After the pandemic froze the live events industry, that’s fitting SXSWThe comeback of as a personal festival began on Friday amid an unusual cold front.
Organizers haven’t released attendance numbers, but crowds appear to be noticeably smaller than most this year. But at least those attendees who physically made it to Austin, Texas appear motivated as neither the weather nor fears of the coronavirus could dampen their enthusiasm.
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“I’m looking forward to getting involved again,” said graduate student Nadia Zaidi in reference to live events. Participation with Yassin Helmy, a SXSW As a volunteer, she said neither is concerned about COVID-19 — mostly because both have just had a battle with it. Helmy, an Austin resident and aspiring founder of an Etsy-like tech co-op and marketplace, looked more concerned that “[SXSW] seems to be more corporate these days” than about any health-related matters.
Others might be excited about the drop in case numbers in the US, and the latest numbers show Austin and its home state of Texas are on the other side of their Omicron-driven January peak. For those still concerned, the festival’s hybrid approach offered online access to some, but not all, of the activities. The impetus was hard to miss: for the full experience, being physically present was the way to go for the full range of programs and events.
Full Disclosure: Penske Media, owner of WWD parent company Fairchild Fashion Media, is an investor with a 50% interest in SXSW.
After the brutal realities of the last few years in the pandemic or the last few weeks of world events, the event could feel like an ointment. It makes it clear that there are plenty others to choose from when real-life reality gets too much – 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 others, in a session on day one of the festival. In an outstanding prediction, he set the stage for a potential blockchain evolution that would raise the stakes for luxury fashion.
“I think that a luxury coin will emerge. I think we will find a way to bring scarcity to blockchain,” he said. “So what would happen if Chanel said, ‘Anyone who owns our coin, and we’re only going to spend 10,000 of it, gets access to any 10 products from our fashion or jewelry line at any time’?”
If the coin comes with access to a top-notch fashion consultant, exclusive invitations to high-end fashion events around the world — “literally the perfect gift for your fourth wife,” the professor joked — “what would this coin be good for?”
A lot, he said, especially if only that limited group of owners had rights to the brand’s digital representation in the virtual world.
“You can have Chanel bags or the Chanel logo as your visual metaphor in the metaverse…. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that this coin would cost $100,000, $500,000. Imagine the speculation it would attract,” he added. “So I think Chanel or Hermès could come up with $5 billion to $10 billion overnight and try to monetize that scarcity.”
The same framework can work in different areas like education, healthcare and events, he continued, citing Coachella. The festival’s 10 NFTs, which offered lifetime access, grossed a total of $1.5 million, with two alone selling for more than $250,000 each. He expects SXSW to follow suit at some point.
With kind approval
Galloway dove into the hardware for a moment, spearing the notion of a Metaverse visual device worn on the face. He prefers an audio-guided experience as it feels more intimate. Cinematically, it will be less like Ready Player One and more like the Joaquin Phoenix-led film Her.
The example works fine. Movies and television 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 the point.
The show envisions a time when people can upload themselves to a tiered virtual realm based on prizes after death. Well-heeled customers have a premium experience, but customers on a budget deal are hit with a 2GB monthly data cap. If they are too active or thinking too much, the platform will freeze them until the next cycle – which is easy to imagine given the way digital service providers work today. For Daniels, this scenario is more comedic.
In the SXSW session, futurist and author Amy Webb noted that the show appears to be “a few years early for the Metaverse party.” She is right. The showrunner explained that he got the idea from a real-life situation years ago: His daughter needed 99 cents to buy a digital TV for her Club Penguin igloo. He came up with the idea of using real money for a virtual item and extended the concept to other things – like life after death.
That may seem fantastic. But then again, maybe not really. Consider that “people spend millions of dollars to buy real estate – right? – in the metaverse,” he said.
With kind approval
The show also looks at artificial intelligence, with AI characters that look and act human, albeit not perfectly.
The premise presents an interesting scenario for the real-world tech sector: As AI bots become more sophisticated, the question may arise “when do they need to be treated like a person,” Daniels added. In fact, there are ethics committees and other organizations that are thinking about similar things.
Other panels and fireside chats ranged from climate change, trends in remote work, social issues and more – including blockchain economies, how to build for the decentralized Web3 metaverse and a look at the impact of big tech on democracies. Other activities included entertainment, media, blockchain and retail.
One of the most anticipated parts of the festival took place later in the evening and 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 Theatre. SXSW volunteer Helmy worked the lines outside the building, lining up numerous attendees waiting to get in in the cold. Viewers told WWD that the film was one of the main, if not the only, reason they attended SXSW.
The genre-bending film has been causing quite a stir since its zany trailer hit the internet back in December. As of press time, the video has garnered more than 5.7 million views.
The story invokes the “Many Worlds” theory of quantum mechanics, which states that each choice creates a separate parallel universe. Unlike some of the more technically oriented festival sessions, the audience doesn’t have to understand how it works. Neither does Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang. But that doesn’t stop them from traversing these alternate universes – often simultaneously – on a unique journey that evokes laughter, tears, heart-pounding action, and mind-blowing philosophical constructs.
In this multiverse context, Evelyn sees her life unfolding in different ways based on the choices she made. It’s a deeply personal story, a family drama, a sci-fi thriller, an action film, a cultural commentary and a comedy, all in one fast-paced flick. The audience roared in approval at several points, culminating in a standing ovation at the end when the stars emerged for an audience question and answer session.
The theme of different identities felt particularly strong at this time and place. It’s not a stretch to draw a line between the film and the festival, where experts, brands and tech leaders carve out a metaverse where people can be anything they want.
Daniel Scheinert, one of the two “Daniels” who directed the film, called it “fitting” that his film would 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 by stopping by the after-party.
The “Everything” premiere is just one of the film, music, virtual reality screenings and other experiences at SXSW this year. However, the overall size of the lineup does not reflect the event’s pre-COVID-19 expenses. Far fewer venues were booked this year, and several Austin residents noted that attendance was “tiny” compared to previous years, according to a festival staffer who declined to be named.
But that’s not bad news for everyone. “I like it,” commented an attendee named Mary while waiting in line for coffee at the Austin Convention Center. “It’s nice. It feels more intimate and I don’t miss the traffic.”