Spring break for geeks. That’s what the mainstream news media christened the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in 2008, just as this self-curated, little-engine-that-could collection of daylong panels, trade shows, and wowee-zowee multimedia presentations—dwarfed in past years by the debauched and much more heavily attended Music Festival—began to draw increasing numbers of registrants. (The current estimate is in the high thousands, a 40 percent bump since 2009.) Running concurrently with this orgy of interactivity, of course, is the SXSW Film Festival, an event that when I visited Austin eleven years ago, pre-mumblecore, seemed destined to become a perennial sidebar on Sixth Street, the city’s famed boulevard of bars, clubs, and intoxicated hipsterism. Who’d want to hole up in a movie theater or audit a panel on “HotBot vs. AltaVista: How to Get the Most Out of Your World Wide Web Search” when the Supersuckers and Fu Manchu were making tattooed eardrums bleed at Stubb’s? Geeks, obviously.
The presumed equivalence between film nerds and techies makes sense on the surface. Both tribes, you might say, are addicted to screens. In 1994, when the fest organizers added these strands, film and interactive (dubbed “multimedia” at the time) were conjoined, only to be separated a year later, perhaps for logistical reasons. Certainly, emergent technologies affect the way films are made and exhibited, as well as how we communicate, and the increasingly sophisticated manner in which advertisers brand entertainment experiences. But how easily do these worlds coexist in Austin’s week of wonders? How compatible, really, are the coffee-swilling entrepreneurs and propeller heads congregating at the obscenely spacious Austin Convention Center with the beer-and-a-burger indie-film set, who mostly haunt the old Paramount and State Theaters on Congress Avenue and the Alamo Drafthouses on Sixth Street and (even more conspicuously) South Lamar, miles away from the madness on the far side of Town Lake?
In terms of social mixing, the best answer is probably: grudgingly at best. There is a greater disparity of badges (orange for Interactive, blue for Film) at the convention center, where the exhibit halls and conference rooms are stuffed with techies on holiday (or the company credit line). Here and there a flash of blue indicates a rogue cinephile in search of a friend amid the teeming crowds, or hunting for the Vimeo Theater, the one venue in the city-block-straddling hall explicitly dedicated to festival screenings. Scores of people line the walls on every floor parked next to an outlet, laptops humming and TweetDecks open as they fire off hashtagged bulletins. Out on the streets of downtown, the dueling geek populations are more notionally integrated, especially as everyone tucks into local eateries for lunch, hoping to find a table before the next session (or film). Still, rarely does one spot blue and orange walking hand in hand, as it were, or chatting about what’s got them excited. “We’re hitched for the week,” a cinephile wants to declare. “But your GroupMe app is not my Turkey Bowl.”
Further indications that the techie crowd and the film-freak cliques aren’t up for mixing are most apparent at the “crossover” events that SXSW sponsors. This year it introduced a new “convergence” category to help identify sessions that would be of interest to geek-o-philes of any stripe. In principle, this was a noble idea. Yet it was hard to imagine that any blue badge holders skipped out on the premiere of Fightville, Wuss, How to Die in Oregon, or Weekend to attend “Star Wars Uncut: The Force of Crowdsourcing.” (All were scheduled at 5-6pm on Saturday.) What might be convergently interesting to film buffs and interactive types alike probably revolved more around the outskirts of a “Transmedia Storytelling” panel than the frayed tube socks of “The Sexual Survival Guide for Geeks.” (One shudders to think how the audience for this session sized up. Hot and nerdy? Or sad and flabby?) Even the festival itself seems to have acknowledged the separateness of their March 11-15 out-of-town visitors, estimated at around 11,000 people: Last year, orange badge holders could attend select film festival screenings. This year, that privilege was revoked unless one held a Gold or Platinum pass. (Geek to theater usher: “You mean I have to pay?” Film nerd to theater usher: “We don’t need no stinking badges!”)
I know, I know: Can’t we all just get along? Well, yes. And we do. We just don’t attend the same parties or like the same kinds of cinema or even share the same habits. The revenge of the nerds might be in full swing at SXSW Film & Interactive week, but not all geeks are made the same. Walking down Sixth Street my first night in Austin, I came upon a scene that truly encapsulated this continental divide between nerd squads. Wrapped around the Alamo Ritz was a line of people a block long waiting to lay eyes on Insidious. Not far from there, an equally lengthy column snaked from the front of a pop-up Apple store, looping around the corner and into the oblivion of a midnight alley. They were waiting to lay hands on an iPad2. There wasn’t a blue badge among them.