The Well-Equipped Festival Goer: Surviving SXSW Film 2009


The Paramount, from rockygirl05 on Flickr

Note: A 2010 guide to the SXSW Film Festival is now available.

[Editor's Note: Jenn originally posted this survival guide to her blog last week, and I thought it was so enjoyable and useful that I asked permission to repeat it here.]

I've been a badge holder for SXSW film for the last several years, with the exception of last year, when I had a film pass. If you're going to really do a film festival, and get 4-6 screenings in a day, with all that line standing, you can make it easier on yourself with:

Colorful Bags and Tools, from CC Chapman on FlickrA Big Bag/Backpack
If you're a badge holder, you get a great big bag full of swag and ads. You can carry your stuff in there, or use a backpack. Either works. But you need one to carry the necessaries to make your festival experience more enjoyable, and survivable.

Re-usable Water Bottle
In the past, I've re-used plastic bottles, but I've been looking for a good, non-plastic one. Another attendee at the Austin Film Festival last year had a Klean Kanteen stainless-steel bottle, and the 18 oz. looked the perfect size for stuffing into a bag. And apparently, it keeps water cool for a long time, which is great in Texas. I'm not a fan of ice water, but I'd prefer my water to be at least a bit cooler than body temperature. It's also got a wide mouth, making it easy to clean.

You definitely want to stay hydrated, and this can help you save money and the environment. Good all around. I just ordered two of them in different sizes on, which is a great site with genuinely green bags, and bottles, and related products.

Just make sure your bottle is not visible when entering venues, especially the Paramount. The water Nazis'll getcha.

It may be Texas, and it may be Spring by the end of SXSW, but there's no guarantee the weather will cooperate, and some venues have turbo AC. If you want to get double duty out of it, you can use it to hold your seat on restroom trips before the show. Best if it's not black, though, so people can see it.

Someone Left the Cam Out in the Rain, from ldandersen on FlickrUmbrella
Just because we're back in full drought mode doesn't mean there's no possible chance for rain. Get one bright enough to find if you put it on the floor in a dark theatre, and the more unique the better. But make it compact, so you can stuff it into a waterproof bag and easily store it your big bag.

UPDATE: Despite the drought, the weatherman is suggesting possible rain this week, so there may be rain next week. Stuff one of those 5,434,006 plastic bags you pick up during the week for storing your umbrella in your bag/pack so you aren't stuck searching for it, or lose it. You will want the umbrella, because Texas rain is by deluge most of the time.

Nutrition Bars
You only need a couple of them, but they're very handy when hungry and waiting in line, or when you're at a venue without food. Or, if you oversleep from the late screenings and partying, and have to dash to your first screening of the day.

I'm not a big fan of Luna or Cliff bars, but I rather enjoy Pria and ZonePerfect. ZonePerfect bars also come in snack size, perfect to take the edge off hunger until you can make it to an Alamo screening. The ZonePerfect fudge grahams are better than some candy bars. The Pria Complete chocolate mint bars are pretty good, too.

Trial Size Pain Reliever
Personally, I prefer Aleve. You may have another. Most drugstores will carry trial size of the more popular brands. You might also want to get some travel packs of tissues, and face wipes, too, for when you're not feeling as fresh as you'd like. I'm pretty retentive about this stuff, so I also have bandaids, and change and a couple small bills for emergency. And nail clippers. Yeah, you want to know me when you have those little emergencies.

This is Texas, after all. Even the locals will use sunblock this time of year, and you will be standing in line for hours over the course of the festival, if you do the full festival. While it's currently cool for us, we've already flirted with 90F this year.

These don't have to go with you, but I do recommend taking them even if you don't normally. You're likely going to stay up longer, partying harder, and eating worse than you normally do. It doesn't mean you can't take care of yourself a little bit.

Comfortable Shoes
I'm always surprised to see some women in heels at screenings, then I remember they're the ones who're usually just attending that one. Unless it's your film screening, stick to comfortable shoes. If you're an Austinite or frequent visitor, you know that sandals are acceptable just about anywhere, anytime in Austin. After your first 45-minute line, you'll thank me.

Keychain Flashlight
You're gonna be in a lot of dark theatres. It makes it a helluvalot easier to check for fallen items, umbrellas, etc. And for those of us not using hotels, a lot easier to find -- and use -- keys. At Fantastic Fest, I helped someone find something that would have been irreplaceable. You can probably even pick one up at the trade show.

Go Local Austin, Water, and Tips
You can save quite a bit of money on your soft drinks by purchasing a Go Local Austin card. For just $10, you get discounts and other offers at local businesses, several of which are near the Alamo locations. Mekong River has great Vietnamese food, and is just a block or so away from the Alamo Ritz. If you have hat envy, Hatbox is a block down the other way. If you buy two large soft drinks at an Alamo, it's paid for itself. There are so many local businesses participating, you need to check out their website to see them all.

Just remember to tip, please, based on the full price of your order (15-20 percent). Please, please, please, make sure to tip your staff, even if it's for the water they bring you. They take care of you, you should take care of them. They do everything any other waitstaffer will do, but they do in the dark and with stairs. Fifty cents for a water is fair, if you ask them to bring it to you.

Not tipping just makes you look cheap, and the waitstaff is working extended hours with packed houses every screening, and for some of them, it's their spring break. So give them a break and appreciate them the best possible way. And if you can't afford the tip, you can't afford the meal.

These are just the highlights I can think of; what suggestions do you have?

[Photos found on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licenses. With thanks to rockygirl05 (Untitled), CC Chapman (Colorful Bags and Tools), and Buzz Andersen (Someone Left the Cam Out in the Rain).]

a few thoughts ...

I love wearing sandals but if I wear them to SXSW screenings, especially at night, my toes turn into tiny popsicles from all the A/C in the theaters.

I like to carry little bags of almonds or cashews because if you skip/are late for a meal, you can get some protein. Also, they are easy to share with other meal skippers (Michelle Williams of Austin Daze saved my life at AFF with her giant cashew can). Austinuts are the best, if you can find them. Unsalted isn't a bad idea so you won't get too thirsty.

I also carry antacids because sometimes the only meal you can find is the heartburn-inducing type.

Amy's Ice Cream also offers discounts with the Go Local Austin card, in case you happen to be near one (6th and Lamar is probably the closest to any film venues). Plus you get a free topping if you guess their movie quote.

The one thing I haven't figured out this year is how to conceal a water bottle if I'm not carrying a backpack or purse, since I may be carrying a camera bag instead. Maybe a Camelbak smuggled under a hoodie?


If I was more into nuts, I would carry those. Or raisins, or something. I don't get heartburn, so I'm lucky there. I'll add those to next year's list as well.

As for the Go Local Austin card, there are several places accepting them in the 6th street area; just like for the (not burnt) orange logo. I hate how you can't see the addresses on their website at first glance. Ice cream would be a nice treat, though.

They usually aren't careful at searching at any venues unless it's a special screening. I think the rain this weekend will help with that, and all the umbrellas. Just hold it under your coat in your hand, and you're probably fine.