and events reaches out to all aspect of the audience.

The mission of the Film Festival at a most basic level is to find and highlight new directing talent. It is a festival for the “for the Working Filmmaker, Industry Pro and Film Fan Alike.” ( The identity and mission that the festival embraces is to “provide a forum for new voices in filmmaking, a community where filmmakers can celebrate and support oneanother and a source of discovery for the future landscape of film.” ( The festival boast about diversity in both the films it screens and the audience it attracts. It also focuses on the opportunities to network at a variety of levels in through the festival, whether it is an emerging film maker in a mentor meeting, a spotlight film that is offered a distribution deal, or a new director or writer that is offered the opportunity to head up a new project.

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One Response to Film Festivals: Ellie Stackhouse

  1. This was a good read. Have you been to SXSW? If so, would you say it is dominated by either film or music? In other words, does one overpower the other at the event?

    — Zachary Sanfilippo

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