'Westworld,' 'Roseanne' battle for influencers at SXSW

Key Points
  • Big media companies like HBO are investing in immersive experiences for small groups of influencers at SXSW.
  • They are hoping they can turn all the Instagramming visitors into evangelists for their brands.
SXSW: Content creators go all-in on fan experience

South by Southwest is now just as much about big media as it is about tiny start-ups.

The annual gathering — this year drawing more than 400,000 people to Austin, Texas — is considered the ultimate destination for content companies to stick out from the clutter and connect with influencers.

This year HBO's "Westworld" won the battle for most dramatic "activation" — or branded experience. The show pulled out all stops with an immersive park that was far more elaborate, and similar to the show, than anything we've seen at the festival over the past decade.

Attendees were given either a white or black Stetson-style hat, and bused 20 minutes outside Austin to 2-acre town Sweetwater, built around an existing ghost town. Visitors enter from a futuristic portal into a train car — the very one used on the show — and then exit into the dusty town.

"Westworld" fans can engage with 60 actors and a half dozen stuntmen, who never break character.

All the hotspots from the show are featured: Visitors can play cards and drink bourbon in the Mariposa Saloon, chow down on baked beans and jerkey, watch knife throwing and a blacksmith. And the actors put on quite a show — the robots "break down," staging a fight and shoot out. Plus, there were plenty of hints about the upcoming season — including a samurai warrior wandering around.

Although just about 4,000 people will experience the park — and it looks like it cost a couple million dollars to execute, though HBO won't comment — the network says it was worth it.

"A lot of our hosts here are armed with guns but our guests are armed with cameras, so they're they're out here Instagramming, live-streaming, you know and really helping us extend the reach," said HBO's Steven Cardwell, director of program marketing.

Cardwell says it's key to create an experience on the same level as HBO's brand.

"There were 500 scripted shows last year alone. You know how can you make them stand out?" he asked. "You know our our marketing is an extension of that content. So where we go, we want to go big."

It wasn't just premium cable investing to grab consumers' attention. Warner Bros., promoting Steven Spielberg's upcoming film "Ready Player One," took over a huge two-floor space in downtown Austin. Downstairs were a number of sets from the film, and colorful backdrops for fans to snap and tweet photos. Upstairs, the decor continued, into a maze of rooms, with virtual reality goggles and controllers, to play a series of games straight out of the film. Lines snaked around the block, and fans got geared up for the movie, which premiered at the festival Sunday night.

Even broadcaster ABC made a play for viewers. Looking to stoke nostalgia for the return of "Roseanne," the network replicated the show's iconic diner and living room. Visitors could pick up free pie and meat sandwiches, pose on the famous couch or around that familiar kitchen table, and meet the actors.

ABC's director of strategic partnerships, Laura Lovas, says while the network expects around 3,000 visitors to the "Roseanne" setup, it expects the reach to be far larger. "I think consumers are looking for unique experiences and everything needs to be Instagrammable," so were looking to provide that and bring them into the show, and get them excited to tune in on March 27th."

TV ratings are in decline, there's more competition from Netflix and Amazon than ever, and box office erceipts declined last year. So these traditional media companies are hoping they can turn all the Instagramming visitors into evangelists for their brands.