South by Southwest co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson revisited last month’s cancellation of the event by Austin city officials and talked about SXSW’s future plans in a 45-minute online phone interview with The New York Times on Tuesday morning, suggesting that the closure "was more like a car wreck than just slowing down and stopping."


The session with NYT business reporter David Gelles also featured Seattle’s Amy Nelson, co-founder of networking space the Riveter, and was titled "Leading Through Change." Excerpts from the discussion will be printed in Sunday’s business section of the Times.


Swenson recalled the rapidly changing chain of events in early March that ultimately led to SXSW being canceled on March 6 and said he believed the city taking action was a necessary part of the procedure. "If we had acted on our own, I think there would’ve been a riot outside our office," Swenson said. "We needed the authority of the mayor to step up and say, ’OK, game over, everybody go home.’"


After the decision was made, SXSW’s management team began tackling damage control. "Once we looked at the forecast, it was pretty grim and showed us running out of cash within a couple of months," Swenson said. "We had to make the tough choice of laying off a bunch of people, and that was really hard and really painful." More than 50 staffers were laid off just a few days after the cancellation.


Since then, Swenson said his team has been looking at ways the recently passed federal legislation might help SXSW, as well as having discussions with potential partners. Amazon recently made a deal to screen some of the films that were scheduled to be part of the event’s film festival. Swenson added that SXSW also is developing a schedule of interviews and mentor sessions with scheduled 2020 participants and that those sessions should start happening online later this month.


As for SXSW’s financial future, Swenson said that for now, "we basically have enough money to get to the next event, if nothing else goes wrong." He noted that the event’s 2020 sponsors have committed to carrying through to 2021.


As for next year’s event, "We’re approaching it as something that looks a lot like South by Southwest," Swenson said. "Undoubtedly it will be different, and there will be more over-the-web experiences. But in the final analysis, congregating and communicating with each other is the power of South by Southwest.


"Human contact is what our business is built on — going to see films and bands and lectures together and meeting the person next to you who might end up having a profound effect on your personal life or business life, or both. If that is lost, the world will be a poorer place."


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