It was the first major event to fall and – give or take a few business conferences and trade shows – the first to return in full force.
And the stars of the red carpet who came to Austin to promote their films and TV shows were both truly ecstatic and certainly not shy about showing their appreciation.
South By Southwest (aka “South-By” or “SXSW”), the annual celebration of technology, pop culture, film, music, comedy, education and innovation, was the first major event affected by the pandemic when its cancellation was announced on March 6, 2020, just days before its scheduled start.
Two years later, SXSW has roared back with a vengeance.
Celebrities at South-By are always a major attraction. Most participate in panels and presentations, where fans can watch them from a distance. Luminaries from sports, politics, music, business and entertainment can often be seen strolling around town or dining in some of Austin’s popular restaurants.
But the red carpets at the Paramount Theatre and State Theater on Congress Avenue are where the superstars of television and film make their annual pilgrimage, as fans line up by the thousands for glimpses of their heroes and hordes of journalists gather to hear them promote their shows and movies.
And while 2022 was full of stories about plot lines, production values and admirations for directors and co-stars, one of the main topics of conversation focused on how happy these performers were to simply be back.
“You know, I don’t want to be corny, but I’ve always hated getting my picture taken and walking through press lines,” said Ethan Hawke, in town to promote his documentary “The Last Movie Stars,” which chronicles the lives and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
“I’ve often found it stressful and dumb. But now, I’m so grateful to be right here, doing this, solely because it was taken away. I never thought I’d feel that way, but I now completely understand why we do it. After all, what if nobody went to the movies because nobody cared?,” he said.
“The past two years have been just awful for our industry,” Hawke added. “I was heartbroken when they cancelled [the Sundance Film Festival] in person for the second year in a row, so I’m so glad this is actually happening. I have to say that I now enjoy every aspect of it. You don’t take any of it for granted.”
Hollywood icon Nicolas Cage shared Hawke’s sentiments.
“I’m very excited and moved just to be here,” Cage said. “Here I am, going to the movies again with people, and that’s been a while, so having this at South by Southwest is incredible … being here with the most enthusiastic group of people that love movies as well as music, gaming, all the creative arts and so on.”
Cage was in Austin to help market his madcap action-comedy film “The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent,” in which he stars … as himself. Speaking just before the film’s SXSW premiere, he said, “I’m really looking forward to seeing this movie, really for the very first time, in a theater with the 100% right group of people. I’m very excited about that.”
For one of the stars and the chief showrunner of the upcoming Showtime series “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a continuation of the story set 45 years after the legendary 1976 film starring David Bowie, the festival in Austin makes perfect sense.
“South-By is the absolute creative beating hearts of this country,” said creator, writer, director, executive producer and showrunner Jenny Lumet, who appeared on the red carpet alongside co-director Alex Kurtzman, best known as the successor to Gene Roddenberry as the driving force behind the “Star Trek” franchise.
“Their commitment to movies, their commitment to television – it’s joyful here, and that’s the spirit in which we did our best to unveil what we created,” she said. “Without a doubt, this was the absolute only place that I can actually see us.”
Jimmi Simpson, who stars in the eight-episode “Man Who Fell to Earth,” said the fans in Austin mesh perfectly with the nature of the program.
“I think it’s certainly appropriate because the show is really forward thinking,” he said. “It’s edgy, but it’s also got a huge bucket of talent. The whole cast is absolutely sensational. So yeah, it’s truly worthy of launching here at South-By.”
Actress Anne Hathaway played a starring role alongside Jared Leto in the upcoming Apple TV+ miniseries “WeCrashed,” which documents the rise and fall of WeWork; she was similarly impressed by the buzz and the culture, but for a very different reason.
“It’s my first time at South By Southwest, and really my first time in Austin, but I’m amazed by the buzz, the excitement and the passion here,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how this audience reacts to our film.”
But Hawke, a native of Austin, perhaps summed it up best, essentially closing the loop on a generational love of this Texas city.
“I came to learn that my grandfather actually saw ‘Gone with the Wind’ right here at this very theater [the Paramount} the weekend it came out,” he said. “So now, to have a movie that I made showing here, is really indescribable. I get this weird buzz of being a part of something bigger than any one of us.”
Steve Winter and Kenny Fried are WTOP contributors who work for Brotman|Winter|Fried, a division of Sage Communications.