SXSW should do as Sundance did: Ask if the fest has become too big

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

When it comes to public events, is bigger always better? It’s a question that Robert Redford has pondered over with the growth of the Sundance Film Festival.

His recent reply to a question about the future of Sundance, an event he founded more than 40 years ago, made me wonder if SXSW organizers think about the mammoth size of their festival. If they don’t, perhaps they should.

When Sundance began in 1978, Redford wasn’t sure the idea would even work, much less balloon into one of the largest film festivals in the United States. But it did, weathering growing pains along the way. Now, organizers for that festival are at a crossroad.

“As (Sundance) grew, so did the crowds, so did the development in Park City. Well, at some point, if both those things continue to grow, they’re going to begin to choke each other,” Redford told the Associated Press.

Here, one of the most-respected organizers in the film-fest game, admitted he has stepped back and started to analyze the situation facing one of the most popular festivals in the world. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to expect other established festivals to do the same.

Yes, I get that comparing the size of Sundance and the size of SXSW is moot. They are two completely different animals, after all. An apples-to-apples comparison shouldn’t be attempted. Size, above all, is what separates the two.

Most significant is the difference between the sizes of the location and attendance of these festivals: Park City, Utah’s population is a little more than 8,000; Austin’s population is closer to 1 million. Attendance at each you ask? In 2015, Sundance had over 45,000 attendees. SXSW Music, Film and Interactive 2015 attendance was at 84,385; of those, 20,252 attended the Film Festival portion.

Like in most growth scenarios, troubles and challenges come regardless of the size of a city or town.

“I’m starting to hear some negative comments about how crowded it is and how difficult it is to get from venue to venue when there’s traffic and people in the streets and so forth,” Redford told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at that.”

It’s no secret that similar negative observations have been pointed out about SXSW. Austin residents and festival attendees have been complaining for a few years now about public safety, traffic and the effect they have on the quality of a SXSW experience. Then, critics had more to make their case against SXSW growth after a tragic crash killed four people during SXSW in 2014. While enhancements to public safety measures have been made since the accident — measures applauded by the American-Statesman editorial board — it will be necessary for festival organizers to be more proactive in their planning to prevent more tragedies.

What started in 1987 as a stage to showcase independent musicians — adding film and interactive branches in 1994 — has exploded into a one Texas’ biggest Spring Break gatherings full of big names, big parties and bigger headaches for those who live and work in downtown where most of the official and unofficial SXSW gigs take place.

Despite Sundance and SXSW being two very distinct beasts, it’s not unreasonable to suggest SXSW organizers ask themselves how much more, if at all, the festival should be allowed to grow.

In Redford’s case, that has meant facing the growth issue head on and searching for solutions on how the Festival can evolve.

“You have a couple of choices. You can go hard and say we’re going to stop it. Say ‘that’s the end.’ Let it go. Let someone else do it,” he said. “Or, you say well, if you want to keep it going, we can’t keep it going the way things are.”

One of Redford’s idea is to break up the festival into sections and multiple dates throughout the year, instead of packing the entire lineup just 10 days. For example, the festival could screen narrative features in January, and documentaries a month later.

Change, understandably, is inevitable. Festivals should aspire to grow. But at some point, arguably, an event the size of a Sundance or a SXSW festival can become too big.  Hopefully, the thought does not elude our friends at SXSW.