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The films, music, and brands of SXSW 2015

Austin's biggest, weirdest, most brand-friendly festival / conference / convention / show has already begun. Apps have risen and fallen. Interactive Brand Experiences have taken our staff and held them hostage overnight in a murder hotel. Virtual reality has been hyped. Movies have been watched. Tacos have been eaten.This is SXSW 2015. We're already attending and reporting from panels where very smart people say very smart things and panels where very smart people say not to smart things. We're ready to experience the best of the indie film industry, catch some concerts, party at parties, and tell you all about them. And through it all, we can't escape the marketing from companies that are increasingly desperate to catch any kind of buzz. It's a mix of the sublime and the banal, seasoned with BBQ to taste. It's a pork sandwich wrapped in Wonderbread.Catch all of it right here, and bring some napkins.

  • Mar 22, 2015

    Sarah LaBrie

    Director Karyn Kusama talks about her ensemble horror film The Invitation

    Photo Courtesy of The Invitation

    Karyn Kusama is probably best known for her breakout first feature, Girlfight (2000), which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes, and a Gotham Award for Best Feature. But in the following years, the industry came calling, and her following efforts, Aeon Flux (2005) and Jennifer's Body (2009) seemed to suggest a filmmaker with an auteur's soul doing her best to make it work in Hollywood. Now with her most recent effort, The Invitation, which made its world premiere this week at SXSW, Kusama is returning to her independent roots, with a horror film that chucks genre convention in favor of sharp social commentary and some truly dark wit.

    Set in Los Angeles' Hollywood Hills, The Invitation features an estranged group of friends who reunite at a dinner party only to find out their hostess may or may not be insane. Kusama takes a special pleasure in playing with audience notions of politeness, drawing out awkward dinner party moments until they're almost as horrifying as the film's bloodiest scenes. I spoke to Kusama via phone about what it's like to make a movie about what happens with people stop being polite and start getting real, and how it felt to debut as one of the most buzzed about genre films at SXSW.

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  • Casey Newton

    Mar 20, 2015

    Casey Newton

    Protect the brand or die trying: inside a fake social media crisis

    Lucian Jacobs is the kind of Silicon Valley founder that makes the rest of them look bad. He gets drunk in public, gropes women at the bar, and is having an affair with an unpaid intern. And to top it all off, he’s scheduled to speak at South by Southwest tomorrow — at a panel about women and technology.

    Fortunately, Jacobs isn’t real — he’s a simulation organized by a company named Polpeo. Polpeo, a subsidiary of the social media management firm eModeration, specializes in a novel new corporate exercise: the simulated brand crisis. Police officers train for various crises all the time; so do airline pilots. But most corporations don’t — even as the rise of social networks allows bad news about them to spread globally at record speed. More than a quarter of brand-related failures typically go international within an hour on social media, according to Polpeo, and a year after the crisis passes, more than half of companies haven’t recovered their share price.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Mar 18, 2015

    Adi Robertson

    Beyond Gamergate: a conversation with GTFO director Shannon Sun-Higginson

    In 2012, a friend sent filmmaker Shannon Sun-Higginson a hard-to-watch video of fighting game player Miranda “SuperYan” Pakozdi being sexually harassed by her own coach on the Capcom reality show Cross Assault. Not a gamer herself, Sun-Higginson started doing research and began work on a documentary about the larger problem of video games and harassment. Speaking to journalists, developers, and players, she put together GTFO, an in-depth look at some of the worst parts of recent gaming history — from sexist trash-talking to the backlash against critic Anita Sarkeesian — and the attempts to make things better.

    The film, which premiered this week at SXSW, couldn’t be more timely. It’s coming seven months after the start of “Gamergate,” which has organized and brought mainstream attention to the worst parts of gaming and online culture. But as Sun-Higginson is quick to point out, GTFO is not a Gamergate documentary. In fact, it was wrapped before the movement even started, although a short coda has been added. Instead, it’s a tour through all the existing problems that Gamergate brought into the spotlight: trolls, online threats, a relative dearth of female developers, and a simple blindness to how bad things can get when misogyny and internet anonymity collide.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Mar 18, 2015

    Bryan Bishop

    Mr. Robot: finally, a hacking show that won't make you facepalm

    The portrayal of "hacking" has been abysmal in movies and television ever since Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum took down an alien invasion with a PowerBook in Independence Day. There’s something about the very notion itself that seems to foil most filmmakers, and even if they aren’t using it as a superpower to backdoor their characters out of a jam, they stumble when it comes to visuals — turning keystrokes and problem solving into overwrought special effects sequences with the visual coherence of a Michael Bay movie.

    So I suppose I was a little bit skeptical about the SXSW premiere of Mr. Robot, a new thriller series from USA about a cyber-security engineer named Elliot (Rami Malek) who spends his nights hacking into people’s personal accounts to expose their hidden crimes. Christian Slater stars as the titular Mr. Robot, the Tyler Durden-esque leader of an underground group dedicated to taking down a monolithic mega-corp — and recruits Elliot to be part of his team.

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  • Kwame Opam

    Mar 17, 2015

    Kwame Opam

    Silicon Valley's diversity problem followed it to SXSW

    At a time when diversity is an issue facing tech companies large and small, South by Southwest is taking action in the name of inclusivity. This year’s convention featured a number of diversity-focused panels aimed at women and people of color in media, startups, and engineering, along with, ideally, those charged with hiring them. The panels are all too necessary; in the last year, several notable Silicon Valley companies released diversity reports detailing the racial and gender makeup of their staffs. The findings were almost uniformly dismal. SXSW overall has received some criticism in the past for failing to highlight difference, so the event is making strides for the better. That said, it has also become a case study in how much things still need to improve industry-wide.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Mar 17, 2015

    Bryan Bishop

    Toy Story, 20 years later: how Pixar made its first blockbuster

    Pete Docter took the stage at Pixar's SXSW panel to rapturous applause, the kind of reception you’d expect for a movie star or rock god. But here at SXSW, where movies, technology, and music swirl together in a multimedia stew, he’s pretty much the same thing. He waved at the crowd sheepishly before settling his lanky frame down into one of the overstuffed black chairs, where he and his colleagues were gathered to look back on Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature that Pixar made 20 years ago.

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  • John Lagomarsino

    Mar 17, 2015

    John Lagomarsino

    Introducing our newest podcast: Verge Extras

    The Verge has been covering SXSW all week, and we've seen movies, we've Meerkatted, stood in lines, and activated more brands than we'd care to remember. The week has certainly been eventful, and it's time to unwind and reflect on it all in the form of a podcast. Emily Yoshida, Dieter Bohn, Kwame Opam, and Casey Newton are on the ground in Austin to weigh in on this year's convention.

    And if you'd like to hear even more of this sort of discussion, we've set up a brand new podcast feed for your ears to bask in. It's called Verge Extras, and it's available right now on iTunes, on Soundcloud, or you can subscribe directly with RSS in your podcast app of choice. This feed will contain all kinds of audio nuggets from events to interviews to one-off audio stories.

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  • Casey Newton

    Mar 17, 2015

    Casey Newton

    How Meerkat conquered all at SXSW

    The live-streaming app built from the ashes of a stagnant app named Yevvo took Austin by storm this year. Festival-goers used it to stream concerts, panels, pedicab rides, and strolls down Cesar Chavez Street. While attending the live taping of a podcast, I noticed the man sitting in front of me Meerkatting the first few minutes. The previous day, some Verge friends and I shot a three-way Meerkat of us Meerkatting each other. (It was self-indulgent, terrible, and watched by more than 100 people.)

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  • Emily Yoshida

    Mar 17, 2015

    Emily Yoshida

    The director of Creative Control explains his augmented reality nightmare

    Just as Sundance has its coming-of-age stories, the paranoid tech parable is beginning to emerge as a newly dominant "SXSW movie." It makes sense: with an audience that crosses over so heavily with the digital community, SXSW Film is an eager, receptive audience for your would-be Black Mirror episode.

    Benjamin Dickinson's Creative Control, which appropriately enough started as a Kickstarter campaign, has all the elements of a juicy near-future nightmare: a potentially life-altering gadget, an anxiety-ridden protagonist who all too easily becomes addicted to it, and a sexual obsession that's only exacerbated by it. But Creative Control, with its dreamy black-and-white cinematography and its knowing send-up of the Brooklyn creatives on which it focuses, is also a sharp satire of our present day — particularly the contradictions of being a creative person in a capitalist society. Basically: If you were already dreading a future of wearables and augmented reality, imagine that future in Williamsburg.

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  • Kwame Opam

    Mar 17, 2015

    Kwame Opam

    We spoke with W. Kamau Bell about his new CNN show at SXSW

    Comedian, podcast host, and social commentator W. Kamau Bell is heading back to television. Last week, Variety reported that CNN had given the former FX host a documentary series, titled United Shades of America, alongside new projects led by Kevin Spacey and author Reza Aslan. Bell's show will follow him as he travels the country, talking to different people from different cultures as he uses his brand of comedy to speak to the issues affecting their lives.

    Bell was in Austin for South by Southwest this weekend for a show when we caught up with him. It was his third year in a row at the festival — he was actually hoping to take this year off — and we got to talk about the new show, diversity at SXSW, and, of course, tacos.

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  • T.C. Sottek

    Mar 16, 2015

    T.C. Sottek

    Google executive Eric Schmidt, man, makes total ass of himself at SXSW

    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    Between high-stakes discrimination suits and the dubious behavior of so-called allies, there's a tempest of awful gender relations right now in Silicon Valley. But the loudest storms that make headlines are only a small part of tech's sexism problem. It's not just bad weather, it's bad climate — lots of small patterns that add up to a persistent mess. And as Eric Schmidt demonstrated today at SXSW, even top executives are capable of fueling the storm.

    In a panel today, The Wall Street Journal reports, Schmidt had lots of thoughts about gender diversity in the technology industry — and often interrupted co-panelist Megan Smith, the US's chief technologist and Schmidt's former colleague, to share them with the audience. At one point, WSJ reports, Schmidt "opined on which of two questions Smith should respond to," and interrupted Smith as she was speaking to talk about the Raspberry Pi.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Mar 16, 2015

    Adi Robertson

    SXSW's creepy virtual sex talk is everything wrong with VR hype

    VR developers are usually pretty positive about our present reality, even if the experiences they build are things that are difficult or impossible in real life. Nobody, for example, sells the ISS spacewalk simulator by saying Earth is for losers. “Oh, you’re not a 10-mouthed alien in a nightclub? I’m so sorry.”

    So it’s... interesting, to say the least, that SXSW held a panel titled “The Future of Porn Is 3D Virtual Reality” that hinged entirely on the idea that touching another human being, or paying attention to anything a woman does, is boring and horrible.

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  • Emily Yoshida

    Mar 16, 2015

    Emily Yoshida

    What is brand activation? Inside SXSW's buzziest buzzphrase

    The hottest new trend at noted brand festival SXSW is activation, and all the best, most influential brands are getting on board. But what exactly is a brand activation? Join me as I wander the streets of Austin, Texas in search of social integration, strategic crossbranding, and of course, lots of free stuff.

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  • Casey Newton

    Mar 16, 2015

    Casey Newton

    Yahoo won't let Community die, no matter how hard Dan Harmon tries to kill it

    Alli Harvey/Getty Images

    Dan Harmon, creator of Community, is standing on a stage asking people to please pay attention.

    Yahoo has brought him to Austin to record a live episode of his podcast, Harmontown, which in turn will promote the unlikely sixth season of Community, which Yahoo funded and will premiere Tuesday. The underdog company has picked up the bar tab at the event space it rented, and the result is a constant murmur from the increasingly buzzed crowd. Harmon has fans here, but they have trouble focusing on what's in front of them, and as the night goes on, they stream out until only the hardcore faithful remain. It's the story of Community's first five seasons, played out in miniature over one night. Can we expect season six to be any different?

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  • Adi Robertson

    Mar 16, 2015

    Adi Robertson

    SXSW has its own geek convention, and it's full of adorable kids in VR headsets

    SXSW is a professional show, full of professional networking and professional parties and professional talks about drones that will fly over your head and protect you from the rain. But between the panels and meetings, I discovered that there's actually a small, publicly accessible show floor that stays open for three days during the Gaming Expo. It's a combination of game developers fresh out of GDC, comics and anime labels, a single aerospace / defense company (Northrop Grumman, which was there to advertise the James Webb space telescope), and more human beings than it seems possible to fit into a single hall. Oh, and a ton of tiny children wearing virtual reality headsets and swinging around VR lightsabers or control rings.

    The Gaming Expo show floor could crush your soul. It will definitely crush your body. But it might also, for a few minutes, warm your heart.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Mar 16, 2015

    Bryan Bishop

    I was first in line for the world premiere of Furious 7

    In the world of the Fast & the Furious franchise, a few rules apply. Family comes first. You ride or die. And you willingly throw yourself into a multi-part film series that is some bonkers combination of superhero car fantasy and family melodrama.

    So when SXSW announced Sunday morning that it was debuting Furious 7 at a secret midnight screening, there was no hesitation. There was no second-guessing of what I should do. There was simply the instantaneous decision to head down to the Paramount Theater to get in line. To see the film… no matter what it took.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Mar 16, 2015

    Bryan Bishop

    The new Steve Jobs documentary is an unforgiving look at tech's most complicated man

    The day that Steve Jobs died, people around the world flocked to Apple Stores in a sort of spontaneous mass pilgrimage. They left letters and signs, holding up iPhones and iPads in tribute. Director Alex Gibney shows the event early on in his new documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and it stirred up a flurry of emotions in me, because I was one of those people.

    I couldn’t really tell you why I felt compelled to visit back in 2011, and I doubt any of the others that stopped by could explain it either — at least not in any coherent fashion. It was just a vague feeling: a sense that a page had turned and needed to be marked. It turns out Gibney, the man behind documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, was mystified by the phenomenon as well, and it’s ground zero for his film, which premiered here at SXSW.

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  • Dante D'Orazio

    Mar 15, 2015

    Dante D'Orazio

    Help NASA discover new asteroids with this free app

    You can now help NASA find new asteroids. At South by Southwest today, the space agency released its asteroid tracker desktop software, produced in conjunction with asteroid mining company Planetary Resources in an online competition. The software, which will run on any standard Mac or PC, will accept images from a telescope and run an algorithm on them to determine which celestial bodies are moving in a manner consistent with an asteroid. You can download the software here.

    The new algorithm is the main achievement here — it's said to be able to identify 15 percent more asteroids in the asteroid belt (located between Mars and Jupiter) than previous solutions. The algorithm can not only identify possible asteroids, but attempt to match them to currently known near-Earth objects (NEOs). With the free app, any amateur astronomer can analyze images taken from their own telescopes. Possible new matches can also be sent to NASA for the agency's databases.

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  • Emily Yoshida

    Mar 15, 2015

    Emily Yoshida

    Bodies electric: Ex Machina twists the history of sexy robots

    A24

    Before the premiere screening of Ex Machina at South by Southwest this weekend, senior programmer Jarod Neece told the audience at the Paramount Theatre in no uncertain terms, "this is one of the best films we've ever shown." And indeed, Ex Machina is excellent — gorgeously shot and designed, brain-crampingly complex in its line of questioning and gracefully efficient in its storytelling. But throw hyperbole like that at a film festival and you're bound to invite contrarians. And as soon as the credits rolled on Ex Machina, I predicted two things in its near future: near-unanimous critical praise, and a lot of hot debate about its woman problem.

    Caution: some spoilers ahead.

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  • Dante D'Orazio

    Mar 15, 2015

    Dante D'Orazio

    Yahoo shows off password-free logins and new encrypted email technology

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Passwords are terrible: they're inefficient and they're often insecure, too. Many leading tech companies have embraced two-factor authentication as a more secure option, but they're optional and only those particularly concerned about their digital identities take the time to set it up.

    That's why Yahoo is taking a new approach, called "on demand" passwords. Like two-step authentication, you'll be sent a unique time-sensitive code through an app or a text message to your phone when you want to log in. But there's a key step missing: you won't have to type in your primary password first. That's right, with "on demand" passwords, you won't have a permanent password tied to your account that's required every time you log in. Some might even call it "one-step" authentication. When you try to sign in, you'll see a "send my password" button instead of a traditional password text box if you enable the system. The new sign-on method is available now.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Mar 15, 2015

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Studio promotes Ex Machina at SXSW with a fake Tinder account

    SXSW is a strange world of excess and possibility. There's all-branded everything, talk of flying cars, and drunk people all in one place basking in the sensual allure of the Texas sun. Revelers looking for love (or whatever) at SXSW might turn to Tinder, and this weekend, there's a chance they matched with a robot.

    One of Adweek's staff members was swiping through Tinder at SXSW when he matched with Ava, a seemingly normal 25-year-old who turned out to be the love of exactly no one's life. Ava was a Tinder bot created to promote Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which premiered yesterday at SXSW. You can read their conversation below:

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  • Adi Robertson

    Mar 15, 2015

    Adi Robertson

    Edward Snowden issues 'call to arms' for tech companies in secret SXSW meeting

    NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was a highlight of last year's SXSW, where he gave one of his first public speeches. This year, Snowden was back at SXSW — but only a few people even knew it was happening. Snowden held a streamed question-and-answer session with roughly two dozen people from across the technology and policy world, which participant Sunday Yokubaitis, president of online privacy company Golden Frog, described as a "call to arms" for tech companies to foil spying with better privacy tools.

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  • Dieter Bohn

    Mar 15, 2015

    Dieter Bohn

    AeroMobil hopes to launch its flying car in 2017, and a self-flying car after that

    Speaking today at SXSW, AeroMobil CEO Juraj Vaculik argued that his flying car is more than just an interesting prototype, and that he hopes to release the first model of "wealthy supercar buyers" by 2017. Vaculik spoke about how he dreamed of a flying car for the first time 25 years ago, looking for a way to escape an oppressive political regime in Czechoslovakia. "We need another revolution, we need a revolution in personal transportation." If that metaphor isn't enough for you, Vaculik moved on to identify three new "prisons" afflicting modern commuters just like (apparently) a communist regime: the traffic prison, the airport prison, and the prison of bad infrastructure. Vaculik also thinks that self-driving cars are only a "partial" solution. The real solution, he says, are flying cars.

    All three are serious problems for car-based transit, yes, but I'm dubious that flying cars are the best solution (or even a good solution) for any or all of them. Vaculik says he's very serious about the possibilities, though, laying out a history of the engineering behind flying cars. AeroMobile started prototyping by hanging models on the front of cars and driving around, because the company didn't have access to wind tunnels. Vaculik showed a prototype from a couple of years ago, and then version 3.0 of the car, shown in October 2014.

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  • Casey Newton

    Mar 15, 2015

    Casey Newton

    Google is planning an Ingress convention for later this year

    That's why Niantic is now planning a convention, says John Hanke, the former Google Maps executive who leads Niantic. Hanke mentioned the possibility of large-scale meetup for players at the end of a panel where he spoke with James Frey, the author with whom Niantic is collaborating on an Ingress-like game called Endgame that is tied to a series of books that Frey co-authored. Afterward, Hanke told The Verge that "nothing is set in stone," but a convention was "likely." He declined to share additional details.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Mar 15, 2015

    Bryan Bishop

    Taking terror to Skype: a conversation with Unfriended producer Jason Blum

    If you’ve watched a scary movie over the last 10 years, odds are that you’ve seen a movie from producer Jason Blum. Combining low-budget genre films with studio-level distribution, his company Blumhouse Productions has been responsible for bringing movies like Sinister, Insidious, and the Paranormal Activity series to the big screen — and oh yeah, he’s also had a hand in Oscar winners like Whiplash, as well.

    Blum’s latest film is Unfriended, which is screening here at SXSW. An online riff on revenge movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, it takes place entirely on a high school girl’s laptop screen. During a group Skype call, she and five friends are haunted by what appears to be the ghost of a friend that killed herself one year ago, after a bout of cyberbullying. I chatted with Blum in Austin about the origins of Unfriended, why experimenting with formula and format is key to his films, and how virtual reality might be the best (or worst) medium for horror.

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