South By Southwest is best known as the music festival that has been blasting the eardrums of America's hipsters for two decades. But the film festival portion, despite being newer than its musical counterpart, has come to be one of the premier film events in the country, and thousands of people from all around the world converge on Austin each March to partake of its cinematic bounty.
This is my third year at the film festival, making me at least an experienced newcomer, if not a veteran. Luckily, I had some friends that first year who were old SXSW pros, and they were able to show me how to make the most of my festival. And now I pass that knowledge on to you, young padawan.
Tips & Tricks for Enjoying SXSW
- The Alamo Drafthouse is your friend. The Alamo has several locations, two of which are commandeered by SXSW for screenings. At both places, Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lamar, you get movies on the big screen, comfortable seats, and -- the best part -- full food and beverage service, right at your seat. This is especially useful during a film festival, when you're often hurrying from one screening to another without time to eat. If you have a screening at the Alamo, you don't need to schedule in a mealtime. That means you can see more movies!
- Don't drive. Most of the SXSW events are clustered together around Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, so you don't need to drive between them. (See below.) Besides, parking is difficult downtown. You're better off hoofin' it, especially since the weather in Austin in March is usually cooperative.
- Location is everything. As mentioned, nearly all of the SXSW venues are within easy walking distance of each other. There are two exceptions, however: Alamo Lamar and the Dobie. The Alamo Lamar is two miles south of everything; the Dobie is a mile north of everything (and uphill). Either one will require a cab or bus ride, and my experience with the buses is shaky at best. (My experience with cabs is that the drivers don't necessarily know where anything is, so be equipped with a street address and a general idea of where you're trying to go.) You should take this into account when planning your screening schedule. Luckily, the festival programmers seem to realize that no one wants to go to the Dobie, because they've been putting a lot of the experimental/sub-par/unattractive films there.
- Punctuality is a virtue. Screenings generally start pretty close to on time, and they are frequently very, very full. The Paramount Theatre is the largest venue; that's also where they put the premieres and other big-name titles. Its largeness increases your chances of getting in, but if it's a major film you'll need to get in line early -- as much as an hour early, in some cases. On the other hand, non-major films at the Paramount mean you can easily get a seat even if you show up one minute before showtime. At the other venues (especially the Alamos), you might not be so lucky sneaking in at the last minute. A good rule of thumb is to be in line 30 minutes before a movie starts, wherever it's playing.
- Go to the parties! SXSW officially sponsors several parties during the week, and anyone with a festival pass is invited. They're usually held at one of the 1,000,000,000 bars located on Austin's rowdy 6th Street. Now, you might assume that an official festival party will be boring. That's certainly the case at certain festivals I could name, including one whose name rhymes with Shmundance. But SXSW's parties are fantastic. The celebs in town for their movies usually go, and they actually mingle someplace other than behind a special VIPs-only rope. There tends to be an open bar, too, at least for the first hour or so, and that adds to the merry atmosphere. And since 11 a.m. is the earliest start time for SXSW screenings, you don't need to worry about staying out late at night.
- Too poor to buy a pass? No problem. Ideally, you'd shell out a few hundred bucks for a film badge that gets you in to all screenings. But if that's not in your budget, you can buy individual tickets to particular movies -- and failing that, you can often get in at the last minute by getting in the wait-list line early.
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Eric D. Snider (website) is eagerly awaiting the North By Northeast film festival.