At SXSW: Tech, Pop Culture, Fun

A view of the podium onstage at the 2012 SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.
Hutton Supancic | WireImage | Getty Images
A view of the podium onstage at the 2012 SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

This week, the crosscurrents of technology and pop culture are coursing through Austin.

Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey and Jack Black are making appearances in the Texas capital at the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) soiree. So are technology innovators such as America Online co-founder Steve Case and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.

The festival, launched in 1989 to draw attention to this city's vibrant music scene, has morphed into a magnet for technology companies — start-ups and large corporations alike — and Hollywood, too. SXSW Interactive runs through Tuesday, giving way to the music festival that runs through Sunday; SXSW's film portion ends Saturday.

The self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World has an embarrassment of riches over the coming week with guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Norah Jones and Lionel Richie.

It's a mash-up of extreme proportions. Moseying along its famed Sixth Street, you could rub elbows with a Super Bowl champion (Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings spoke on an online fantasy sports panel), a famous TV actor (The Office's Rainn Wilson pontificated about Web-based creativity) or a professional video gamer.

The tens of thousands of techies, filmmakers, actors and musicians all have in common the desire to become — or discover — the next breakthrough hit in technology, film or music. "There are a lot of influencers here," says well-known blogger Robert Scoble. "We come to get rejuvenated and find out what (are) the latest things."

Adds Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, a trend-spotting company that works with brands such as Dell that are seeking to engage the Millennial generation: "You've literally got some of the smartest people in the world and some of the richest people in the world (here) who are just so laid-back, cool and open about ideas and creativity."

The festival and its operators have demonstrated what Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis calls "intelligent flexibility" by showcasing the latest in film and technology. "There is a kind of understanding that in a lot of ways all of these things are emerging out of the same world, and there's an overlap," he says. "The lines are much less clear than they ever were before, so why pretend? Just throw everybody into the same bin."

More than 50,000 are expected to officially pass through the Austin Convention Center during the 10-day festival, plagued by a dreary cold rain until Sunday's return to sunshine and warmer temperatures. But thousands more people organize, perform and attend neighboring events that bask in SXSW's glow. For aspiring start-ups, the rain, thunder, gridlock and crowds are worth it. "It is chaotic and a bit of a hassle, but it is a great place to meet clients and have random encounters," says Victoria Ransom, CEO of Wildfire Interactive.

Some technologies getting buzz here:

Highlight, a people search app, and Glancee, another app that combines your location with the likes and dislikes of other smartphone users nearby, are trending topics in conversation and the subject of multiple panel discussions. "The whole idea of ambient social marketing is (that) your phone will tell you the person next to you is a Yankees fan, and if you are a Yankees fan, you should strike up a conversation with him or her," says Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive.

"We're giving the world a sixth sense," Highlight CEO Paul Davison says. "It's serendipity come to life in a social-media setting."

Clik, a new TV platform and downloadable app, lets you take control of any Internet-connected screen that has a browser, using your smartphone as the remote control. For example, at a party you could show YouTube video on your friend's TV by scanning your phone (iPhone or Android) across the TV.

Marvel Comics announced a digitally enhanced comic line and an augmented-reality app for iOS and Android devices that unlocks DVD extra-style content from print comic books, starting with Avengers vs. X-Men #1, out April 4.

Growing reputation

The importance of SXSW evolved over the years as reports of success stories that unfurled at the festival multiplied. In 2007, an as-yet-unheard-of social-media company named Twitter came to SXSW. "Who could imagine five years later it's a personal broadcast network for so many people," Forrest says.

Two years later, lightning struck again when Foursquare launched at SXSW. While the 15 million-member check-in-based app has not quite matched Twitter's 350 million, "It is heralded in this new wave of location-based technology, which we will see more of at SXSW 2012," Forrest says.

Companies hoping to get a bump out of SXSW include heavy hitters such as Microsoft, Samsung and Google, which literally built a village to make an indelible impression at SXSW.

Google Village is an enclave of four low-slung buildings on the outer edge of Austin. Typically a desolate outpost during the day in previous shows, the four-building campus — modeled after the famous Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. — was home to Android House, Maps House, Developers House and Discovery House.

Google's visible presence marked a change in its SXSW strategy, as rivals Facebook and Microsoft ratchet up their activities at the increasingly influential show. The ersatz Google campus in Texas is host to a Lego hackathon, readings, acoustic music set and comedy show.

Even the U.S. Army has invaded Austin, with a panel scheduled for Monday /today on how soldiers in the trenches deploy social media.

Still, the annual meet-up has a mellower and funkier feel than other annual trade gatherings, such as the International Consumer Electronics Show. Companies post bulletins on walls and support columns, a practice more likely seen on a college campus than a convention.

And the dress code ranges from business casual to slacker attire, which makes sense as the 1991 low-budget indie film Slacker was based and filmed here. The film's director, Richard Linklater, remains a festival regular, and he is on a panel Monday talking about his new TV series, Up to Speed, which is coming to Hulu later this year.

New Start-up Village

To continue fueling fledgling enterprises, SXSW Interactive has a new Start-up Village this year, part of festival operators' hopes to keep SXSW as "the place to get that initial push that will hopefully move (start-ups) toward adoption," Forrest says.

Even well-known brands come to buff their image. CNN was dishing out free food, at least to attendees invited inside the CNN Grill. And NBC's Today show, participating in its first festival, recruited a local food-truck chef to provide free bacon, jam and egg breakfast biscuits to attendees.

The Munchie Mobile moves to Sixth Street to satisfy late-night partiers with other snacks. "This is where people are talking about new innovations, and there's really great thought leadership going on here," says Today digital director Jen Brown. "It is really important to us to be a part of that."

Even food-eating champ Takeru Kobayashi was in town, where he reportedly set a grilled-cheese-sandwich-eating record, with 13 in a minute. GroupMe sponsored the gorge-fest.

Hollywood types have more traditional reasons to make the trek, too. Last year, Time magazine asked the question: "Is South By Southwest becoming the new Sundance?" In 2009, eventual best-picture Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker had its debut at the festival. And the film that won this year's Oscar for best documentary, Undefeated, screened at the festival last year.

SXSW has slightly fewer films this year, 132, but more world premieres. Among them Bernie, which stars Black and McConaughey.

Even the weather can't dampen the gravitational pull of SXSW. "Like the Dublin Film Festival," is how actor Bradley Whitford characterized the climate at the red-carpet premiere for The Cabin in the Woods at the city's Paramount Theatre Friday night. It opens nationwide April 13.

Cabin producer/co-writer Joss Whedon, whose upcoming film The Avengers promises to be among this summer's blockbusters, also joined much of the cast and crew on a SXSW panel Saturday.

Cabin director Drew Goddard said SXSW was "perfect" for the film's premiere: "There's a smart swagger to this town because of all of those elements" — the convergence of tech, music and pop culture.

A particularly hot ticket Saturday night was a party hosted by actors DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas for their visual-media start-up Mobli.

But it's not just the parties at SXSW. "The party part of this I have zero interest in," says Reid Hoffman, often called one of Silicon Valley's smartest minds. The co-founder of LinkedIn goes to only a handful of tech shows, including TED, AllThingsD, TechCrunch Disrupt and LeWeb. "South By is a great convocation for (LinkedIn) and me as an investor and theorist," he says. "If I want to party, I can invite my friends over to the house."

Hoffman spent less than 24 hours in Austin but met entrepreneurs, investors and a few reporters. He's also plugging his book, The Start-up of You, co-authored with Ben Casnocha, about practical techniques and theory behind entrepreneurs.

Music stars

For the music world, SXSW has become so important that Springsteen will be there with his new record. "With the big social-media burst that is involved, South By Southwest only gets more important," DeCurtis says.

Scores of newer musicians have ridden the SXSW wave to critical mass, among them Grammy-winner John Mayer, who played SXSW in 2000. And James Blunt was discovered there by producer Linda Perry in 2003.

Singer-songwriter Bon Iver, who played there in 2008, won best new artist and best alternative album at last month's Grammys. "As the music industry continues to fragment and splinter," DeCurtis says, "an event like SXSW is really one of the few times when the industry is at a critical mass."

Other entertainment royalty such as Jay-Z plans to perform at Austin City Limits Monday night, at an American Express event. Springsteen delivers a keynote on Thursday, followed by a concert with the E Street Band later that night.

NPR Music's Bob Boilen suggests that SXSW "sets the tone for the year." The host and creator of All Songs Considered tries to see more than 100 bands at the festival. "That means little bits of a lot of things," he says. "That leads me down the path of when I get home to dig a little deeper into things that intrigued me."

Austin is 'utopian'

Austin, the city and its residents, help the festival to flourish. "I just found it to be utopian," says celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who for the fifth consecutive year will have a half-day mini-festival at legendary venue Stubb's BBQ. "There doesn't seem to be any ageism or sexism. Dogs are allowed everywhere, and it is a city that was green before it was hip to be green."

And key to the ambience is the dominance of locally owned businesses in the pedestrian-friendly downtown, she says. "They celebrate the individual and entrepreneurship."

The use of technology has emerged as an important aspect of the festival, too, Ray says. If something happens or something cool is shown off, "somebody hears that and then, boom, there's this flash mob there," says Ray, who will have the band Train and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff among performers at her Feedback event Saturday.

"It's hard to keep any surprises in the bag, so to speak, because everybody is plugged in at the festival," she says. "But that's the fun of it. The game is afoot."