If in the words of John Steinbeck the best-laid plans often go awry, “controlled chaos” seems to be the operative expression to describe South-by-Southwest (SXSW) 2023. With so many offerings and tracks to choose from, at some point & on some level it seems prudent at an event like this to just give in to serendipity, destiny, or just plain luck and re-connect with old friends & colleagues where possible while checking out something that you might not normally see or experience while making new connections.
For those unfamiliar, SXSW is a regional music conference based in Austin, Texas, started in the late 80s that morphed to include Film & Interactive tracks to become an entertainment industry and emerging technology juggernaut. With a nod toward growing their presence in the Oceania/Asian market for those who irregularly make the 24-hour flight from “Down Under,” the SXSW brand continues to grow and will be going overseas for the first time with the announcement that SXSW Australia (Sydney) would be hosting their own branded incarnation of the conference from October 15th-October 22nd, 2023.
With SXSW Film head Janet Pierson stepping down after 15 years taking an emeritus status as her long-time second-in-command Claudette Godfrey takes the reins, it initially felt on the film/tv side during the festival’s opening weekend that perhaps “Southby” might lose some of its cache with the Academy Awards occurring on the same weekend. While some industry pundits reconcile the star-driven appeal of SXSW against its indie film roots, with Keanu Reeves in attendance for his movie “John Wick: Chapter 4” bookended by the personal appearances of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck premiering their Nike biopic movie “Air” to close SXSW the festival’s relevancy in Hollywood was at least put to rest.
One panel that caught this writer’s eye on the film and television track that encapsulated the film festival was “The Coherence Effect: Manifesting Shatter Belt“. An ultra-low budget movie by Hollywood studio standards, “Coherence” was a 2012 movie directed by James Byrkit and produced by Alyssa Byrkit through their production company Bellanova Films that has since become a cult classic. A graduate of CalArts, James Byrkit is a recognized storyboard artist in the industry who has worked on several of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise movies. Known for bringing extremely high production values to movies on a very low budget, Byrkit’s latest release “Shatter Belt” perfectly captures this craftsmanship.
Unlike a feature that one might find at a typical film fest, “Shatter Belt” is in fact a series that is “a collection of interconnected stories that follow the mysteries surrounding awareness, intention, desire, free will, and the uncanny nature of consciousness.” In layman’s terms, this anthology felt like a standalone 21st Century “The Twilight Zone” geared arguably toward the millennial set. In actuality four vignettes pieced together, Byrkit and cast showed 3 of these episodes of the series entitled “Inmotus,” “The Specimen,” and “Pearls” at the series world premiere held inside the Stateside Theater with actors J.J. Nolan, Elimu Nelson, and emerging A-lister Patton Oswalt all in attendance. Featuring an ethnically diverse and multi-faceted cast that felt 2023, the series has a “post-racial” feeling to it where characters lean less into their ethnicity and moreso into their career, education, and socio-economic status largely transcending the question of race with Nolan, Nelson, & actors Annie Rubie and Abigail Spencer manifesting this spirit while offering standout performances.
On the Interactive side of things, “If you build it they will come” mantras and metanarratives seem to have defined the technology side of matters. Interactive SXSW 2023 was an explosion of ideas with the themes of Web 3 and artificial intelligence everywhere in the tech realm particularly on display in the Creative Industries Expo inside of the Austin Convention Center. A platform for professionals & companies to showcase their work and innovations, connect with potential partners and clients, experience the latest trends/innovations in one’s respective fields, gain insights/inspiration from industry leaders/experts in advertising/marketing, fashion, film/television, music, gaming, & technology, the expo takes place over a few days featuring speakers, panels, and a keynote with William Shatner ostensibly serving as a symbolic representative to a standing-room only audience of approximately 1000 people that necessitated an overflow room.
Other highlights of the Creative Industries Expo included the fascinating personal air vehicles or “flying cars” getting a lot of buzz with the prototype of the “Eve Personal Air Vehicle” on display for all to see and akin to a splashy release at the Los Angeles Auto Show. An electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft being developed by EmbraerX, a subsidiary of the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer, the “Eve PAV” is designed to be a safe, convenient, and environmentally sustainable transportation option for urban areas which features a sleek, futuristic design with a cabin that can accommodate up to four passengers and a pilot. Powered by eight electric motors and capable of flying at a maximum speed of up to 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) and a range of up to 100 miles (160 kilometers) on a single charge, it is also designed to be significantly quieter than traditional helicopters, making it well-suited for urban environments where noise pollution is a concern. Currently collaborating with various partners to develop the infrastructure necessary for the Eve PAV to operate safely and efficiently in urban environments, including developing air traffic management systems, charging infrastructure, and support services, EmbraerX has announced plans to launch commercial operations of the Eve PAV as soon as 2026.
A self-described “cloud-based platform for fully immersive 3D multiplayer experiences that recreate true-to-life interactions and environments,” virtual world Mytaverse was another highlight at the expo and is a platform that allows users to create, explore, and monetize their own virtual reality experiences. Allowing users to interact with each other in virtual spaces and participate in events/activities and similar in concept to other virtual world platforms like Second Life, Mytaverse utilizes blockchain technology to enable secure transactions and ownership of virtual assets allowing users to create their own virtual spaces, which can range from simple environments to complex games or interactive experiences. Spaces can be monetized using cryptocurrency, allowing creators to earn revenue from their creations which can also be used to purchase virtual assets, such as land or items which can also be traded with other users.
When the film and tech crowd rolled out after the 1st weekend, the music crowd rolled in as the conference moved away from movie theaters and the Austin Convention Center into the myriad of clubs that host live music events. Highlights from this vantage point included a Merge Records showcase at the Continental Club (with the band Superchunk returning to Mohawk Outdoor at the Rough Trade Publishing/Academy Fight Songs/Centeic Music showcase after a long hiatus to SXSW) as well a live performance of 80s Berlin-based stalwarts Tangerine Dream playing their ambient music which was by far this listener’s high point in terms of music.
Patricia Vonne presented her OFFICIAL SXSW Music showcase “Latinapalooza” at Cooper’s Barbecue featuring an all-Latina lineup. Presented by Lafayette Travel, Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House, Lafayette Economic Development Authority and Louisiana Entertainment, the Lafayette Sheauxkaze and Crawfish Boil was held at Antone’s for their annual event showcasing the music of Acadiana. As the music industry and the SXSW Music footprint contracts, it should be noted all four of the shows were filled to capacity at their respective venues.
During a SXSW Music panel entitled “Journey from Novice to Entertainment Industry Pro” Jolene Chevalier from “How to Concerts” was asked to give some professional advice which appears to apply not only to all artistic industries but perhaps many aspiring business entrepreneurs in general:
“Don’t compare yourself to other people. When I take my daughter to get ice cream and she is upset that other kids have more sprinkles on their ice cream cones, I tell her if she is too concerned about how many sprinkles she has she shouldn’t be surprised if her own ice cream cone melts away.”
An apt metaphor for life and SXSW 2023.