"The festival may be canceled, but the show must go on."
That’s the take from Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, in response to the city of Austin’s cancellation of this year’s South by Southwest amid growing coronavirus concerns.
"That's what we do every day, and that's how everyone keeps their lights on," Cowan continued Friday evening after news of the cancellation broke. "We can't sit back and let the local economy collapse. We can't let locals’ lives collapse. So we're going to have to tighten our belts and work really hard from now into the next week to get some things done."
Cowan said the venues he works with would like clearer guidance from the city on whether temporary event permits that were already issued for the festival are still valid.
"No one's really sure what the rules are," he said. "People are afraid to move hard in any one direction lest they be corrected by Austin Public Health."
City of Austin public information manager Bryce Bencivengo said local officials will work with promoters to evaluate each event on a case-by-case basis, adding that the city has not yet begun addressing events at venues with standing outdoor music permits.
"We are focused on special events with large groups of attendees and how to lessen the risk that certain types of events like these may pose to the spread of COVID-19," he said, referring to the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Some of Austin’s primary music venues have begun to sketch out plans for what they’ll do during SXSW week in the absence of official showcases. Dianne Scott of the Continental Club said that the landmark South Congress Avenue venue is tentatively planning to present all of the lineups it had booked as part of SXSW’s official showcase schedule.
"We are still waiting on a couple of confirmations, but it looks like even without the official SXSW, our schedule for that week will remain the same," she said. "The bands are still coming, no matter what, so our doors will be open for them. We will update our website with any changes or cancellations."
Scott said the Continental also is going forward with plans for day parties.
"The day parties will still be free, but the nighttime showcases will now have a cover charge, which is still to be determined," she said. "The money will go to the bands to help with their expenses. Some things are still a little nebulous, but we're working on it as we speak."
Saxon Pub owner Joe Ables says his storied South Lamar Boulevard venue is taking a similar approach.
"We are going forward with every intention of keeping as many scheduled acts as possible," he said. "All day shows remain free, but (there will be a) cover charge at night, with all (proceeds) going to the acts."
Other venues have taken to social media to ask for public support.
"If you were thinking about purchasing a ticket at a local live music venue, now is the time," a post on the Facebook page for the Mohawk reads. A post on Hotel Vegas’ Facebook page stated, "A safe and sanitary environment for our staff, bands and patrons is our primary objective as we continue to host shows over the next several weeks."
Film venues also are working out their plans. Holly Herrick is the head of film for the Austin Film Society. Their Texas Film Awards ceremony March 12 was still scheduled as of Saturday. The society’s AFS Cinema also is a two-screen theater that was a SXSW "satellite" venue, meaning it was a good place for Austinites to see festival films without the crush of downtown crowds. That also means AFS wasn’t dependent upon a massive cash influx the way downtown venues might be.
"We will have a full schedule at the AFS Cinema," Herrick said. "SXSW was planning to use one screen for that week; the other we had already programmed. It is the nature of our business that things change from week to week. It's disruptive to have a cancellation of this scale, but we're used to having to change our strategy on a short timeline."
Herrick added that she doubts anyone in Austin can predict the full financial effect of a SXSW cancellation.
"More than anything, AFS will miss the community-building that happens in our space during that week, and the number of new visitors that experience AFS because of SXSW," she said.
Those presenting films might face more difficult situations. Austin writer and filmmaker Tamara Saviano wrote the award-winning biography "Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark," which she then turned into a movie of the same name, her first. In the years she spent working on the film, the goal was always to debut at SXSW. That is no longer happening.
"The short answer is we really don’t know what exactly is next," Saviano said Saturday. "We have received invitations to appear at other film festivals that haven’t been announced yet, and who knows if they will suffer the same cancellation fate? We have an Austin screening planned for May 17 with the Austin Film Society and another at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville on May 27. We are going to pitch film agents and distributors and already have interest from both. We’ll follow those paths to see if any of the partnerships feel right to us."
Saviano added that in light of the SXSW cancellation, she and her team are going to take a breath and figure out how to proceed. "I’m disappointed but not panicked. I’m more upset about the overall community impact than our little film. But I do think they made the right decision to cancel SXSW."
The cancellation also will directly affect many locals whose ties to SXSW are tangential. Lars Nilsen has been involved in the Austin film and music scene for more than 20 years. He spent time at the Alamo Drafthouse as a programmer and now heads up programming at the Austin Film Society. But he’s also a longtime Austinite who has been involved with SXSW as a participant and fan for decades.
"Years ago I drove a cab here in Austin, and the business got really bad," Nilsen said. "But the drivers didn’t say, ‘That’s it. I quit as of tomorrow.’ They said, ‘That’s it. After South by, I’m done.’ And that expresses what SXSW is for Austin businesses of all sizes. It’s the one sure-thing monetary bonanza.
"You plan for it. You keep extra staff on for it. You order double your normal stock for it. All of this makes this such a hard hit for all of those people, and the people who, in turn, depend on them. That restaurant owner who might have put a new roof on her house this year. Maybe next year. And it goes on and on."