The inside scoop on getting the most out of nine days of movies
Attending a film festival as big as a SXSW is no small feat. The numbers alone tell quite a story:
- 9 days
- 8 venues with 13 screens
- 134 feature films
- 101 short films and music videos
- 26 virtual reality projects
None of that even includes the film conference or the parties or Interactive or Music!
It’s a lot, and Cinapse is here to help you get through it. Most of this guide will apply only to badge holders, but those purchasing a film wristband will get some love at the end of the guide. Let’s get started.
ATTENTION PEOPLE OF SXSW! We’re not going to pull a Vanessa Williams here. There are important details you need to know about this year’s express passes, those magical tickets that are allotted for 20% of every venue. Starting last year, we lost that horrible experience of showing up early to the convention center to get them. Now, it’s online using the schedule or the app. The only problem was, passes became available 24 hours before a screening, meaning it might open up right in the middle of another screening!
Now express passes will be available at 9 a.m. the day before a screening. Read that again. The day BEFORE. And here’s the real kicker. For Friday’s films, that means Thursday morning is when passes are made available.
You must have physically picked up your badge before you’re able to use this feature.
If you live in Austin or are getting here Wednesday, you’re in luck. Get your badge on Wednesday, the new first day for registration, and be ready to get your tickets for Us that next morning. The lines for Jordan Peele’s newest are going to be the definition of insanity, and if you’re good, you’ll waltz by them all. Lots of suckers out there.
One more bit about express passes. Feel free to let them turn you into a true Slacker. If you’re going to be in the first group (after filmmaker tickets anyway) then why not skip the lines altogether and just be the last express pass? Works for me.
Where to see movies is of paramount concern. In no particular order, here’s how to parse the options.
The biggest venue (by far) screens all of the heavy hitters. It’s truly a very cool place with an interior literally from a movie. The seats aren’t the most comfortable, and if they don’t open up the balcony, there’s one small bathroom for each gender. Recommended seats: near the front on a side on the aisle, or go upstairs and sit in the front section for good seats or just go high and enjoy the experience. Editor’s note: Keep in mind the new bag policy at Paramount and Stateside Theatres. SXSW totes are fine, but laptop bags or backpacks may not fit their measurement rules.
Alamo South Lamar
This is the place to hang out all day. Five screens and food means you’re set. Also, it has free parking. (SXSW definitely doesn’t want you parking there and taking the shuttle to other venues, so we won’t suggest it either.) Wide variety of programming here, so see everything from competition films to midnighters.
The most extreme of venues. It’s maybe the hippest place to see a movie in all of SXSW-land, but it’s so damn small! If you can’t get an express pass, I’d skip it. The other Alamo has you covered, and lots of good downtown venues within a few blocks. But if you can get in for a midnight screening on Sixth Street, the experience can’t be beat.
My personal favorite venue for its combination of location (farthest north so closer to available parking), decently comfy seats, great theater aesthetics, and amazing programming. If you want to see lots of competition screenings, this is the place to go. Feel free to sit fairly close to front as almost all the views are great. Pro-tip: Main bathrooms are upstairs.
Easily the most underrated venue. It’s off the beaten path but is served by the shuttle. This is a huge venue that rarely sells out, and there are very few bad seats. The wait area is covered if it’s raining or hot, and there’s lots of room to hobnob with filmmakers afterward. Tons of great movies will screen here.
The convention center’s venue has been renamed, but it is the same old thing. No one’s favorite venue, this screen still has a lot of utility for the moviegoing public. It virtually never sells out, and it’s next to all of the conference programming. If there’s a movie that looks good, hoof it over to the convention center and soak up all the craziness of SXSW at the center of things.
Okay, this is the worst venue. But it’s not that bad! The seats are temporary, but fairly comfortable. There is affordable parking right next door, so starting off your day at the Rollins is a good way to go, using the shuttle for the rest of your needs. Many of the shorts programs screen here, and those are always great.
SXSW’s satellite venue meaning mainly for locals. This is a true arthouse theater, and having SXSW there is a perfect fit. I’ll be using it some nights to get in another screening or two without having to battle the crowds, especially once music comes around.
Food Near Film Venues
Paramount/Stateside: Royal Blue Grocery for good coffee and to-go foods. Slake Cafe. Lunch only: Biderman’s Deli, Chilantro.
Convention Center/Sixth Street: Cooper’s BBQ, Gus’s Fried Chicken, P. Terry’s Burgers, Fareground food hall, Taco Shack.
ZACH: There’s a Schlotzsky’s next door. It’ll do in a pinch, and if you saw something particularly depressing, get a Cinnabon.
Alamo South Lamar: Shake Shack (get dessert if you don’t like the burgers); Mandala’s (Cajun Fried Rice!); Caffe Medici for top-shelf espresso.
Rollins: Sandy’s Hamburgers is old-school Austin and a short walk. Do it!
AFS Cinema: Skip Pluckers (or don’t if you want to get your wings on) and go to Easy Tiger just up the road. Coffee, pastries, and sausage!
The Long Center parking garage by the Rollins Theater is easily the cheapest option. From there, try parking at one of the Metrorail stations and coming in that way. It will get full, so be forewarned.
Pro-tip. The cost of a parking ticket for an expired meter is just $20. Most parking garages cost $20. Do the math, and take the ticket. Once you get it, you’re covered for the rest of the day.*
*This isn’t legal advice. Don’t blame Cinapse if your car gets towed.
- Take advantage of the extra screenings that pop up the last few days. All of the award winners will get an extra viewing as well as some special Buzz Screenings peppered throughout. Meaningful movies can be had at the end of the fest.
- The absolute best schedule is the grid that the Austin Chronicle puts together. Get it online in PDF form or in print form everywhere around town.
- Give yourself time between movies. By the time the Q&A is over, the listed time will be shot, and without an express pass, getting in line an hour before a film is the right choice. Grab snacks if you need to.
- Go to shorts. Krisha. Thunder Road. Kin. Those are just a few recent features that had their start as SXSW shorts. You can see the next generation at work and experience some amazing cinematic moments. Can’t go wrong with any of the shorts programs. Texas Shorts is a personal fave.
- The virtual reality stuff is cool. It takes up a huge space in the JW Marriott. No lines, so just go around and put your name on some lists. They’ll text you when your slot is ready. It’s the future, now!
Wait if you can. Everything calms down after the first few days, so if you can second-half it, you’ll have a lot of choices. Before then, ZACH, Rollins, and Atom are best bets, along with Paramount for non-blockbusters. AFS Cinema is worth the drive.
Remember there are no bad movies at SXSW, so just show up to anything on the schedule. (Okay, I’ve walked out of two movies over the last ten years, but that’s a pretty good hitting percentage.)