South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual convergence of music, film and technology, begins Friday in Austin.
The City of San Antonio will not, as usual, have a formal presence at a conference that last year registered more than 44,000 entrepreneurs, musicians, filmmakers, and fans yearly from around the world. But individuals from San Antonio-area businesses, organizations, and creative industries will be either officially participating or simply attending to network, gather information and be entertained.
Rene Dominguez, director of the San Antonio Economic Development Department’s (EDD) media and resource center said last week that his department had considered making an official visit to SXSW this year on the City’s behalf, but the department wants more time to formulate a brand and strategy.
“We want to make sure we do it right, so we are looking at next year to be there in an official capacity,”Dominguez added.
The film and interactive portions of the festival start Friday, with major music activities beginning March 17.Dominguez and other city personnel said they acknowledge the many benefits that can be reaped by attending or participating in the festival.
Some observers – especially quite a few Austinites – see SXSW as something that has strayed from its roots into something overly corporate and more of an irrelevant party than an informational resource. But others say SXSW remains a conference worth attending and using.
SquadUP, an event-organizing platform that regularly has a presence at SXSW, examined data from attendees and events in the last two years and cross-referenced the figures from regular, lower scale networking gatherings with those from SXSW activities. Their findings were revealed in a recent Entrepreneur article.
SquadUP found that at SXSW, the levels of attendee quality and the intent to network and buy are higher than at other events. SquadUP also found SXSW attendees are younger, upwardly mobile, and more social media-savvy than attendees of other conferences.
San Antonio will have its share of the film festival spotlight. The San Antonio Film Commission (SAFC), as part of the Texas Association of Film Commissions, will be at the SXSW Film Texas reception Saturday at Scholz Garten. The SAFC is a division of the San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development.
“It’s really a cool way to meet filmmakers before we fill out our dance cards and determine what film screenings we’ll see,” said local commission director Drew Mayer-Oakes. “It’s a way to get leads, and build and continue working relationships.”
Mayer-Oakes said San Antonio-area filmmakers and advocates have much to boast about heading into SXSW. More films are being partially or entirely filmed and set on location, including one, “Petting Zoo,” which will be screened at SXSW. (More on that below.)
MovieMaker Magazine named San Antonio one of its “Top 10 Large Cities to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” in the publication’s winter 2015 issue. The publication focuses on independent cinema.
It’s the first time San Antonio has made the Top 10 list after being included in the magazine’s “Up and Coming” section in recent years, joining the ranks of Austin, New York City, Portland, San Francisco and Atlanta.
“San Antonio is a city that supports and fosters moviemaking, and this recognition highlights the efforts by the San Antonio Film Commission to make San Antonio one of the country’s most respected and recognized cities for filmmaking,” said City Manager Sheryl Sculley in a news release.
“For my team, filming and posting in San Antonio made perfect sense,” said director, writer, and producer Kerry Valderrama in the same release about “Sanitarium.” That film stars Malcolm McDowell, Lou Diamond Phillips and Lacey Chabert, along with local talent.
“We were able to create ‘Sanitarium’ in San Antonio, hiring most of our key actors and crew right here in the city,” Valderrama added.
According to Mayer-Oakes, San Antonio is seeing a shift from “weekend filmmakers” who shoot content for independent works on shoestring budgets toward serious commercial projects.
In 2012, the SAFC launched the Local Filmmakers Grant, a competitive grant for which San Antonio-area filmmakers may apply. Such applicants must have at least $25,000 in funding commitments and have a feature-length work in pre-production stage. One applicant was the group behind the movie “Petting Zoo,” a drama about the choices a teenager faces with an unplanned pregnancy. The “Petting Zoo” crew was not awarded the grant but, as Mayer-Oakes explained, but funding still came though.
“Even though they didn’t get the grant, the producers pushed themselves to secure a final round of funds to fully finance and finish their movie,” he added.
“Petting Zoo,” which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, is scheduled for three screenings during SXSW. Writer and Director Micah Moore, a San Antonio native, said in press materials that the movie was shot “in the places of my childhood. … I wanted to highlight the kinds of people in the film, and San Antonio itself. I think if you can be super specific about a community and a place, other local communities identify with that, too.”
Moore found her cast members through open call castings in San Antonio and Houston, and through student castings at her old high school, Clark. That’s where by chance she found then-student Devon Keller, who plays the film’s protagonist, Layla.
“We really have moved the needle,” Mayer-Oakes said, adding that overall spending on local cinematic productions is trending upwards and approaching the levels of productions found in Austin or Dallas.
“Local financiers are rewarded with financially viable productions. They’re confident their money is well spent, and they’re getting a return at a rate they’re comfortable with,” he also said.
As many San Antonians prepare to pack for Austin, those in the local film industry, as well as music and technology/interactive fields, are eager to receive useful lessons while advocating San Antonio, as a growing, vibrant, professional city.
“The beneficial thing about SXSW being 90 miles away is that we have an opportunity to promote San Antonio there,” said Molly Cox, interim president/CEO of the nonprofit SA2020.
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“Additionally, SXSW affords participants the opportunity to learn about best practices from throughout the country and bring new knowledge back to San Antonio.”
Cox described a need to “paint a more rich story” about this community and all that it offers. SXSW is a prime opportunity.
“We are city that dreamed of a brighter, bolder future in 2010, and we are a city that continues to build towards that future,” she said.
Through collaboration the city is making strides to improve community health resources, Cox said, and is seeing expansion in fields such as health care, bioscience, information technology and cyber security.
“Our collective work – connecting education and workforce – will give our city a blueprint for job growth that will be focused and provide a roadmap for our economic success,” she said. “Our downtown has seen an upturn in safety, development, and arts, making the core of our city a place for tourism and connectedness for our community.”
*Featured/top image: Pedro Castañeda is the lead in “Squeezebox,” a short film that was set and filmed in San Antonio and was recently screened at CineFestival. Courtesy image.