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Monday, March 11, 2013

ATL at SXSW: euphonia premieres and N4MD pitches

Lead actress Maria DeCotis, director Danny Madden, and producer Ben Wiessner promote euphonia outside the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center
  • Max Blau
  • Lead actress Maria DeCotis, director Danny Madden, and producer Ben Wiessner promote euphonia outside the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.
As South by Southwest's interactive and film conferences commence over the weekend in Austin, euphonia director Danny Madden and N4MD co-founder James Harris get straight to work.

Madden and the rest of the Ornana Films crew hit the streets on Friday night and Saturday afternoon to promote euphonia's world premiere. Director Danny Madden, taking cues from a scene from the movie, plays bucket drums spray-painted with details about the Saturday-night screening on the corner of Brazos and Sixth streets.

Some passers-by mistake Madden for a regular street performer. He looks the part as he wears a snowflake-pattern thrift-shop jacket while banging buckets and pans on a street corner. As he bangs away, producers Jim Cummings and Benjamin Wiessner strike up conversations with the onlookers before handing them promotional fliers that they crafted in their hotel room. Wiessner says that euphonia didn't have a set budget, but likely cost less than $1,000. "We paid more to come to SXSW than for the film," he says.

Producer Jim Cummings puts together a euphonia poster for the world premiere
  • Max Blau
  • Producer Jim Cummings puts together a euphonia poster for the world premiere.

Madden calls his brother Will, euphonia's lead actor who is currently in London, two hours before the screening the following afternoon. They talk for five minutes. He says that Will's big ear - a feature on one of the promotional stills - is all over everyone's phones and laptops throughout Austin. Although he doesn't embrace technology in the way so many SXSW-goers cling to their devices, it's interesting to hear them bond through a cell phone.

As we make the trek moments later to the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, the Ornana crew tells me that producer Ben Wiessner has agreed to eat 100 tacos while in Austin if they manage to sell out the 250-capacity venue. They're serious about filmmaking, but remain relaxed as the show approaches. Madden, a self-described "control freak," is worried about the soundcheck, the lighting, and other logistics. These are the things he can control. Who shows up is out of his hands.

Danny Madden runs through a soundcheck before the euphonia screening
  • Max Blau
  • Danny Madden runs through a soundcheck before the euphonia screening.

The screening draws around 150 people, with most sticking around to hear Madden deconstruct the movie's concepts. It goes smoothly, and has received early favorable reviews, though Madden points out that the sound was quieter than he wanted. One person walks out, too, which he says was noticeable enough to distract the audience during a subtle-but-pivotal moment in the film. After they finish with the premiere, the crew debriefs and lays out a game plan for the final two screenings, which take place tomorrow at 11 a.m. and Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, James Harris focuses Friday and Sunday on N4MD once the startup charter bus arrives in Austin. Like many other startups, Harris is a small fish at a conference that also attracts major corporations that throw money at events, exhibition spaces, and promotions. With none of that at his disposal, he dedicates a good portion of his time to shaking hands, networking, and connecting with others.

On Friday morning, he stops by the Blacks in Technology events to see some acquaintances. After greeting others and sending his first-time startups into the SXSW wilderness, he heads over to the Startup Village at the Hilton. The room is a meeting place where entrepreneurs can connect with other business-minded individuals. It also allows small companies to pitch ideas to participating corporations.

Harris sits down with Unilever executives to pitch his content-aggregating Flipboard publisher. The product combs the Internet for relevant content - say, gardening for Home Depot - and saves people time looking for such articles. It fills a need for many companies looking for editorial help, but it's not the easiest product to envision.

To explain the concept, the 46-year-old entrepreneur places four Vinylmation toy figures, which he originally bought for his daughter, onto the table during sales pitches. They seem frivolous and gimmicky at first, but they ultimately do the trick. "No one ever rejects them," he says. "One lady asked if she could keep the second."

James Harris busts out his toy figures to demonstrate what N4MD does to Unilever executives
  • Max Blau
  • James Harris busts out his toy figures to demonstrate what N4MD does for several Unilever executives.

These figures allow Harris to disarm business executives who are bombarded with an array of proposals all weekend. Gathering around his 17-inch MacBook, Harris then walks them through N4MD's platform and answers an assortment of questions. He thinks he's able to cut through the noise and feels confident that he'll hear from them in the near future. "It took N4MD two years to get the point where we can put an idea on the table and companies say, 'Yes, we need that,'" he says.

James Harris makes his pitch to Sheila Marmon after the Blacks in Technology sessions
  • Max Blau
  • James Harris makes his pitch to Sheila Marmon after the Blacks in Technology sessions.

On Sunday, Harris attempts to arrange a few last-minute meetings for SXSW. Pandora, Samsung, and Flipboard are all in the works at one point or another. He'll talk to Scripps Networks - which owns HGTV, Food Network, and the Travel Channel - today for a meeting. Other impromptu conversations with companies such as AT&T and Roku happen unexpectedly as well. Before he heads back east to Atlanta, he'll try to make the most of his final day in Austin, bringing his four partners in crime along for the ride.

Dog Bite won't arrive until Wednesday, so stay tuned for more on its SXSW happenings. I'll post another update on Wednesday and will continue to tweet throughout the festival over at @MaxBlau.

To see all the installments from this year's SXSW conference, go here.

And remember, SXSW-bound Atlantans, use the #SXSWATL hashtag.

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