A roundup of Paradise Lost
So-called “Activations,” branded experiences as simple as a festival booth and as elaborate as an entire western town populated by actors, grab lots of attention at the annual Austin, Texas South by Southwest festival and conference. In recent years, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld, Mr. Robot, The Daily Show, Amazon’s Good Omens, and the film Ready Player One were just a few TV and movie properties with big presences at SXSW, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to create eye-catching, interactive experiences, from full-sized Ferris wheels to virtual-reality discos to a Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library experience.
But 2020’s batch of SXSW activations died the moment city officials declared South by Southwest could not go on amid fears of COVID-19’s spread. No more will badgeholders or lucky members of the public get to enjoy free food and sponsored selfie stations courtesy of Hollywood’s deep pockets, at least not this year.
What did attendees miss, though? The festival typically announces many activations last-minute, so we’ll never know every event that companies planned and killed. HBO, for instance, likely had something huge under its sleeve, but has been quiet on what that would have been since its parent company bowed out.
Here’s a roundup of some of the ones that were confirmed for SXSW 2020 and what guests might have expected to see there. I should stress: I am not making these up. Someone officially announced and scheduled every one of them for SXSW.
Poo~Pourri’s Giant Poo Experience
Who did this: The Addison, Texas-based company behind (hee) bottled scents to mask the fetid stench of human excrement calls itself Poo~Pourri Scentsible, LLC. Send your angry word-nerd emails their way, not to me.
What was supposed to happen? They were going to drop a 30-foot inflatable shit just south of the Austin Convention Center. Billed as a 360-degree, immersive interactive experience, they announced the theme as, “Drop the toxic crap.”
What would the experience have been like? More than likely, this would have been the kind of installation with feel-good vibes that included a Post-It affirmation board, a cutesy animated VR video reminding you that everybody poops, and of course a row of samples of the company’s wares, which include such scents as “Trap-A-Crap,” “Deja-Poo,” and Austin-appropriate “Margarita.”
The New Mutants Facility
Who did this: 20th Century Entertainment and Marvel executives desperately hoping this movie doesn’t bomb the way Dark Phoenix did last year.
What was supposed to happen? “ A planned “360-visual environment,” which describes every room that has ever existed, was supposed to terrify attendees. It included a “Gamified escape room,” as opposed to non-gamified escape rooms like jail, and an “interactive space where your darkest fears will be realized”, so, basically, Twitter.
What would the experience have been like? Scary never works at South by Southwest, everybody is too drunk or texting at every moment to feel much beyond FOMO and foot pain. One of the worst installations I ever went to was for AMC’s The Terror, which involved getting on a fake boat and watching ice and water on screens around you as machines sprayed water in your face. When it was over, the attendant letting us out of the boat said apologetically, “That was… The Terror.” This installation would have been just like that except with a lame social-media-ready photo of attendees made up to look like they’re using mutant powers like generating ice balls with their hands or tanking an entire comic book franchise in one box office weekend.
The Check Your Blind Spots Unconscious Bias Tour
Who did this: CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a group of 900 company CEOS pushing for diversity in business when they’re not asking you to take a weekend shift or lobbying for tax incentives for their company.
What was supposed to happen? The press materials say the activation “gives people the opportunity to learn about and explore ways to mitigate unconscious bias in their lives through a series of interactive elements and gamification. Learn about your own unconscious biases, then grab a free bite to eat or a screen printed tote or t-shirt, and stay awhile!” Dope!
What would the experience have been like? Like that second episode of The Office where Michael Scott tries to teach everyone about diversity in the workplace and exposes himself as borderline racist and sexist before the show softened him up over the next seven seasons. But you are Michael Scott in this scenario and you have to go home with the knowledge that you aren’t as woke as you thought. Happy South-by!
Create & Cultivate Featuring Michelle Pfeiffer
Who did this: Create & Cultivate, an “online platform and offline conference for women looking to create & cultivate the career of their dreams.”
What was supposed to happen? The one-day pop-up event was going to include panels, live podcasts, a “Mentor power hour” and lots of wellness tips and content-creation strategy seshes. Ampersands provided.
What would the experience have been like? Strategizing is cool and all, but the star attraction this year was to be the appearance of beloved actress, Maleficent hater, and David E. Kelley muse Michelle Pfeiffer. What they don’t tell you, though, is that Create & Cultivate is a way to attract young blood for Madame Pfeiffer to ritualistically consume so that she may keep her youthful vigor for another hundred years. It was in the fine print of the RSVP.
Who did this: GORE-TEX. They make gloves and coats.
What was supposed to happen? According to a story from the marketing site The Drum, GORE-TEX was planning to simulate windy and cold conditions with an activation that would allow you to see just how well its wearable products work against those elements. Cool cool cool cool cool (and rainy!).
What would the experience have been like? Fucking miserable. You really think people flying in from New York City for some sunny Austin weather want to be rained on and blasted with arctic air for fun? Come on, guys.
Starz Presents Hightown: Welcome to the Cape
Who did this: Starz, the other other Cinemax.
What was supposed to happen? To promote its new series Hightown, about a (checks notes) National Marine Fisheries Officer who’s investigating a dead body, Starz planned a SXSW Cape Cod simulator. From the press info: “You won’t want to miss this two-story pill installation, featuring a mysterious and provocative aquatic performance – where what you see isn’t what meets the eye. Stroll the boardwalk, grab a beer and a lobster roll, and experience the most unique performance in Austin.” Oh, ayuh! That’s how they do in Maine, right?
What would the experience have been like: Who cares, they were gonna have lobster rolls! Why did they have to cancel SXSW? Why, God, WHYYYYYYY!?
Reflector Entertainment’s Unknown 9 Storyworld
Who did this: “Headquartered in Montreal, Reflector is a new breed of studio working with top talent to create high-quality content for a global audience. Our true transmedia approach centres around the creation of Storyworlds, expansive universes that allow us to tell richer, deeper stories that connect with fans everywhere.” Canada was about to throw down, storytellers!
What was supposed to happen? I’ll spare you the nearly 1,000-word press release, but here’s the gist: an opening party at Austin City Limits Live featuring DJ Kaytranada would kick off an immersive event that was to last for the entirety of SXSW and that would include the “Incident,” a paranormal dig site next to the Convention Center. That dig would link to a fictional Austin subway: “Help emergency personnel with the excavation of strange objects being unearthed from an Austin subway line. There is actually no record of a subway in Austin…this fact being part of the mystery.” That mystery would lead participants follow up with transmedia properties including a tie-in novel, a comic book, a podcast, and hey, where are you going, we worked REALLY HARD ON THIS!
What would the experience have been like? Remember your friend in high school who told you he was working on a 1,500-page space fantasy novel inspired by Star Trek that would take place across 15 planets and would feature 35 point-of-view characters, many of them space aliens with multiple apostrophes in their name? This would have been the activation equivalent of listening to that person talk about their novel for an hour and a half.