When it comes to the major American conventions and film festivals, there’s never a shortage of attention-grabbing activities. But South by Southwest—the annual music, film, and tech festival in Austin, Texas—takes fan interaction to a new level. Unlike snowy Sundance, where film fans are bundled up and shuttled from screening to screening, or San Diego's Comic-Con, where attendees are often confined to a sprawling convention center, SXSW is spread across the walkable streets of Austin—making the distractions put on by brands and projects hoping to make their mark are all the more irresistible. Though interactive fan experiences are nothing new to SXSW (a neon Mr. Robot Ferris wheel loomed over the main thoroughfare in 2016), this year, the enticements were on a next level.
FIRE IT UP
On Monday night, A24’s explosive, locked-room shoot-em-up Free Fire made a triumphant debut at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin. And just a few hours before, instead of sitting in a hotel room answering the same questions over and over again, director Ben Wheatley and stars Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer hosted a paintball game, set off explosions, dished out barbecue lessons, and generally got up to no good at Austin’s Stunt Ranch. Copley was the most enthusiastic paintballer on the ranch, while Hammer manned the grill, and all three answered questions (and dodged some explosions) on Facebook Live. It was the perfect appetizer for the bloody mayhem to come on-screen later that night.
RALLY THE REALM
In the five years I’ve been attending SXSW, Game of Thrones and HBO have always had a presence. But what started as roped-off corner of the convention center dedicated to Iron Throne photo opportunities has morphed into a massive interactive experience. Last year, HBO erected its own Hall of Faces; this year, it hosted an intricate Escape Room game that paid homage to Thrones as well as Veep and Silicon Valley. No real knowledge of the shows was required to play (though it couldn’t hurt): small teams made their way through three puzzle rooms before emerging to, yes, another opportunity to sit on the Iron Throne. Best of all, the journey ended with a Game of Thrones wine tasting, which included an exclusive sampling of the Game of Thrones Red Blend and Game of Thrones Chardonnay. The two wines, along with the Game of Thrones Cabernet, will be available sometime this spring.
WHO YOU CALLING CHICKEN?
Busy SXSW attendees can’t live on Thrones wine alone. Those looking to fill up between screenings had the option to pop into a fully built replica of the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul over the first weekend of the festival. (Having also tasted the Los Pollos Hermanos chicken AMC brought to the Television Critics’ Association Winter Press Tour in Los Angeles, I can confirm everything does taste better in Texas.) Stars Giancarlo Esposito and Bob Odenkirk also stopped in to pose for photos, though the network didn’t put them to work behind the register. (Unlike Colossal star Jason Sudeikis and director Nacho Vigalondo, who hopped behind the bar at the Alamo Drafthouse after their screening to sling drinks for fans.)
Watch the video on Twitter.
THE STARS AT NIGHT ARE BIG AND BRIGHT
For those who prefer their immersive experiences to be a little more passive, Lionsgate had you covered. Riding high on La La Land’s six Oscar wins, the studio invited Academy Award-winning composer Justin Hurwitz to town to chat with and serenade an Austin crowd. It did not ignore the improbably insane end of La La Land’s Oscars journey, though: with tongue firmly in cheek, Hurwitz was introduced as “the Academy Award-winning composer of Moonlight.” The space had been converted into a replica of Ryan Gosling’s piano bar, Seb’s, and adorned with the lamp posts from the film’s “A Lovely Night” sequence. Fans could imagine themselves part of the scenery as Hurwitz shared behind-the-scenes stories.
AND THE REST
In addition to other Escape Room experiences and VR displays peppering the downtown streets of SXSW, there are always a number of eye-popping visuals on every corner. These things are always a mixed bag. The marching, red-clad representatives from Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale and enormous American Gods buffalo looming over Austin made for quite the striking visual. But as for the nearly-nude, painted bodies promoting Bravo’s new reality series Stripped, well, how different are they really from your average SXSW music lover on Spring Break?