Entertainment Brands Chart Their Next Steps After Canceled SXSW

Companies ramp up digital marketing, delay releases and plan to recycle activations

SXSW logo and activations
Entertainment brands that have long used SXSW as a launching pad for major shows, films and media projects are scrambling.
Getty Images, SXSW

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Alex Amancio began to fear something would go wrong two weeks before South by Southwest was supposed to begin.

Amancio, the CEO and co-founder of the multimedia studio Reflector Entertainment, had for a year been planning a big debut at the media, music and film festival in Austin, Texas. The plan was to unveil Reflector’s first Storyworld, a fictional universe to be explored and expanded via comic books, novels, podcasts, television and other mediums. To introduce guests to the universe, Reflector had sponsored and hired a DJ for SXSW’s interactive opening party. Tickets would include a map to a sprawling activation across the street from the festival’s convention center—a parking lot turned excavation site aimed at transporting would-be attendees to ‘The Incident,” where workers building a subway tunnel in Austin stumbled upon something mysterious and paranormal. The activation—complete with a custom-built subway car, military trucks and hundreds of prop artifacts in various stages of excavation—would be tied to the debut of a podcast, novel and comic book that take place in the same universe as The Incident, a story world the company was calling The Unknown 9.

Reflector planned to display this sketch for display at the activation. Similar artistic elements would have weaved throughout the event.
Alvaro Tapia

But with the spread of the coronavirus around the U.S. and the world, Amancio also had to consider the possibility that the show might not go on.

“I just had a bad feeling about it,” Amancio said. “I met with the team, and I said, ‘Look. What happens if we have to react?'”

The Incident, as it turns out, wouldn’t happen in Austin after all. After SXSW officially canceled the event on Friday, March 6, the team worked into the wee hours trying to hammer out the details of their contingency plan, which ultimately emerged this week: Reflector is pausing The Incident and other elements of its story universe until the fall.

“We wrote down a broad contingency plan, but as you know, the devil is in the details with this kind of stuff,” Amancio said. “So when it did hit, there was a lot of scrambling, and for the next 72 hours, we had to figure out what was next.”

Artifacts like these would have appeared at Reflector's activation The Incident.
Reflector Entertainment

Reflector Entertainment wasn’t the only company left scrambling in the wake of SXSW’s cancellation. Entertainment brands that have long used the festival as a launching pad for major shows, films and media projects are now scrambling to shore up new strategies. The emerging plan, according to some of them: swallow the losses, salvage and recycle what they can and try to figure out when they can gain back  impressions they were counting on.

One executive whose network had planned an activation and a premiere said the company was “holding out hope” until days before the festival was canceled outright, when company leaders determined sending employees would be too great a risk and dropped out.

These conjoined coffee mugs also would have been part of The Incident.
Reflector Entertainment

“In the scheme of things, 80-90% of our investment is sunk,” the person said. “The teams are disappointed and there’s a little bit of a scramble, but our disappointment was slightly lessened when the whole thing was canceled. At that point, there’s really no choice.”’

‘A logistical nightmare’

Leading into last week, 2020 was shaping up to be a big one for entertainment companies like Apple, Netflix, Freeform, Hulu, NBCUniversal, Starz and WarnerMedia, all of which had SXSW panels, activations or premieres planned. Quibi, the forthcoming service from Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, planned to showcase its content just weeks prior to its April 6 debut, making the festival a seemingly crucial stop in its ongoing press efforts.

Then it all came crashing down. Big names like Amazon Prime Video started to back out, citing concerns about the spread of the virus and their need to be cautious. Other brands, including Quibi, stayed firm about their plans to be at the festival until the moment it was canceled. Reflector’s choice to stay in was one Amancio said the team made out of necessity—and out of faith that SXSW organizers would do the right thing.

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