SXSW Offers Hope for Film, Music Post-COVID

Music fans and moviegoers who have attended past South by Southwest festivals are familiar with standing in long lines to see a showcase artist or watch the premiere of a highly anticipated film.

But, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been no lines or crowded venues in Austin, or anywhere else.

Following a pandemic-forced cancellation in 2020, SXSW returned this March in an all-virtual format and featured discussions about how the music and film industries have adapted to the outbreak and plan to navigate uncertain post-pandemic waters.

The panel “How Film Commissions Shape Creative Industry Policy” explored how state film commissions remain vital hubs for creative communities in their states.

Commissions help to craft competitive incentives, filmmaking infrastructure policies and other programs designed to nurture the growth of native cinema-centric companies, creatives and organizations, and attract non-native productions.

Texas has become a desirable destination for feature film, television and commercial production. The state is home to more than 200 full production companies, 50-plus advertising agencies, and more than 130 animation, postproduction and visual effects firms.

One such company, Slow Uvalde Films, produced “Without Getting Killed or Caught,” a documentary about famed Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. The film received the Louis Black Lone Star Award in this year’s SXSW.

Guy Clark in “Without Getting Killed or Caught.” Courtesy/Slow Uvalde Films
Guy Clark in “Without Getting Killed or Caught.” Courtesy/Slow Uvalde Films

Texas Film Commission has a range of resources, including assistance programs, statewide location-finder database, a production directory and a jobs hotline. TFC, which turns 50 this year, is also in constant contact with local creatives to gauge their needs.

The panelists agreed one overriding challenge is to demonstrate that productions, which tend to vary in length of time, can drive long-term economic growth within their state by inspiring film industry professionals to open their own production business and build related facilities.

TFC Director Stephanie Whallon said emerging technologies within cinema, such as Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality, create even more job opportunities: “We really have a rich crew base that has been able to embrace all the industry sectors.”

Texas Film Commission Director Stephanie Whallon (upper right) takes part in a SXSW panel.
Texas Film Commission Director Stephanie Whallon (upper right) takes part in a SXSW panel.

Texas, by early June 2020, was one of the first states to reopen for film production. TFC talked with people in all of the film industry sectors they serve, asking them of their needs and concerns during the pandemic.

This happened while TFC monitored a state-based task force’s discussions around carefully reopening Texas various commercial sectors with COVID health protocols.

“It’s been wonderful working with all of our industry partners and stakeholders to get everyone on the same page to get together safely,” Whallon said.

Another panel, “Art House Distribution in the Age of COVID,” chronicled how film distributors circumvented movie theater closures nationwide and brought cinematic works to audiences quarantining at home.

Production houses and distributors were thankful for the ability to connect with an increasing number of streaming platforms and showcase especially small-budget/independent movies, keeping audiences engaged.

Actors, writers and filmmakers of some indie movies have held virtual panel discussions in conjunction with a specific movie. In some instances, a local nonprofit or civic group would buy tickets or sponsor a virtual film screening.

Even some film festivals, such as San Antonio Film Festival, have unfolded totally online in the last year, with screenings accompanied by remote Q&A sessions.

When SXSW 2020 was abruptly canceled, organizers scrambled and partnered with Amazon Prime Video to stream select films that were to be screened at the film fest.

All of these tools - technical warts and all - are proven positive engagement tools for film production houses and distributors, the panelists said.

“Along the way, we’ve learned what doesn’t work, what does work as its best use,” said Dan Zastrow, general manager, California Film Institute.

The panelists also agreed that, as COVID restrictions ease up and more theaters re-open, film distributors and theaters will likely spend a year or longer with hybrid business models of live screenings and streaming until more people feel comfortable returning to theaters.

Other panels explored the state of live music. In the panel “We Want Live Shows Again!,” Michelle Cable, booking agent and manager of Panche Booking and Management, said many things will undergo change.

“The way we plan tours, the protocols that artists, crews, venues, festivals, promoters are going to have to take - it’s all going to be more specific,” she said.

“It’s not going to be as relaxed - down from guest lists, ordering drinks, loading into a venue to how we structure deals, confirming shows, last minute changes that happen right until the day of the show because of the precariousness of the COVID situation in this country.”

Tom Windish, senior executive at Paradigm Talent Agency, said as more states and countries begin to reopen and ease restrictions, musicians and their support crew must take it upon themselves to undertake COVID safety measures while on tours.

He added owners/operators of live music venues, especially small sites, will keep focus on paying bills, taxes and their employees, with little money if any leftover to cover COVID safety protocols.

The 3,000-member-strong National Independent Venue Association helped to rally for support in the pandemic/stimulus package that Congress approved in December 2020.

It contained $15 billion in grants for entertainment spaces and promoters, but the Small Business Administration has not yet finished developing the application process, prolonging anxiety already felt by owners and managers of arts-related ventures.

In the panel “Live Music in Venues: What’s Next?” Grace Blake of New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club said NIVA and its efforts brought together promoters and venue owners who once saw each other as competitors who now are compelled to cooperate to financially survive the pandemic.

“We’re a community, we should be working together,” Blake said. “The biggest thing was being able to provide some comfort.”

As many states begin to ease restrictions parallel to the vaccine rollout, some live music venue are holding shows with limited capacities.

Other venues, for now, are sticking with live-streaming some performances, including special events designed to raise awareness of and funds for struggling venues.

This year’s SXSW music festival contained performances from up-and-coming and indie artists such as San Antonio’s Valdez Garza, prerecorded safely in various locales. Many bands have turned to live-streaming shows for online paying audiences.

San Antonio’s Valdez Garza and his band in a virtual performance at SXSW 2021 music festival.
San Antonio’s Valdez Garza and his band in a virtual performance at SXSW 2021 music festival.

The panelists are cautiously optimistic that venues nationwide will reopen this fall, with some safety measures. Some panelists hope perhaps summer or early fall music festivals will take place.

See more SXSW coverage from this year and past years here