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The boss of March

South by Southwest preview

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Bruce Springsteen

Wristbands are on sale, parties are being announced and schedules are being pored over: South by Southwest season is in full bloom. With a little more than a month to go, we look ahead at what to expect when the Monster That Will Eat March opens for business.

Music

The Shins, Blitzen Trapper and the Magnetic Fields are a few of the bigger names on the list of official SXSW showcasing artists so far, but one name has already made national headlines — keynote speaker Bruce Springsteen. There hasn't been an announcement about whether Springsteen will perform during the festival, but he's one of the biggest, if not the biggest name to deliver the keynote in the festival's 26-year history. And more band announcements are coming.

Organizers also have not released the full schedule of performances, though last week we learned that the over-buzzed Alabama Shakes, experimental pop artist Andrew Bird and singer songwriter Sharon van Etten will open the first full night of music at NPR's Wednesday, March 14, showcase at Stubb's, which will be broadcast live. A limited number of showcases — around 30, up from last year's 10 — will happen on Tuesday, March 13, sort of a bridge between the interactive and music portions of the fest.

Some band websites and concert-listings sites such as Pollstar.com have leaked some news, including a set at Emo's East with San Francisco indie rockers Deerhoof.

The festival also continues its journey east. SXSW director Roland Swenson said there are more east-side venues hosting official SXSW events than ever. Clubs including the ND and the Scoot Inn will be joined by Hotel Vegas, the White Horse and 1100 Warehouse, a temporary venue in the old Tops Office Supply warehouse on East Fifth Street managed by Transmission Entertainment.

As the festival continues to grow, so do the crowds, and associated safety concerns, something that gained some urgency last year after people pushed through a fence at a free concert featuring the Strokes at Auditorium Shores and another incident at Beauty Bar. While it might not be directly related, the incidents happened as the festival become increasingly popular as a spring break destination, with students and non-students alike flocking to Austin in March for what seems like limitless parties with free alcohol and music. Police estimated last year's crowd at 200,000, a 40 percent increase from the previous year.

That was part of what prompted the festival to bring in crowd control expert Keith Still, who spoke last July to a group that included city and SXSW employees and club owners. During his talk, Still showed several clips of out-of-control crowds at various events. Among them were shots of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which experiences foot traffic from millions, as well as a concert in Europe where a sea of people crushed forward in a giant wave.

Sixth Street gets crowded during SXSW, but not that crowded.

"(Dr. Still) wasn't particularly daunted by the size of the event, because he routinely works on events with a million people or more," Swenson said last month. "That's something reassuring that we gained, because as big as it is, it is a manageable crowd."

Swenson said that Still's visit last summer resulted in the development of emergency plans for the major SXSW venues, as well as a better line of communication between the festival and venue owners.

"The tricky part is we only directly control only maybe a third of it at this point," Swenson said, referring to the numerous unaffiliated parties throughout the music portion of the festival. "We have to be cognizant of the other events that are going on, and that's always a challenge."

— Peter Mongillo

Interactive

If last year's stunning South by Southwest Interactive growth was a sign that it was spiking in popularity — it jumped from 19,364 participants in 2011 from 14,251 in 2010 — this year, the increasingly influential tech conference will be challenged to handle its growth and still remain a funky gathering place for creative digital types.

The conference won't lack for topics and interesting speakers and panelists. Within about 1,000 pieces of official programing, you'll find names like Anthony Bourdain, LeVar Burton, Gawker's Nick Denton, journalists Jill Abramson and Soledad O'Brien, and actors Jeffrey Tambor and "The Office" star Rainn Wilson, as well as Twitter founder Biz Stone and Craig Newmark (who created Craigslist).

In addition to the usual chatter about the future of the Web, digital culture trends and a l lot of crossover with music and film tech trends, expect to hear plenty at this year's conference about hotly debated anti-piracy legislation (SOPA and PIPA), Facebook's initial public offering and how it'll affect the company, and chatter about how tech is enabling movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

This year, the conference is placing more emphasis on education and business, expanding SXSWedu (which runs March 6-8, before the rest of Interactive) and adding a "Startup Village" area focused on entrepreneurship. The "Accelerator" startup competition has also heated up with more judges and nominees than ever.

Video games, represented by the ScreenBurn part of the fest, which has typically been overshadowed by other parts of Interactive, will be rebooted this year. It's being moved from the Austin Convention Center to the Palmer Events Center and will include screenings of the anticipated documentary "Indie Game: The Movie" and an announcement from Marvel Comics.

Registration for Interactive is $850 through Friday and jumps to $950 after that until the fest starts.

— Omar Gallaga

Film

SXSW Film attendees can still expect to find dozens of world premieres at familiar venues along with engaging conversations and panels with industry veterans. There will be the regular mixture of features and documentaries, comedies and dramas. But a few things have changed.

Organizers have eliminated the Lone Star section of the festival. In previous years, many films from Texas directors ended up in the niche category. SXSW Film director Janet Pierson, who has in recent years overseen the programming of great Texas films such as "When I Rise" and "Incendiary," said that she received negative feedback about the isolation of the films. She also recognized that by having a category solely dedicated to Texas films, the need to fill the slots could potentially lead to SXSW programming movies that otherwise may not have deserved a place at the festival.

"When I first came on, several local filmmakers asked me to do away with the section," Pierson said. "They said it felt like a ghetto and didn't serve them. ... This year, as we were programming, I noticed that the stronger films we were thinking of placing in the category made it very clear, without knowing what section they were in, that they'd rather go to another festival rather than be at SXSW in that category. I believe the concept was that the films weren't ‘just Texas.' So as we were programming, it just seemed nonessential. So we've ended up with terrific locally made films but they are competing on the same scale, and not being ‘penalized' as too local."

Despite the elimination of the Lone Star category, Texas films will still be able to earn special recognition. SXSW created the Louis Black Lone Star Award last year, and films from Texas filmmakers will still be able to opt-in for this special jury award.

This year's SXSW will once again feature a Midnighters program that screens horror films. The movies in that category will be announced, along with shorts, on Wednesday. But after a three-year relationship with Austin's Fantastic Fest, the category previously known as SXFantastic will not be co-branded with the genre festival that takes place in the summer.

"It was a fruitful partnership on both sides, but with ever increasing responsibilities on Tim's time (his twins, Drafthouse films, expanding Alamos), and SXSW Midnighters Programmer Jarod Neece's demonstrated great programming chops, it was time to call it a day," Pierson said, referring to Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League. "When I first came on board for the 2009 festival I wasn't aware of Jarod's great skill in this area and it's been a wonderful surprise for all concerned."

— Matthew Odam