SXSW 2012 Guides: Filmgoing Tips for Locals and Passholders

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SXSW in a nutshell

When I wrote last year's guide for Austinites planning to see movies at SXSW, I worried about the future of the SXSW Film Pass. It seemed like so many movies at SXSW 2010 filled up for badgeholders only. However, the festival was aware of the problem and has done several things to make the film pass worth its $80 -- an excellent value if you know the best opportunities for filmgoing. In addition, Austin film lovers who just want to see one or two SXSW films can buy individual tickets if a theater still has room after admitting badge and passholders.

If you're a local without a badge, your best bet is to see movies at the two "SXSatellite" theaters, Alamo Drafthouse Village (schedule) and the brand-new Alamo Slaughter (schedule). Out-of-towners won't be able to find or reach these places, and festgoers with cars often prefer to stay downtown so they can easily go from movie to movie to party. Bonus: both venues have ample free parking. You're not getting the "full fest experience" but you're not spending a lot of money, either. (Besides, the full fest experience sometimes involves driving in gridlocked traffic frantically praying to find parking before your 2 pm movie, or having to eat soggy heatlamped breakfast tacos for lunch. There are highs and lows.)

In case you aren't a seasoned SXSW Film vet, here's how the access works for each movie: Film, Gold and Platinum badgeholders are all in one line and are allowed in the theater first. After that, the film passholders are let in, if space allows. Finally, if there's still room, ticketholders can get into the screening. Tickets usually go on sale 15 minutes before the movie starts if seats are available; some tickets are on sale already, as I explain below.

Here are our tips for Austin filmgoers, especially those who want to enjoy a taste of the festival without a badge. If you do have a badge, keep reading anyway, because I'm going to give you parking and transportation tips, among other helpful hints.

Free movies for everyone!

Yes, SXSW Film has free movies and events that anyone can attend, first-come, first-served. The highlight is a Slacker 2011 screening at the Paramount on Tuesday, March 13. I'm compiling a comprehensive (I hope) list to publish later this week. Updated: Here's the link, check it out; there's at least one great panel session that is not on the official SXSW list.

SXSW Film Festival 2011

Tickets available right now

Many SXSW films screening at the Paramount Theatre have tickets for sale online for $12 -- they'll refund your money if the theater fills up, but they're confident these screenings will have enough room for you. Ticketholders who buy in advance get seating access before those who buy tickets that day.

As of today, you can buy tickets to nearly all SXSW Paramount films, excluding a few big-buzz marquee screenings but including Bernie, Richard Linklater's latest film (and we hear Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey will be there too). I'm also looking forward to the Austin documentary Trash Dance, about the choreographed performances of garbage vehicles; Bob Byington's comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring the ubiquitous Nick Offerman; and the restored print of Yellow Submarine. I've seen and recommend several SXSW films already that you can buy tickets for: the documentary The Imposter, about which the less revealed the better, Searching for Sugar Man -- come to think of it, the same comment applies, and the Zellner brothers' amazing Kid-Thing (ditto, ditto).

Music docs seem to sell tickets quickly. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is about to run out of tickets, and closing-night film Big Easy Express has already sold out online. But you can still try at the door on the day of the screening, of course.

Film passholders should take a look at that list of Paramount movies linked above, because those are screenings you have a really good chance of gaining admission into. Any Paramount screening that's not on that list ... your odds aren't too good.

SXSW Film Festival 2011

Tips and tricks for film passes and tickets

I cribbed some of these tips from Slackerwood contributor Mike Saulters, who covered SXSW on a film pass last year. You can read about his good and bad experiences using the pass. By the way, I hear this year's SXSW film pass is actually a wristband, can someone confirm that? Updated: Nope, it's still on cardstock. Someone must have confused it with the Music wristband.

  • As I mentioned earlier, Alamo Village and Alamo Slaughter are your best bet. But if you're a film geek, you'll probably want to head downtown for a few movies.
  • If you're downtown, try Paramount and Austin Convention Center (also known as the Vimeo theater), the two largest SXSW Film venues. The Vimeo/ACC theater lines shorten considerably during the Music festival, and seats are almost always available. The Canon Screening Room at the Long Center (aka Rollins) is often a good bet as well (see all the empty seats in the above photo?).
  • Avoid Alamo Ritz, especially during the first half of the festival, most especially the smaller theater. Out-of-towners will see anything at all here so they can enjoy the Drafthouse experience. After the film conference ends, your odds may improve slightly, but this is still the fastest-filling SXSW Film venue. Most movies screening here also screen somewhere else; check the schedule. Alamo on South Lamar is also chancy for passholders during the first part of the fest, for the same reasons.
  • Violet Crown may be challenging too, since the two SXSW theaters there seat 39 and 50 people. Still, you might get in during the second half of the festival. (Please let me know how well film passes work at VCC this year.)
  • The earlier in the day the movie is scheduled, the better your chances of getting in. Badgeholders may be hung over or tired from watching midnight movies, so you've got better odds before noon.
  • Which means you should avoid midnight screenings. They're almost always sold out for badgeholders anyway. Get some sleep so you can catch those early screenings the next day.
  • Figure out which films have the biggest buzz ... and go see something else at another theater at the same time. Lots of people will be at the Paramount on opening night, so ACC may be a great choice.
  • Get to the theater at least 30 minutes before the movie starts if you have a pass -- longer if you're trying to buy a ticket, or if you're dying to get into a popular movie.
  • Aim for seeing movies from Wednesday through the second Saturday, after the Film and Interactive conferences end. Many out-of-town badgeholders will be gone, so the lines are often shorter. The talent who appeared at Q&As earlier in the week will either have left or will look exhausted ... but the movie is the same one everyone saw earlier in the week.
  • Always have an alternate choice, preferably at a bigger theater. Learn to expect the unexpected and roll with it.
  • Avoid big-name titles, especially if the movie is only screening once during SXSW, and if it's screening at a smaller venue. Many of those movies will come back to Austin sooner or later. Instead, take a risk with a lesser-known film that you might not get another chance to watch. Try one of the short film collections -- I love shorts, and SXSW always has a great selection.
  • Movies shot in Austin or with Austin ties may fill up quickly. Sometimes cast and crew members and their families are invited and a number of seats are reserved. On the other hand, these movies that draw more ticketholders than badgeholders, because the audience is full of locals wanting to see their neighbor or coworker's movie. So if you get there early, you might be okay.
  • Don't dismiss the SXSW Encore screenings if you haven't seen those movies yet. They're screening again because they're good.
  • Make friends with badgeholders and see if they can't save seats for you near them. That way, if you do get in, you might not have to sit in the front row. (This is often a long shot, especially if it's a full screening, but it never hurts to try.)
  • The SXSW Go app for your smartphone will supposedly give you a status update about whether an upcoming screening is sold out, or about to sell out, just like the boards at each theater do. This is a new feature, so we'll see how effective it is after the festival is underway.

A Precept of SXSW

The parking situation for locals

SXSW downtown parking gets crazier every year -- it used to be insane only during Music, but apparently the Interactive attendees have a lot of cars in Austin too. And you can't even cheat and park at Alamo on South Lamar anymore, that parking lot is always at capacity. The only places you know you'll be able to park easily are the SXSatellite venues, Alamo Village and Alamo Slaughter.

In addition, as you probably know, city parking meter hours have been extended most nights and on Saturday, so free parking at SXSW is pretty much a thing of the past. Accept it and budget accordingly.

The good news for badgeholders is that the SXSW Film Shuttle is running every day of the fest, so you can plan your day without worrying about how to park in two different locations. You can also try Catch a Chevy. Sadly, these perks are not available for film passholders.

Community Impact Newspaper has a fabulous map of downtown parking garages/lots, which also shows where all the five-hour parking meters are. This map isn't online yet, so find the printed edition you got in the mail recently. The ACC garages (PDF) are best because they don't jack up the rates once the Music fest starts.

I have two fail-safe methods of convenient parking:

  • Get there before 9 am. Yeah, I don't like it either (I aim for 10:30 or 11 am myself). But if you do it on Sunday you can probably park for free at a metered spot. And if you're a badgeholder you get first pick of the SXXpress tickets. Even if you can't get downtown at that hour, remember that the earlier you get there, the better your parking chances. During Interactive, the parking starts to become scarce by 11 am; for Music, they sleep a bit later so you have until noonish.
  • Park at the Long Center. It costs money (fees change depending on the events that day), but if you're a badgeholder you can take the shuttle back there when you're done for the day. And even if you have to walk (it's about a mile from Paramount), you can get out and get home pretty easily. Not only that, but you can probably park in the free-on-weekends lot across from Canon/Rollins on the first Saturday and Sunday. NOTE for badgeholders: SXSW is not showing movies at Canon/Rollins from Thursday 3/15 to Saturday 3/17, so the film shuttle will not stop here on those days. If you park at Long Center you'll have to hoof it or cab it.

It's easier to get into downtown movies during the second part of the fest, but you have to deal with Music parking and crowds. Really avoid downtown on Saturday, March 17, especially at night, unless you like crowds equivalent to the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day. When St. Patrick's Day collides with SXSW Music it's usually chaotic, and on a Saturday it's going to be a madhouse. If you don't believe me, look at the following photo ... and that was taken on a Thursday afternoon.

Sea of green

Alternate transportation options

If you don't want to deal with parking downtown, now's the time to get acquainted with Capital Metro. If your home isn't bus-convenient, you could park a little further away from the downtown venues and take a bus to the theaters. Cap Metro has Night Owl buses that run after midnight, too (but not on Sunday nights). Refer to our SXSW Venue Guide for specific bus routes that run near the SXSW theaters. Extra buses will be available on the Night Owl 481 and 484 routes on March 16 and 17.

If you live in north Austin, this option gives you free, covered, non-towed parking: Park in a park-and-ride space in the Triangle garages, then take the #101 or the #1 to Sixth and Congress. You won't have to walk a mile to your car, and it's safe at night. Caveat: It's easy to get downtown this way, but at night, the buses are overcrowded and delayed, and some are so full they won't stop. Plan accordingly. Jenn Brown gets everywhere she needs to go during SXSW via bus, with few complaints.

One good thing Capital Metro is offering for SXSW is extended MetroRail hours. MetroRail fares are $2.75 each way, which is cheaper than parking downtown during the fest, and the downtown stop is right in front of ACC. Check the times carefully (regular schedule) and get in line early at ACC for your return trip, as the trains can get pretty crowded.

Please share your own tips and tricks for passholders and ticketbuyers in the comments. I'll update this article whenever I receive any new information or tips.

[Photo credit: "SXSW in a nutshell" by Agnes Varnum on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. "Preservation Hall at the Paramount," "At the Rollins," "A Precept of SXSW," "Sea of Green," by Jette Kernion.]

The 2012 SXSW Film Passes

The 2012 SXSW Film Passes are not wristbands. They are paper cards, about the size of a business card. At least, the ones they're selling at the Alamo Drafthouse are.