Type to search

2024 SXSW Festivals Field Report

SXSW 2024 Field Report: AI was everywhere; Asian representation off the charts

Share

Whew, that’s another SXSW for the books! This year was my fourth year attending the festival and Justin’s third year doing so, and we’ve noticed quite a few changes happening on the grounds in Austin. Some changes were much more obvious than others and some were a bit more subtle than that… you’ll see. Read on to find out our rundown on the general trends and overall feel of this year’s edition of SXSW. -Li-Wei Chu

Special thanks to Justin Ricafort for contributing to this report. All photos provided courtesy of SXSW.

SXSW Creative Industries Expo. Photo by Aaron Rogosin.

AI was the big buzzword of the event

AI: rarely have two letters revamped the way that we think about the future of tech and creative industries like it before. After the release of ChatGPT back in November 2022 and February’s industry-changing release of OpenAI’s Sora, startups and big companies have been trying to predict how to best incorporate these new technologies to their businesses. If I recall correctly, the SXSW Creative Industries Expo back in March of 2023 didn’t feel demonstrably different from the previous year’s… but SXSW 2024 told a different story. If you had the chance to walk around SXSW’s Creative Industries Expo, the term “AI” was plastered on nearly every showcasing booth in some way. If I had to guess, more than half of the booths here had AI incorporated into their pitch. These exhibitors told a story that maybe a lot of creatives didn’t want to hear — that AI was here to stay and will just keep getting better.

Creative Industries Expo. Photo by Andy Wenstrand.

Some of the showcasing technology was interesting and seemed like fun tools that you or I might use, while others were downright scary. In the useful tool category: Justin managed to catch a demonstration of Gaudio Lab’s technology, which can be used to separate background noise from muddy audio files to give you a clear-sounding file. It can also separate different sources in a file, breaking down a produced track into parts (okay, this is also slightly scary and may lead to lots of stem-stealing and sampling without permission).

Alternatively, in the scary category: I don’t think I was personally ready to see a live demonstration of AI sampling your voice to sing popular songs with it in real time, which is what one booth demonstrated. Over at the HYBE booth, there was a video rendering of how they could use AI to make the artists on their roster speak different languages to reach a more international audience. Interesting, but also… kind of terrifying in the uncanny valley sort of way? I’m very cautious when it comes to how quickly all these technologies are being developed, and seeing them all in action felt like I was stepping into a future that I didn’t ask for. I’m curious what all of this new tech can bring to the table, but I’m not sure if we’re ready for it yet. -Li-Wei

Asian representation felt like it was at an all-time high

Jordan Peele and Dev Patel at the premiere of Monkey Man. Photo by Gilbert Flores.

I still have no idea how it happened, but SXSW has somehow become one of the most premiere festivals for music and film when it comes to Asian/Asian American content.

Perhaps it’s due to successes like 2021’s headlining film Everything Everywhere All At Once (of which we’re still seeing the Daniels return year after year… see Justin’s upcoming blurb about that) and all of the mainstay Asian music showcases (Taiwan Beats and Tokyo Calling for example), but whoever is programming the SXSW lineup seems to really be an ally — intentional or not. For one, there were so many Asian creators present at the festival that the “Asian Voices” tag was quietly added to the SXSW film schedule to spotlight certain projects… and even then, the “Asian Voices” tag didn’t fully capture all of the Asian films that were screening at the festival. One notable omissions, for instance, is Miles Blacket’s short film “Pamilya”… and this is just one that I caught missing off the top of my head. I don’t have any details about whether or not artists could opt in or out of this category, so take these omissions with a grain of salt.

This year the film programming also felt like a big year for South Asian content at the festival, starting with Dev Patel’s hyped headliner Monkey Man and digging deep into the narrative competition with Roshan Sethi’s A Nice Indian Boy, Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls, Shaun Seneviratne’s Ben and Suzanne…, Anu Valia’s We Strangers, Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams and Iram Parveen Bilal’s Wakhri. These events also coincided with the glow-up of the South Asian House, which although new, became a central designated workshop space starting from last year. Before its creation, it always felt like East Asian narratives largely dominated the film track here, so this felt like a welcome surprise.

Asian booths also took up a lot of floorspace in the Creative Industries Expo, which had large designated areas for Indonesia, Korea, and Japan on the convention floor. A lot of those booths showcased AI (see above), but quite a few brought food exports as their calling card. Even the VR/XR space, which From the Intercom typically doesn’t cover, had a lot to offer in terms of potential interesting ventures. -Li-Wei

As far as the music track goes, that leads us to…

SXSW Asian music showcases >>> almost every other US festival out there

I’ve been to SXSW four years or so in a row at this point (not counting the pandemic year when it was canceled), and I have to say that this year’s lineup for Asian artists might’ve been the most diverse and robust.

The Dinosaur’s Skin. Photo by Bryan Lasky.

A large part of that has to do JADED Media’s second year showcase, FRIENDS:FOREVER, which took over Empire Garage & Control Room for two whole days from afternoon to early morning. On stage during her set, Alice Longyu Gao called the showcase “Asian Coachella,” and honestly, that’s what it felt like. Featuring artists from indie rock, pop, hyperpop, experimental, tech-DJ sets, and hip-hop, the FRIENDS:FOREVER showcase seemed to fill a musical gap that existed at SXSW in the past. The “festival’s” undercard also represented a large amount of first-time SXSW performers, while also mixing in quite a few popular names (thuy, Se So Neon, Audrey Nuna) with the new. I don’t think I’ve seen a lineup that diverse and indie-oriented anywhere else in the states with an all-Asian lineup (looking at you, Head in the Clouds!). On top of that, the showcase was free for anyone to attend if you entered before a certain time, so Austinites had a fair chance to get a taste of what JADED had to offer even without a badge.

Ako at Empire Garage during the JADED showcase. Photo by Jon Currie.

But that’s not all: this year SXSW still had its regular showcase contributors like Taiwan Beats, Tokyo Calling, and Inspired by Tokyo. New showcases like the South Asian House (South Asian pop, folk), Friends from the East (East Asian rock, pop), and Sounds from Asia (experimental, ambient and jazz) also boasted all-Asian lineups, which gave everyone a taste of just how diverse the music scenes are under the Asian umbrella. And if those weren’t your jam, there were still more artists performing unofficial SXSW showcases (more on this later) that didn’t get programmed into any of these lineups. Check out our SXSW playlist for more if you’d like to see who else performed at the fest. -Li-Wei

Musicians vs SXSW vs Greg Abbott

Despite how many great artists ended up performing at SXSW, it would be remiss of me not to mention the elephant in the room — the amount of artists who dropped out due to the festival’s sponsorship affiliation with the US Army and defense contractor Raytheon (in the Creative Industries Expo there was even a large space dedicated to the Army right when you enter). Several musicians caught wind of the ties, linking the sponsorship to the bombings in Gaza, and chose to pull out of performing at the festival because of it. In the few weeks leading up to the fest, there was a groundswell of support for the cause, leading to a few dozen more dropouts, scrambled music lineups at the festival, and from what I can tell, a moral dilemma for independent musicians as to whether or not playing at the festival was ethical (curiously, I don’t think the same sort of pressure was present for others in film or the other tracks). Quite a few artists opted for the “unofficial showcases” only route, which meant that they were still playing shows in Austin, but none of which that would tie them to SXSW by name.

However, because the most vocal artists against the sponsorships dropped out, that also meant that apart from a few artists mentioning it during their sets, pushback and criticism of the event during the event was largely absent. If you’re not chronically online and checking music news daily (I’m guilty of doing so!), the fact that there was a protest going on would have flown over your head, since it mostly seemed like business as usual on-site.

Things also escalated when Texas Governor Greg Abbott made an inflammatory tweet during the festival referencing the artists leaving with, “Bye. Don’t come back.” SXSW later issued a tweet saying, “SXSW does not agree with Governor Abbott,” and further explaining their decision to incorporate these industries within the festival as well as their acknowledgement of artists’ free speech on the issue. With all of that brewing online, attending the music festival portion of the event soon became an uneasy, internal moral battle ground for those in the know, but it didn’t seem to bother everyone else all that much. -Li-Wei

LINES = BAD!!!

Since we’ve been coming in 2022, SXSW lines have grown exponentially — in particular with the film screenings. It makes sense when there are so many coveted premieres happening throughout the entire week. However, this year was the apex. Even with badge access, you will likely have to spend an extra one to two hours prior to a screening to get in. The Monkey Man line literally wrapped around the entire block and was by far the largest of all events we had attended. There was fighting for seats in the Paramount right before the screening as well. While the glitz of these premieres are exciting, the time-energy-sanity equation one must negotiate to get in has drastically diminishing returns. -Justin Ricafort

Crowd shot at a screening of My Dead Friend Zoe at the Paramount Theatre. Photo by Jonathan Vail.

As someone who wasn’t able to get into Monkey Man (hi, it’s me, the person who got in line an hour before and wasn’t even close to getting in even with a Platinum badge), I got a bit of insight from locals as to why SXSW had this particular problem. They were telling me that Austin during SXSW becomes one of the only times in the year when Texas is the center of attention in the movie world. As a result, these film premieres get kind of crazy if it’s a big title. This, combined with with just how hyped the film is online (the fact that Fantastic Fest, a very well-known genre-film festival which takes place in Austin every year, should give you an idea of the city’s appetite for certain films), probably led to the perfect storm of an insane line and a lot of unhappy people. I don’t think the premiere of Everything Everywhere All At Once was this packed! On the bright side, I got to meet some cool people in line, so it wasn’t all bad. -Li-Wei

The Daniels teaches everyone about ikigai and warns about AI

The Daniels at SXSW 2024. Photo by Mike Jordan.

The wombo combo of SXSW and the Academy Awards occurring at the same time every year means that the Daniels have had a reliable presence in the mainstream film world when March rolls around. With a SXSW World Premiere in 2022, and an unprecedented Oscars sweep in 2023, 2024 brought the Daniels back to Austin to have a candid, hilarious, and philosophical keynote presentation about the significance of Everything Everywhere All At Once in their career. Premised on the Japanese concept of ikigai, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert enfolded wants, needs, purpose, and money into four concentric bagels… er- I mean circles that led to their filmmaking harmony. I could have done without the references to Joseph Campbell and personal responsibility but I respect their plight to actively combat AI as a neutral actor in our world during a festival that desperately wanted to force feed AI into every aspect of our lives. -Justin

Re: LINES=BAD. The Daniels were speaking in one of the largest ballrooms (if not the largest) in the convention center and it was STILL a struggle to get in. Granted, it is the Daniels we’re talking about here, but when the panel started, the line to get in snaked around the fourth floor and spilled over into the third floor. I ended up just giving up on getting into the room and watched the livestream from the Creative Industries Expo floor. At least I can say that I was in the same building as the Daniels when they were giving their keynote? Better than nothing, I guess. -Li-Wei

Apparently everyone has met Sam Song Li

SXSW is perhaps one of the best festivals that I’ve been to to network with others, and the one name on everyone’s lips was none other than The Brothers Sun’s Sam Song Li. Li was there to promote the short film “Marvin Is Sorry” (which later won the Independent TV Pilot award at the festival), but it seems that everyone from Merv xx Goti to Chance Emerson (who I talked to and confirmed they met!) got a chance to meet the rising actor at some point during the festival. Somehow I missed the memo, so Sam Song Li hmu so we can fix this!!! -Li-Wei

Stephanie Hsu remains the queen of SXSW?

At what point does Stephanie Hsu get crowned the honorary queen of SXSW? Starting with the 2021 premiere of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Hsu has been featured in a festival headliner film every year since. Last year it was Adele Lim’s Joy Ride (of which she was also part of the core cast), and this year she was once again present at the festival for her role in David Leitch’s action/thriller The Fall Guy and (unofficially) in Sean Wang’s Didi. If you’re placing bets on what films will be headlining SXSW 2025, maybe you should start by taking a peek at what Hsu is working on next. -Li-Wei


All photos courtesy of SXSW Press. Header photo is of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem Virtual Experience event on Day 1 of the festival, taken by Tico Mendoza.

Tags:

Tell us what you think!