Louis Black on SXSW ‘06

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AUSTIN DAZE: Tell us about SXSW this year.

LOUIS BLACK: It’s the 20th anniversary, which is kind of shocking and exciting. It’s really weird to have the Chronicle almost 25 years old and then SXSW is 20, which will probably be the most extraordinary SXSW we’ve ever had and, I think, the most difficult. The music line up and the film line up are both so strong. There are so many great acts and so many great movies that people aren’t going to be able to get in to see who they want to get in to see. We’re going to sell fewer wrists bands than we’ve ever sold. We’re going to try and sell less single admissions than we’ve ever sold. There are going to be shows that people just can’t get into-lots of them. And I think with films, you’ll see a lot more of them selling out which on one hand in cases (music and film) is very rewarding-it means you’ve brought stuff that people love. On the other hand, it breaks your heart. You know my ideal is to have the rooms absolutely packed but nobody waiting outside. We want everybody to get in. But this year is totally different.

I mean after 20 years you’re in a pattern of the way things are going to run. This year isn’t like that. Registration is so much higher than it’s ever been. For example, hotels booked up so quickly and so many that we’re really worried because we had some set aside for people who haven’t made reservations yet, you know, speakers and stuff like that, but we probably don’t have enough because they just booked up so quickly. All three events are way ahead in registration. Music has always dominated of course. But both interactive and film have gone through periods when one of them was doing really well but the other one wasn’t doing so well.

AD: Interactive and film are on their 13th anniversary, right?

LB: I think 94 was the first year.

AD: How did SXSW start?

LB: Essentially what happened was Roland Swenson and Lewis Meyers–Roland worked for the Chronicle and Lewis had an office right there as a booking agent – came to Nick Barbaro who’s the publisher of the Chronicle and I and said, let’s start this event. And we talked about it for a couple of weeks and then around Thanksgiving of 1986 we decided that we were going to do it in March 87. That was the first one. And from the very first one it did ok and people came.

There were the problems that there were. One year, none of us can remember exactly whether it was the third or fourth year, but we decided not to do it during spring break. We got to do it in the first place during spring break because all the clubs were empty. But one year for booking reasons we couldn’t do it during spring break so we did it when the colleges were here and it was nuts because there was just crowding up the wazoo.

And learning how to do it was really hard. It’s really Roland ‘s vision. We were talking the other day, someone was interviewing us, and Roland said, “some people say, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this” and Roland went, “well I imagined it”. And that’s totally true. I don’t think Nick or I imagined it. I don’t think Nick or I grasped it. But Roland did. Roland always knew where to go next and he had the vision and at a certain point I realized that and I accepted that. In the beginning there was probably more tension creatively because I was not used to being a facilitator. I was used to being a creative force. I feel very creative about my role there but I realize I’m following Roland ‘s lead. And I am thrilled to death I got to be involved in it.

AD: You started with music. How did you end up adding Film and Interactive?

LB: We had done a music thing because we love music and in this town it made sense but as soon as music was established, we decided to add film. And we didn’t even know exactly what we wanted to do with it we just knew we wanted to do a film event.

The first year became real apparent because we hooked up with a guy by the name of Dewey Winburn who unfortunately is no longer with us but Dewey was doing some programming for Interactive-CD ROM’s and stuff. So the first year was supposed to be just film but we ended up with two separate tracks–one for film and one for interactive. And the second year, we created these three different events.

I figured this was going to be our little film festival. And then because Linklater lived here, and because Robert Rodriguez moved back, and Mike Judge moved down, and Paul Steckler came to the university for documentaries, and this is one of the few communities where all of the filmmakers interact with each other, it became much bigger than that.

In LA you might have a small community which might have some studio film makers and some not studio film makers but it’s people that have known each other for a long time. In Austin, you used to have a couple of parties a year and you’d see the documentary filmmakers, the experimental, the animators, the studio guys and everybody knew everybody else because it was about film, it wasn’t about Planet Hollywood. And so as that came together suddenly SXSW took off. We had three programmers who did great in terms of booking the festival. And along the way films like, “In the Company of Men” played Sundance and didn’t do that well there but did really well in Austin so that helped it. And then “Spellbound” couldn’t get into Sundance and we played it and it got picked up for distribution and was a documentary hit and stuff like that really kind of counts.

People tell me after Sundance , it’s Tribeca and then SXSW. And you really see it in the films we get.

AD: How is SXSW different from other music, film and interactive festivals? For example, Sundance?

LB: You know people say; well you’re going to be the next Sundance. I don’t want to be the next Sundance. I really don’t. When SXSW started New Music Seminar in New York was the number one top music event in the country and we were number two. And that was great because everybody hated them and liked us. So Sundance is Sundance, I would never want to have a Sundance. It’s about people that don’t really care about movies, it’s a market, it’s see and be seen and in Austin it’s really about film. And music is about music.

The defining moment for me was one year I saw four of the top indie players at the convention center and they were going out to have Barbecue together. They weren’t going to go look at a movie, they weren’t going to go negotiate-they were old friends that had all known each other forever but they hardly ever saw each other socially and so that’s what really began to happen here. And then with interactive it really became home to the blogging community because, they don’t get together, and to the next generation of media-you know where is everything going to go next? And now this year, interactive’s registration is, I think, is 100% more than it had been last year. It really is where the major bloggers come to meet each other and hang out because Austin is such a conducive community.

AD: How do you feel about the alternative events that happen around Austin during SXSW?

LB: I have mixed feelings-I love the fact that’s it’s everywhere. On the other hand, once SXSW trademarked if we let people imitate it than we lose ownership. That’s the way it works. The reason why Disney are such fascists over Mickey Mouse is because if they know there is a kindergarten with Mickey Mouse on the wall and they don’t do anything they are passing it on to the public domain. Look at Sundance-they didn’t do it and so there is Slamdance and one-dance and off-dance and up-dance and down-dance…so we protect ours because we don’t want to confuse people. And of course we’ll give permission and that would be ok, but some people would just as soon pick a fight with us.

And the other thing is, so many of these people have to badmouth us and that’s what pisses me off. It shouldn’t. I should be over that. I woke up one morning and there was some hair salon on South Congress and they were having some kind of event during SXSW and they were talking about how this was the “real SXSW”. And it’s amazing that they are duplicating what we are doing. We do facilitate events and we help make stuff happen all the time but the ones where they have to say how crappy we are or what crooks we are or how we have forgotten what it’s supposed to be about. And I know why they do it-when you start something you set yourself up in opposition to what exists.

AD: It’s an amazing line up this year. We’re really looking forward to the Neil Young piece by Jonathan Demme. What are your thoughts on the film? Have you seen it yet?

LB: I went to Nashville when they filmed it so I got to watch them do a run through and then the two shows that they filmed. Then we were in New York to show the Towns Van Zandt film that I worked on and Jonathan was screening the Neil Young film for Neil and the whole gang so I got to go to that.

I loved it. The concerts were amazing. The film was great. I think Young is more open than he’s ever been. I think because his wife Peggy, who has been his manager for 20 years is very involved in it. I think it’s the most intimate film of his. He’s always written intimate songs but he’s more of a character than a human being. And this film makes it a very intimate experience. It’s stunning looking. It’s beautiful. I’m thrilled to be showing it at the Paramount.

AD: It’s great that you guys got Neil Young-it will add a different dynamic to the whole film festival.

LB: Yeah, definitely. And the cool thing about it is, Roland loves Neil Young and I don’t think we ever asked him before because we didn’t think we could get him.

Neil Young changed my life three years ago-we were in the Toronto Film Festival and it was an interview with Elvis Mitchell who was with the New York Times at that point and Neil Young. And we went because we could get in because we knew everybody. And the night before Neil Young had given a concert in Greendale, which I had read mostly negative stuff about so I figured if I went I could nap. And I loved it. I was grinning from beginning to end. He does his high school play in it and then Crazy Horse came out and played an hour and I was just like nuts for it. And I was with my friend whose from Toronto, he has the weekly paper there and in Canada there’s ice hockey and Neil Young and then nothing else really matters. So we went to this interview and I figured Young was going to be indifferent or give short answers. And it was one of the greatest interviews I’ve ever heard because one of the things I finally got was that Young is totally driven by creativity and artistic interest. He says the Greendale tour was great because he could do ten new songs in a row-it wasn’t like being in a Neil Young cover band. But I suddenly realized what might have seemed odd to me–his walking out on the Steven Stills tour after two dates, wasn’t for him. He did it because it wasn’t right.

I had wanted to do more writing and I had been offered a job and had never been offered a job, everything I did I had created. You know, I had no skills. Friends that were all being recruited and when I was at UT, these scholarships, and I had none of that. And I had been asked to apply for a really interesting job but it was going to be really bureaucratic in certain ways. But I was so flattered I was going to go for it. And listening to Neil Young I realized, screw that.

It was really a revelation.

AD: Have you tried to get Van Morrison to come to town?

LB: Van Morrison is going to be in Dallas. We’ve tried. The only person I want to see live, literally, is Van Morrison. And I’ve seen him once like in the 60s.

AD: What do you love most about Austin?

I love Austin. I really love this town.

This is the one town where if somebody comes here and says, “I want to start a band or I want to make a movie, or I want to write a book”–It’s like, what is stopping you? If there was ever a community to do that in…

This town has a great theater scene, it has a great film scene, and it has a great music scene. There’s a community of women detective writers, there’s a science fiction writing community–it’s just incredible.

And a lot of these people did it on their terms. We totally did the Chronicle on our terms.

How many people do you know that are doing creative things?

AD: Everybody we know.

LB: Exactly. When I leave town and go visit relatives, it’s weird because there are people that are stuck in jobs that they don’t like. I swear to God, nobody I know is stuck in a job they don’t like in this town.

AD: The best thing about SXSW is that people are approachable.

LB: It’s all about Austin.

At Sundance and Toronto you have a sense that there are these cool parties going on but you’re not going to get invited. At Sundance, you get a sense of the action going on but you don’t know where it is. And Austin’s totally different. If we tried to do this anywhere else it wouldn’t work. You go to Park City, Utah, the week before or the week after Sundance you would never know that this was a town that had a film festival because there is nothing there about it. You go to Austin any day of the year and it is exactly the same as SXSW-it’s just not as intense. There’s great music, great films, tons of great intellectual activity and all kinds of media activity. And it’s totally awesome. That’ s what I mean about those guys going out for BBQ.

Because you go to LA or New York and the idea is not to become emotionally involved. Here people are coming to have a good time and they are going to applaud and stuff. And it’s one of those things where they are really smart. There is more programming of films in this town and better music in this town than almost anywhere else on a regular basis. And it’s accessible and affordable. And so you have an audience that’s really hip, really educated, knows what’s going on, but is not embarrassed to love stuff-is not trying to be too cool.

It’s the people in the music business who love music. It’s the people in the film business that love film. If you don’t love music or film you’re not going to come.

AD: I want to tell you what I hate the most about SXSW. I hate that there is so much going on!

LB: We don’t even get to go. One of the things that Roland says is, “remember, SXSW is not for you”. You know I’ve never really been to SXSW-I’ve worked every one of them. Even when you go, you are so preoccupied with making sure it’s running right. Every year I say this is the year I’m going to hang out with friends or I’m going to do this or that. The second Saturday when they tear down the music trade show, which in my mind means it’s over, is always the most depressing time. I’m thinking, “Where did it go”? “I didn’t get to do anything”. **

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