Every March, hundreds of thousands of musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs from around the world descend on Austin, Texas, in hopes of being discovered at South by Southwest. Now in its 27th year, the once-local festival has swelled to a nearly $200 million economic behemoth for Texas' capital city — up from $113 million just three years ago. That money largely comes from corporations and industry giants that, in turn, plaster the city with their iconic logos. This year, concertgoers watched musicians perform on a stage erected inside a six-story Doritos vending machine. Web geeks waited in a four-block line to share an Instagram photo taken with Grumpy Cat, the real-life version of the Internet meme. The conference's interactive component has particularly grown over the past five years, creating opportunities for emerging social media startups such as Twitter and Foursquare to become industry titans.
But with each passing year, name-brand business's hold on the festival gets tighter, leaving dwindling opportunities for the independent artists SXSW originally set out to promote. Media companies rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars at the annual event, while individual creators usually leave with less in their pockets than when they arrived. Nevertheless, the allure of the breakout SXSW appearance compels legions of musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs to make the trek.
This year, CL followed a group of Atlantans trying to make it at the 10-day festival: local band Dog Bite, euphonia director Danny Madden, and entrepreneur/N4MD co-founder James Harris. Everyone had the potential to make an impact in Austin, but even those with serious talent can get lost in the chaos.
SXSW Film: Danny Madden
Peachtree City native Danny Madden was the only metro Atlanta filmmaker officially selected to be a part of the SXSW 2013 Film Festival, and with good reason. The 25-year-old wrote and directed euphonia, a captivating film that depicts an adolescent male's growing obsession with a handheld Zoom audio recorder.
Madden filmed the 53-minute feature throughout the metro Atlanta area during July 2010 for less than $1,000. The movie uses experimental sound design techniques to explore how technological dependence can adversely affect personal relationships. The lead actor actually captures audio that's heard throughout the film. "You can see the film from the microphone's perspective and how it interacts with a kid who uses it to help him at first and then falls into excessive dependency on it," he says.
March 2013 was Madden's first time attending the social-media-dominated conference, even though his animated short "(notes on) biology" won a 2012 SXSW Jury Award. He and his fellow Ornana Films partners — including producers Jim Cummings and Ben Wiessner, and cinematographer Jonathan Silva — weren't pressing to make financial moves since they've already funded their low-budget film. Instead, Madden says they wanted to absorb as much knowledge about the film industry as possible.
"We're coming at it from a real privileged position," Madden said over the phone before SXSW from San Francisco, where he's currently based. "We're not expecting to make money back from [a prospective SXSW film deal]. We don't have high expectations for that. We feel like we can go in there with a 'take it as it comes' mind-set and push the movie out there."
The outspoken director attended Boston's highly regarded Emerson Film School. But the Georgia native started making movies at home while growing up in Peachtree City. He and his older brother would direct, while his younger brother (euphonia's leading man) helped.
Many SXSW-bound filmmakers, even those screening shorts, hire publicists or marketing professionals to help push their world premieres. Hundreds flock to red carpet galas for major motion pictures such as Spring Breakers or The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Madden and his team, however, handled press themselves. At night, the four filmmakers, plus lead actress Maria DeCotis, all crashed in a single hotel room. By day, their quarters converted into a DIY assembly line for crafting large posters, handmade fliers, and promotional labels. Madden and company then hit the streets with their handouts to promote euphonia's world premiere.
But rather than simply bombard uninterested passers-by with promotional materials, Madden took a cue from a euphonia scene featuring some Atlanta street performers. To re-create the scene, the Ornana Films crew purchased old pots, pans, and painter's buckets from a local shop. After spray-painting the premiere's details on a makeshift drum kit, Madden set up at the corner of Brazos and Sixth streets outside a high-profile "Bates Motel" party. While other film and TV fans waited in line for the event, he laid down drumbeats for nearly two hours. As he banged away, Cummings, Wiessner, and Silva struck up conversations with the curious onlookers and handed out fliers plugging euphonia's premiere the following night.
The next day, the Ornana Films team prepared for its first screening at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, a nearly 230-person venue. Madden, a self-described "control freak," meticulously attended to the event's details. He worried about the film's soundcheck, ambient lighting, and other logistics: the things he could control. Who and how many would show up were out of his hands. The screening drew around 150 people and received positive reviews from Film School Rejects, Paste magazine, and other outlets. But Madden says the sound was much quieter than he wanted. And one person walked out, which he thought distracted the audience during a subtle-but-pivotal moment in the film.
Two days later, euphonia's second screening filled the 70-person Alamo Ritz. Besides an occasional nacho crunch or bustling waitress, the screening went smoothly and engaging dialogues followed. Among those in attendance were These Birds Walk filmmaker Omar Mullick, a Pixar publicist, Skywalker Sound employees, and a German film festival programmer. "It felt right," Madden said with a big grin as he left the theater.
Aside from screenings and guerilla marketing, Madden watched as many films as possible. The entire team met with other filmmakers and networked with companies such as Canon and Vimeo. One conversation prompted the decision to partner with the online video website and stream euphonia for free, starting April 21.
For a young production team, meeting passionate, like-minded individuals helped put the work into perspective. The festival also allowed the filmmakers to rack other artists' brains. Madden particularly hit it off with Mullick, discussing everything from his Pakistani subjects to color-correcting techniques.
Madden, Wiessner, and Silva headed home before euphonia's final screening to prepare for the Atlanta Film Festival, where euphonia showed the following week. Cummings stuck around and noted that the film reached a different, older audience this time, likely because the screening was held at a satellite SXSW theater.
Madden seemed energized, surprisingly able to filter out SXSW's noise and engage in the kinds of conversations he came to have. Cummings, on the other hand, says he felt "lobotomized" after SXSW's sensory overload, but says the trip was a good experience even though they didn't make any money. Over six days, Ornana Films spent approximately $300 on food, $300 on promotional materials, and $2,300 for a single hotel room with a SXSW discount. "We paid more to come to SXSW than for the film," said Wiessner.
From the outset, though, Madden was more interested in the networking than the money: "Equally important is starting conversations and dialogue with people who are or aren't artists that come into the theater," he said before the trip.
"What is the monetary value of not going?" Cummings asked in an email following SXSW. "We met so many great people and made great friends that will help us to make more movies."
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