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By Hammad Zaidi | March 8, 2011

South By Southwest (SXSW) is one of America’s finest and most creatively influential film festivals. Set in Austin, Texas, during spring break week every March, SXSW is a hip and progressive cultural gem that also incorporates one of the world’s premiere music festivals as well as the Earth’s largest interactive conference.  This year SXSW Week runs from March 11-20. The SXSW Interactive Conference runs from March 11-15, the SXSW Film Festival is from March 11-19, and the SXSW Music Festival takes place from March 15-20.

I was a college student in Austin in 1987, when the first SXSW Music Festival was produced (this is the music festival’s 25th Anniversary). I still remember attending the event, and being completely captivated by the pure magic it resonated.

Just after SXSW added a film and multimedia element in 1994, and then split the “film” and “multimedia” events into their own events in 1995, I made myself a regular. Since the film festival began, I’ve attended more than a dozen times, been a sponsor a number of times and served as a panelist once.

I’ve seen SXSW grow from being a ridiculously fun weeklong party, into what it is now: The film festival that will guide cutting edge filmmakers into the future of independent film distribution (yes, it’s still an outrageous party too).

Since SXSW offers filmmakers tremendous opportunity through their orgy of events (film, music, interactive), there simply isn’t a more important festival experience in America.

Thus, without further ado, here’s some insight into SXSW and how it enhances every filmmaker who attends.

Location, Location, Location
I’ve always said that if I ever got the itch to leave Los Angeles, (which I doubt I will because I’ve wanted to live in L.A. since kindergarten), I would move back to Austin. Have spent two years of my undergraduate years there, I am well aware of the magic Austin has. It’s a city filled with progressive minds, deep pockets, non-pretention (for the most part), and thousands of creative geniuses. All of these elements combined create the perfect environment to host a film, music and interactive festival that encourage the creative spirit and collaboration.

SXSW is America’s answer to the Cannes Film Festival, because Austin is a fun, warm weather city where attendees crave to return to year after year. If you’re asking yourself what a city has to do with the success of a film festival, I say EVERYTHING!

I’ve found that film professionals are always in a better mood at Cannes, SXSW and Toronto, than they are at Sundance or Berlin. Of course, major sales will always occur at Sundance and Berlin, if you’re a budding filmmaker looking to wrangle contacts and collaboration opportunities, SXSW is the perfect for place you. Not only are SXSW attendees generally in a good mood, but the festival’s open and inviting culture allows for them to be far more receptive to meeting new filmmakers.

SXSW Interactive Is Flooded With Technology & Money
Multi-billion and multi-million dollar technology companies worldwide attend the Interactive portion of SXSW. Thus, opportunities to apply cutting edge technology to your work are abundant, as is the opportunity to deeply expand your Rolodex. Furthermore, interactive technology companies are often times funded quite healthily, so there is also an opportunity – albeit a slim one – to find financing for projects.

The other key advantage to attending the Interactive portion of SXSW is that filmmakers may find new and creative ways to distribute their product. In fact, given the cutting edge nature of SXSW, filmmakers may stumble on new and exciting distribution formats that didn’t even exist as early as a few weeks ago. Thus, SXSW Interactive is a can’t-miss event.

SXSW Music Festival Is America’s Best
Few things are more creatively inspiring as attending the SXSW Music Festival. Now in its 25th year, the music festival showcases countless bands at near 100 venues. Multiple genres of music are represented, so this portion of SXSW serves as a hotbed for both new and established musical talent.

If there’s ever a place for filmmakers to find incredibly gifted musicians and singer/songwriters, before their asking prices cost more than the budget of many independent films, SXSW is the place. Like I’ve stated, the open nature of this festival makes many (but certainly not all) of the attendees more approachable than at other places. Thus, the opportunity to explore creative possibilities is ripe for the taking.

SXSW Panels Are Always Progressive And Relevant
I’m usually not a big fan of panels, because I feel so many of them rehash the same material year after year. But, this is not the case at SXSW, because these panels are America’s best. They are always new, informative, forward thinking and thought provoking. In fact, it’s actually hard to attend the same similar panels at SXSW, because the organizers do an excellent job of keeping the topics fresh and the information relevant.

Furthermore, it would behoove you to attend panels in all three areas, film, music, and interactive, because you’ll learn about how to best integrate all three areas in a manner that will benefit you and your career.

With our economy still fluttering and the “recovery pendulum” only slightly shifting an inch or so toward normalcy, it’s important for filmmakers to be wise with their disposable income as it relates to which film festivals to attend.  Thus, I can honestly say without hesitation or reservation, that if you can only attend one film festival in the United States this year (or next year if you’re not willing to drop everything and take a road trip to Austin by this Thursday), South By Southwest should be your first choice. Not Sundance, not Tribecca. SXSW is the place for independent filmmakers to converge and thrive. In fact, no other major film festival in America offers such a wonderfully memorable creative environment where filmmakers are actually invited to the parties; “ego” is a four-letter word, and the memories you experience there will be your favorites, until you return to SXSW the following year.

Thank you for lending me your eyes and I hope to borrow them again next Tuesday!

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