A Review of Fort Worth's Second Trip to SXSW

From free booze, food and music to fighter jet and helicopter simulators, Fort Worth brought it all to SXSW.

Fort Worth completed its second year of hosting a two-day house at the giant South by Southwest festival, inviting patrons to try their hand at flying an F-35, taste local whiskey made by Firestone & Robertson, listen to local emerging bands and make a take-home spice with chef Tim Love.

Preliminary estimated attendance at the house — on Rainey Street in the heart of the festival — was 3,700, said Mitch Whitten, executive vice president of marketing and strategy for host Visit Fort Worth. That beat last year’s two-day attendance of 2,000, when the bureau hosted a house in East Austin in the middle of the South by Southwest week celebrating innovation.

This year, Fort Worth took over a bar and opened on Day One of that segment of the festival. Visitors crammed the house early on, making it clear the city would easily beat last year’s two-day attendance of 2,000.

Fort Worth is using South by Southwest to project itself as a hip, creative city for people to live, work and play in, a focus that emerged from findings that the city has fallen behind Dallas in numerous areas. “We’re trying to let people know Fort Worth is not just cowboys and culture; we’re hip, we’ve got a great music scene, great food,” Mayor Betsy Price said in an interview at the bungalow.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ F-35 simulator, inside a tent, anchored the front-yard entry. “There was a line out the door and down the street [at Day One’s 10 a.m. opening]; everybody got buzzed in, and they came here,” Eric Fox, senior director of government relations for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, maker of the F-35 and F-16 fighters in Fort Worth, said.

Bell Helicopter, testing advanced but simple controls as it develops urban air taxis of the future, let visitors try three flight simulators. Firestone & Robertson’s mixologists offered multiple whiskey tastings. Fort Worth’s Renfro Foods executive Jim Renfro and his wife passed out take-home bags of salsa and chips, with Renfro warning visitors to be wary of the salsa’s burn. Fort Worth musicians Ansley, Danni & Kris, Abraham Alexander, Jack Barksdale, Lou CharLe$ and Smooth Vega played. And Fort Worth photographer Rambo Elliott debuted a one-minute trailer for a short film about mental health, due to be completed later this spring.

Elliott, whose images of musician Leon Bridges helped propel his career and hers, was recruited into the film a year ago by the two founders of the fast-growing M2G Ventures real estate firm. The M2G partners — Jessica Miller and Susan Gruppi — had lost a loved one who battled mental health.

Elliott, M2G and the Fort Worth film producer Red Sanders and his Red Productions teamed up on the film. M2G paid for the approximate $30,000 cost of producing the film, including money they raised last fall in a Kickstarter campaign.

The film is called “The Bridge.” It’s a fictional story and 12-minute short film about a girl over the course of 20 years in her life. Roxanna Redfoot, a Dallas actress and model, plays the lead, Elliott says. Elliott’s niece, Lindsay Baer, and the musician Alexander, a friend of Elliott’s, also play roles. The crew shot the film on locations in Fort Worth and Lake Granbury.

The film “is an immersive art experience in the world of mental health,” Elliott said in an interview. “I wanted to show what it feels like. It walks through repression, anxiety and depression. [Of the main character], you see her at 11, you see her at 20 and you see her at 30. These problems can take time. I wanted to show every evolution.”

Elliott said she has her own fight with depression and wants the film to prompt discussions about mental health. “This has to be normal,” she said. “What would it be like if we could have conversations like that? I want people to know what their problems are called. As soon as you can name something, you get better.”

The film will likely be complete in May and debut at Sanders’ Red studios on the Near Southside, Elliott said. On why it’s called “The Bridge,” she said, “That’s in the film. We’re not going to tell.”

Kyle Valley, senior vice president of Majestic Realty and an ambassador, said the first five people he greeted included three students who’d either just graduated college or were seeking master’s degrees. Those three “specifically came here because they had been looking to get into the aerospace sector, but they had no idea [Lockheed Martin] had that kind of presence in Fort Worth.” And “they thought it was unique that a city had its own space activated.”

Visit Fort Worth, which has spent $500,000 in each of the last years on South by Southwest, mostly from its advertising budget, is measuring the effectiveness by social media reach, attendance and brand sentiment. Last year, Fort Worth received an estimated social media reach of 2 million, Whitten said. He expects Fort Worth to exceed that number with this year’s bungalow.

On brand sentiment, Visit Fort Worth runs a survey each year within Texas and surrounding states that measures how well the city fares in respondents who are considering weekend getaways. “Fort Worth is not as high as we want it, but last year, we moved the needle,” Whitten said. “And later this year, when we take the survey again, we want to move the needle again.”

Visit Fort Worth hasn’t yet committed to returning to South by Southwest next year and is studying whether it can allocate those resources to a range of other opportunities.

President Bob Jameson noted that the bureau left South by Southwest last year without having committed to re-upping, so it’s possible Fort Worth will return. But “to me, this can’t be the only place where Fort Worth is hanging its hat,” Jameson said. “We just need to take a look at the universe.”

photos provided by visit fort worth