After the pandemic froze the live events industry, it’s fitting that SXSW’s comeback as an in-person festival got underway Friday amid an unusual cold front.
Organizers haven’t disclosed attendee figures, but the crowd looks noticeably smaller this year than most. But at least attendees who physically made it to Austin, Texas, seem motivated, as neither the weather nor coronavirus fears could chill their enthusiasm.
“I’m excited to get back into it,” said graduate student Nadia Zaidi, referring to live events. Attending with Yassin Helmy, an SXSW volunteer, she said neither was concerned about COVID-19 — mainly because both just had a bout 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 take heart in the decline of US case rates, and recent figures 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, of the activities. The nudge was hard to miss: For the full experience, in-person attendance was the way to go for the complete slate of programming and events.
Full disclosure: Penske Media, owner of WWD’s parent company, Fairchild Fashion Media, is an investor with a 50 percent stake in SXSW.
After the brutal realities of the past few years in the pandemic, or the past few weeks of world events, the event could feel like something of a salve. It makes clear that when real reality becomes too much, there are plenty of others to choose from — from tech’s metaverse to the show biz industry’s fictional multiverses.
NYU marketing professor and CNN+ host Scott Galloway focused on the former, among other areas, in a session on the first day of the festival. In one standout prediction, he set the scene for a potential blockchain evolution that would raise the stakes for luxury fashion.
“I think a luxe coin is going to emerge. I think we’re going to figure out a way to put scarcity on the blockchain,” he said. “So what would happen if Chanel said, ‘Anyone who owns our coin, and we’re only going to issue 10,000 of them, gets access to any 10 products across our fashion or jewelry line at any time’?”
If the coin comes with access to a top-of-the-line fashion consultant, exclusive invitations to aspirational fashion events around the world — “literally the perfect gift for your fourth wife,” the professor joked — “What would that coin go for ?”
A lot, he said, especially if only this 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 your visual metaphor in the metaverse…. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think this coin would go for $100,000, $500,000. Imagine the speculation it would attract,” he added. “So overnight, I believe Chanel or Hermès could raise $5 billion to $10 billion, trying to monetize this scarcity.”
The same framework could work in different areas, like education, health care and events, he continued, citing Coachella. The festival’s 10 NFTs, which offered lifetime access, brought in a combined total of $1.5 million, two of which alone sold for more than $250,000 each. He expects SXSW to follow suit at some point.
Dipping into hardware for a moment, Galloway skewered the notion of a visual metaverse device worn on the face. He favors an audio-led experience, since it feels more intimate. In movie terms, it will be less like “Ready Player One” and more like the Joaquin Phoenix-led film “Her.”
The example works well. 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 upload themselves, post-death, into a tiered virtual realm based on pricing. Well-heeled clients have a premium experience, but customers on a budget deal are saddled with a 2 GB monthly data cap. If they are too active or think too much, the platform freezes them in place until the next cycle — which is easily imaginable, given the way digital service providers work today. For Daniels, this scenario is rather ripe for comedy.
In the SXSW session, futurist and author Amy Webb noted that the show seems to be “a few years early to the metaverse party.” She’s right. The showrunner explained that he got the idea years ago from a real-world situation: His daughter needed 99 cents to buy a digital television 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 after-life.
That may seem fantastical. But then again, perhaps not really. Consider that, as it is, “people are spending 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 human, though not perfectly so.
The premise poses an interesting scenario for the real-world tech sector: As AI bots get more sophisticated, it may beg the question of “when they need to be treated like a person,” Daniels added. Indeed, there are ethics committees and other organizations mulling over similar things.
Other panels and fireside chats ranged from climate change, remote work trends, social issues and more — including blockchain, emerging, how to build for the decentralized Web3 metaverse and a look at Big Tech’s impact on democracies. Other activations touted entertainment, media, blockchain and retail.
One of the most anticipated parts of the festival didn’t come until 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 Theatre. SXSW volunteer Helmy was working the lines in front of the building, fielding numerous attendees who were waiting in the cold to gain entry. Audience members told WWD that the movie was a major reason they attended SXSW, if not the only reason.
The genre-defying film has been building buzz since its madcap trailer hit the internet in December. At press time, the video topped more than 5.7 million views.
The story invokes the “Many Worlds” theory of quantum mechanics, which posits that every choice creates a separate parallel universe. Unlike some of the tech-oriented festival sessions, the audience doesn’t have to understand how it works. Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang, doesn’t either. But that doesn’t stop her from traversing these alternate universes — often at the same time — in a unique journey that conjures laughs, tears, heart-quickening action and mind-bending philosophical constructs.
In this multiverse context, Evelyn sees how her life evolved in different ways, based on the choices she made. It’s an intensely personal story, a family drama, a sci-fi thriller, action movie, cultural commentary and comedy all rolled into one fast-paced flick. The audience roared with approval at several points, culminating with a standing ovation at the end as the stars came out for an audience Q&A.
The theme of different identities felt particularly resonant at this time and in this place. It’s not a reach to draw a line between the movie and the festival, where experts, brands and tech executives hash 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 movie would debut at SXSW. Stars Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stephanie Hsu and Ke Huy Quan joined him and directing partner Daniel Kwan to watch the screening, answer questions and surprise fans by popping in at the after-party.
The “Everything” premiere is just one of the movies, music, virtual reality showcases and other experiences at SXSW this year. The overall size of the lineup doesn’t match the event’s pre-COVID-19 editions, though. According to a festival worker who asked not to be named, far fewer venues were booked this year, and multiple Austin residents noted that attendance was “tiny” compared to previous years.
But that’s not bad news for everyone. “I like it,” an attendee named Mary commented 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.”