Navigating SXSW as a journalist - one man's story

Fred Topel has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 covering film and television. You may have seen his interviews and film reviews on websites like Crave Online, Slashfilm, About.com, We Live Entertainment, Cinema Thread and more.

Fred is a member of the Television Critics Association and a tomatometer critic on Rotten Tomatoes. He recently chatted with Red Fan’s Kristen O’Brien about what it’s like to navigate SXSW as a journalist and what he likes (and dislikes) in working with publicists and those trying to get their message out during the festival.

K: How has SXSW changed over the years coming from your perspective of the press and covering this festival for the last seven years?

F: Not that I have noticed. It was already big when I started attending in 2010.

K: What's the highlight usually or best part of SXSW for you?

F: Always the people I meet. Austin locals are lovely and SXSW attracts a wonderful film community from all over the world.

K: The worst part?

F: Transportation. It’s a mess. Cabs will promise a pickup and leave you stranded, and they’ve got a monopoly. The one year Lyft and Uber were allowed helped tremendously.

K: What are ways that publicists or their clients have wowed you over the years or made your job easier when it comes to SXSW?

F: The best thing a publicist can do at SXSW is make it easy and flexible to include their client in my coverage. Booking a central location in the downtown Austin area, like one of the hotels or press venues along Congress, is a good idea. Since there are so many films to see and interviews to do at SXSW, I only have time to cover the ones that are compatible. Providing screeners in advance of the festival is also helpful when scheduling, to resolve conflicts with overlapping screenings. Filmmakers prefer us to see films on the big screen, but they can trust us to give it a professional evaluation at home, and it could be the difference between getting coverage and no coverage at all.


Fred Topel on the red carpet at AFI Fest.

K: What is the biggest frustration as a journalist coming to SXSW?

F: Not frustration, but just a reality of the business is the application process for freelancers is more complicated. I have assignments from multiple A-list sites but because I am not on staff, it is difficult to pick one site that encompasses my entire work. I understand that many sketchy “freelancers” try to apply with no firm commitments to publish. They need to be weeded out. But, professional freelancers with multiple assignment letters don’t exactly fit the formula. Sites with large staffs are asked to submit one application, which makes sense to streamline the process. However, sites who use freelancers won’t want to deal with getting them credentialed. Quite rightfully, editors expect their freelancers to handle their own accreditation. I have always been able to work it out and the press office has been extremely helpful over the years. Perhaps reaching out to them directly in my circumstance is the ideal way for both parties to work.

K: What are your pet peeves when it comes to working with publicists during festivals like these?

F: The most frustrating roadblock is when a publicist has talent available but won’t schedule an interview at the fest because they want coverage to run when the film is released. If that is their preference, they should ask me to bank the interview for release, but get it done while we are both in town. Quite likely, I will not be available when the film is released because of other commitments, so it is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, plenty of my contacts WILL take advantage of a festival and connect me with talent, asking me to hold if that’s their request. In most cases, they want coverage out of the festival, which is a good idea. They played SXSW (or Sundance, or TIFF) for a reason: the visibility. We can do a second interview when their film is coming out, which could be a year or more from its festival premiere.

K: Any advice to new journalists coming in to Austin on how to navigate SXSW? or how to navigate Austin?

F: Make friends. Talk to people. Every time you’re standing in line, make friend with the people in front of and behind you.

How we do it


Launching a company or product? Get the checklist we use to ensure success.

Client Success Stories


Get an inside look at our strategic insights, receive exclusive event invitations and establish meaningful connections with other Austin influencers!

© Red Fan Communications. All Rights Reserved.

  • Office number: (512) 551-9253
  • Red line for urgent requests: (512) 217-6352