At SXSW with ITVS Programming Manager Karim Ahmad

Posted on March 19, 2009

Held annually in Austin, Texas, South By Southwest (SXSW) is considered one of the world's premiere festivals, recognizing the best of film, music and interactive projects. ITVS Programming Manager Karim Ahmad gives some of the highlights from ITVS's and PBS's participation from this past week.

Despite unseasonably cold and wet weather in Austin (and an economic crunch felt industry wide), the opening weekend of the SXSW film and interactive festival was as frenzied as ever. I arrived in Austin a couple days before the start of the festival, which allowed me a taste of the city––sans festival. I welcomed the proverbial calm before the storm. But more importantly, arriving early gave me the opportunity to conduct a proposal-writing seminar at the University of Texas for students of the graduate film and TV department. 

UT Austin has long been the stomping ground for many members of the ITVS-funded filmmaker family, so I was glad to reach out to this group before graduation. In fact, many UT alumni had films in the festival, including Keith Maitland, director of the innovative and impactful ITVS-funded film THE EYES OF ME, Karen Skloss, also ITVS-funded for her fearless and evocative film SUNSHINE, and Ben Steinbauer, whose film Winnebago Man proved a festival favorite––not only due to its highly entertaining nature, but also a special appearance by the Winnebago Man himself, Jack Rebney who has become a hit on YouTube. Other ITVS-funded films at the festival included GOODBYE SOLO, directed by Ramin Bahrani, and THE WAY WE GET BY, directed by Aaron Gaudet, and winner of the Special Jury Award in the documentary competition. 

Once the festival was in full swing, I was engaged in the usual juggling act of screenings and meetings and panels galore. At SXSW, there is always far too much happening at one time to do it all! But the panels I attended offered some interesting case studies on distribution and marketing in the brave new world of new media. SXSW demonstrated that digital distribution continues to be a hot topic, and while no one has it all completely figured out, there’s much to be gleaned from forays to date. “The Future of DVD and Digital Distribution” was one such panel, wherein a lengthy discussion took place about the relatively low revenue earned by digital distribution compared to fees earned by television licenses. Rick Allen of SnagFilms likened the state of online video today to the early days of cable, and noted that it took decades to get cable advertising price parity with what it is now. 

Another hot topic was, as always, funding––and that in this economic climate. Private equity funding for film and TV is slimmer than ever, highlighting the importance of public funding opportunities like ITVS. Not generally one for the festival party circuit, my evenings mostly consisted of opting for oversized portions of Texas BBQ. But I was happy to make an exception Sunday evening, when ITVS and PBS welcomed festival attendees to our Happy Hour at the Mooseknuckle Pub. This Sixth Street locale was packed with festival-goers and filmmakers alike; eating, drinking and merriment ensued, as the entire shindig was streamed live by PBS Engage (check out a clip of the music performance below). By Monday, as clouds faded and the temperature rose, I managed to squeeze in a few precious minutes of sun between mentor sessions with emerging filmmakers, before returning to the vestiges of winter in San Francisco that evening, feeling both exhausted and sated from a full schedule at what remains one of my favorite film festivals in the country. 

- Karim Programming Manager, ITVS PBS Engage hosted a Social Media & Online Video Studio on Sixth Street. 

Check out the interview below with ITVS-funded filmmaker Gary Huswit, (HELVETICA/Independent Lens), who discusses his new film Objectified.        

Check out other filmmaker interviews on YouTube >> Hip-hop violinist Paul Dateh and singer songwriter Ken Belcher performed at the Happy Hour hosted by ITVS and PBS at the Mooseknuckle Pub. Watch part of their performance below:        


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