After the pandemic froze the live event industry, it’s only fitting that SXSW’s return as an in-person festival began Friday amid an unusual cold front.
Organizers did not release attendance figures, but the crowd appears to be significantly smaller this year than most. But at least the attendees who physically made it to Austin, Texas, seem motivated, as neither weather nor coronavirus fears could dampen their enthusiasm.
“I’m excited to be back at it,” graduate student Nadia Zaidi said, referring to the live events. In the presence of Yassin Helmy, an SXSW volunteer, she said neither was concerned about COVID-19 – mainly because both had just had one. Helmy, an Austin resident and aspiring founder of a tech co-op and Etsy-like marketplace, seemed more concerned that “[SXSW] seems to be more corporate these days,” than on any health-related issues.
Others might take heart from falling US case rates, and recent numbers showing Austin and its home state of Texas are on the other side of their Omicron-fueled January spike. . For anyone still concerned, the festival’s hybrid approach offered online access for some, but not all, activities. The boost was hard to miss: for the full experience, in-person attendance was the way to go for the full slate of programs and events.
Full disclosure: Penske Media, owner of WWD’s parent company, Fairchild Fashion Media, is an investor with a 50% stake in SXSW.
After the brutal realities of the last few years in the pandemic, or the last few weeks of world events, the event might feel like some sort of balm. It’s clear that when the real-life reality becomes too much, there are plenty of others to choose from – from the metaverse of technology to the fictional multiverses of the showbiz industry.
NYU marketing professor and CNN+ host Scott Galloway focused on the former, among other things, during a session on the first day of the festival. In a remarkable prediction, he set the stage for a potential blockchain evolution that would raise the stakes for luxury fashion.
“I think a luxury coin will emerge. I think we’re going to find a way to put scarcity on the blockchain,” he said. “So what if Chanel said, ‘Anyone who owns our piece, and we’re only going to issue 10,000, has access to 10 products from our fashion or jewelry line at any given time?’
If the room grants access to a high-end fashion consultant, exclusive invitations to ambitious fashion events around the world – “literally the perfect gift for your fourth wife,” the professor joked – “what would this be for? room ?”
A lot, he said, especially if only that limited set of owners had rights to the brand’s digital representation in the virtual world.
“You can have Chanel bags or the Chanel logo as a visual metaphor in the metaverse…. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that this piece would cost $100,000, $500,000. Imagine the speculation it would attract,” he added. “So overnight, I think Chanel or Hermés could raise $5 billion to $10 billion, trying to monetize that scarcity.”
The same framework could work in different areas, such as education, health and events, he continued, citing Coachella. The festival’s 10 NFTs, which offered lifetime access, grossed a combined total of $1.5 million, with two alone selling for over $250,000 each. He expects SXSW to follow suit at some point.
Diving into the material for a moment, Galloway skewered the notion of a metaverse visual device worn on the face. It favors an audio experience, as it feels more intimate. In terms of movies, it will be less like “Ready Player One” and more like the Joaquin Phoenix-directed “Her” movie.
The example works fine. Movies and TV shows are often the public’s first real introduction to new ideas and emerging technologies.
Greg Daniels, creator of Amazon’s streaming series “Upload,” understands this point.
The show envisions a time when people can download themselves, after death, into a tiered virtual domain based on price. Well-heeled customers get a premium experience, but customers on a budget struggle with a 2GB monthly data cap. If they’re too active or overthinking, the platform freezes them until the next cycle, which is easily imagined, given the way digital service providers operate today. For Daniels, this script is pretty ripe for comedy.
During the SXSW session, futurist and author Amy Webb noted that the series appears to be “a few years earlier than expected for the Metaverse party.” She’s right. The showrunner explained that he got the idea years ago from a real-life situation: his daughter needed 99 cents to buy a digital TV for her Club Penguin igloo. The idea of using real money for a virtual item struck him, and he extended the concept to other things, like the afterlife.
It may sound fantastic. But then again, maybe not really. Consider that, as it stands, “people spend millions of dollars getting real estate – right? – in the metaverse,” he said.
The show also deals with artificial intelligence, with AI characters that look and act like humans, but not perfectly.
The premise poses an interesting scenario for the real-world tech industry: As AI robots become more sophisticated, it may raise the question of “when they should be treated as a person,” Daniels added. Indeed, there are ethics committees and other organizations that think about similar things.
Other panels and fireside chats covered climate change, remote work trends, social issues, and more. Other activations touted entertainment, media, blockchain, and retail.
One of the most anticipated parts of the festival only happened in the evening, and it had more to do with the multiverse than the metaverse.
The premiere of A24’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once” drew crowds to the Paramount Theater. SXSW volunteer Helmy worked the lines in front of the building, lining up many attendees who were waiting in the cold to enter. Audience members told WWD that the movie was one of the main reasons they attended SXSW, if not the only reason.
The genre-defying film has been buzzing since its crazy trailer hit the internet in December. As of press time, the video has surpassed 5.7 million views.
The story invokes the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics, which posits that each choice creates a separate parallel universe. Unlike some tech-focused festival sessions, the audience doesn’t have to figure out how it works. Neither did Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang. But that doesn’t stop him from traversing these alternate universes – often at the same time – on a unique journey that evokes laughter, tears, heart-pounding action, and mind-blowing philosophical constructs.
Against this multiverse backdrop, Evelyn sees how her life has evolved in different ways, depending on the choices she has made. It’s an intensely personal story, family drama, sci-fi thriller, action film, cultural commentary and comedy, all rolled into one fast-paced film. The audience roared in approval at several points, culminating in a standing ovation at the end as the stars walked out for a Q&A with the audience.
The theme of different identities resonated particularly at that time and place. It’s not a stretch to draw a line between film and festival, where pundits, brands and tech executives create a metaverse where people can be anything they want.
Daniel Scheinert, one of the two “Daniels” who directed the film, called it “suitable” for his film to debut at SXSW. Stars Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stephanie Hsu and Ke Huy Quan joined him and his directing partner Daniel Kwan to watch the screening, answer questions and surprise fans with the after-party.
The premiere of “Everything” is just one of the movies, music, virtual reality showcases and other experiences at SXSW this year. The overall lineup size, however, does not match pre-COVID editions of the event. According to a festival employee who asked not to be named, far fewer venues were booked this year, and several Austin residents noted that attendance was “tiny” compared to previous years.
But that’s not bad news for everyone. “I like it,” commented one attendee named Mary as she stood in line for coffee at the Austin Convention Center. “It’s good. It’s more intimate and I don’t miss the traffic.