Every studio with something to push books pricey space a year or more in advance at Comic-Con, which last year packed 130,000 fans into a downtown San Diego papered with promotional branding. But this year’s SXSW saw a sign of things to come as film and television brands took that strategy to Austin, targeting the festival’s estimated 64,000 registered attendees. Universal, Warner Bros Television, A&E Network, Showtime, and Syfy jumped ahead of the pack with marketing blitzes sure to multiply by next year as other entertainment brands set their sights on the plugged-in, social media-active demographic of influencers that pour into the annual multimedia festival. This year’s edition wraps this weekend.
Growth here has accelerated rapidly in the past three years in terms of attendance and prestige, thanks to distribution deals and buzz-building debuts in the film festival portion and the hot tech conference on the Interactive side. But thanks to its unique overlap of Film and Interactive components, SXSW this year attracted the attention of studio marketers with no films in the program. All of the major companies I spoke with made their first-ever trips to SXSW in 2013 and reps tell me they’d return next year if they had the right property to promote.
Warner Bros TV launched a multi-pronged campaign at SXSW 2013, turning a gallery into a “Tell-A-Vision” space that tapped into themes from NBC’s Revolution with “analog” versions of familiar digital experiences. They also held a panel for Chuck Lorre moderated by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and brought in CW star Ian Somerhalder (The Vampire Diaries), while Ashton Kutcher (Two And A Half Men) also visited the space. Three months went into planning the campaign, which SVP Marketing Sonia Borris explained aligned with WB’s “social television” programming: “Unlike Comic-Con where you’re focused on engaging with fans, getting them excited, and playing into their enthusiasm, this is about experimenting as a destination for tastemakers, fans, vendors, and networking”.
“We had been looking at SXSW for years”, said Syfy Channel VP Brand Marketing Dana Ortiz, who helped launch a “container village” inspired by Syfy’s series Defiance, which premieres April 15. The network paired its on-site micro-housing experience with a Defiance panel and utilized the social media tool Klout to run a contest awarding one winner a free stay in the container hotel during SXSW. “It had to have a hook, it had to be big and bold, it had to be PR-able, and it had to appeal to consumers and industry”, said Ortiz. She estimates that 3,500 attendees came through the Defiance site over four days.
In contrast to Comic-Con’s highly competitive real estate, branding opportunities in Austin are much easier and cheaper to come by. (Last year at Comic-Con, Syfy put branding on San Diego Airport bins “because it was the one place people hadn’t been yet”, admitted Ortiz.) A&E’s Bates Motel hosted a Carlton Cuse panel and episode preview, but the network also snatched up prime branding space above a 6th Street bar where a neon Bates Motel sign was on prominent display to all of SXSW’s foot traffic, including those in town for the hugely popular SXSW Music portion. Although none of the execs I spoke with including A&E Marketing VP Guy Slattery would reveal their SXSW spend, he admits it was a relatively cheap move for the return on exposure. “It’s harder and harder to cut through at Comic-Con because everybody is there”, said Slattery. “You have to work harder to get noticed. I’m sure as more networks and studios come [to SXSW], we’ll run into the same issues as Comic-Con — a lot of people competing for eyeballs and mental bandwidth”.
Showtime hosted an invite-only lounge and fest shuttle sponsorship and additionally promoted shows Dexter, Homeland, Shameless, and Ray Donovan, culminating in a watch party for Ray Donovan‘s June 30th premiere. But their SXSW initiative went beyond the physical. The network partnered with the fest as a sponsor of the “Trending Now at SXSW” tool on the official SXSW Go app powered by Foursquare and Google Maps APIs, putting their brand front and center on the smart phones of plugged-in SXSWgoers.
Universal was ahead of the curve in 2011 when it sneak-screened Bridesmaids at SXSW Film and rode the buzz it created here to box office success and a couple of Oscar nominations. This year Uni made another prescient move with its Tom Cruise-starrer Oblivion, which opens April 19. Partnering with Vice Magazine’s expansive VICELAND warehouse space, the studio brought in costumes and a Bubbleship vehicle used in the sci-fi film and hosted a drone workshop and soundtrack listening party hoping to attract SXSW Film, Music, and tech-leaning Interactive attendees. “Comic-Con activations are pricey”, said Digital Marketing SVP Doug Neil. “Here we’re leveraging other partners’ opportunities and it’s very economical… do you buy a billboard in LA, or do you do something different?”
Cross-branding partnerships with Vice and music app Spotify along with similar partnerships can make a marketing push like Universal’s Oblivion Experience more cost-effective, especially if no talent is being flown in. (Cruise did not make the trek to Austin.) And at low price points sometimes made even more affordable as media partnership value-adds, it’s an opportunity that more networks and studios will jump on next year. “SXSW is no longer the little fun fest in Austin”, Neil said. “It’s definitely becoming mainstream by virtue of who’s attending”.