Thea Jeanes-Cochrane on the vision behind SXSW Sydney

SXSW
Thea Jeanes-Cochrane is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Australian Festival Industry Conference.

CIM spoke with Thea Jeanes-Cochrane, co-founder, creative director and producer at Cochrane Entertainment and keynote speaker at the upcoming Australian Festival Industry Conference, about her instrumental role in helping bring SXSW Sydney to fruition.

Iconic Austin-based culture festival South by Southwest (SXSW) chose Sydney as the host city for its first expansion outside of North America, bringing its eclectic mix of creativity and innovation Down Under in October 2023.

How did the idea to bring SXSW to Sydney happen? The idea came about whilst conducting an unrelated business trip to Texas with my partner Tony Cochrane, and our US Texas based business partner Tavo Hellmund. We always like to dream big, and this seemed like a wild idea – to take the world’s most iconic and established festival to the APAC region. A festival that I have always found personally inspiring as creative producer. We had connections with the SXSW Austin team and started to have conversations about the possibility, beginning with the idea of a northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere event model, so as to allow ‘space’ for both events to co-exist and to complement each other.

How long was the planning process? This all occurred over a long period of time, through covid, bush fires, SXSW event cancellations in 2020 (at the time one of the first major festivals to cancel), watching them pivot to on line, with countless meetings and presentations, and for the past three years, I personally worked with the SXSW Austin team building on the ideation and creation of this second major SXSW exclusively for the Southern Hemisphere, which then became more defined as the APAC region.

Was there a bidding style system? Absolutely no bidding process. It initially required Cochrane Entertainment’s vision along with the trust of SXSW to create the opportunity, and then importantly the belief and vision from the NSW Government and Geoff Jones CEO of TEG in the realisation of SXSW Sydney.

Why is Sydney the right city for the Asia Pacific instalment? Sydney is a global city by nature, and one that is very easy to access for international and interstate visitors. Once on ground, the transport network will make getting around easy too. The transport links to hubs will be important. It is also the home of major tech giants, VC’s and start-ups.

The Austin SXSW is a huge multi-tiered event – how big will SXSW Sydney be? SXSW began in 1997 largely as a music festival. With the introduction of technology, this event grew exponentially, but organically over the past 36 years. SXSW Sydney will be abuzz with opportunities to attend over 1000 sessions, talks, panels, screenings, live performances, and parties across the city.

How did you negotiate the challenges of the pandemic? The pandemic was a massive challenge for my entertainment business, for almost all business’s right. However, there were a few silver linings. I was very fortunate to have been engaged by the AFL to produce the 2020 AFL Grand Final Entertainment (half time and pre-game) when the event was moved from the MCG to the Gabba due to covid. Employing 100’s of industry people was enormously satisfying, even under the extreme time pressure of only five weeks to deliver the shows!

In 2021 when we all thought we had a clear window without covid, we were set to produce a new event for Adelaide called THE ULTIMATE EVENT, starring Kate Ceberano, Anthony Warlow and David Campbell with a 50-piece orchestra and band.

Sadly, after going on sale, we were forced to cancel the event due to covid. In my role as a HOTA Board Director, we also had to navigate numerous programming interruptions, cancelations, deploy safety protocols for patrons and staff, and help support the organisation through a delicate period.

Now in recovery mode, is the event sector set for some golden years? The industry has definitely been forever scarred by the pandemic, and we have lost some good operators who could not stay afloat. This includes small to large operators, and more than ever Government sector support is vital with rising operational and event delivery costs, not to mention insurances.

Having said that, the accelerated adoption of technology in our sector has brought better experiences for people, and some new efficiencies for operators.  I think audiences will be in for elevated experiences as we push the boundaries of what technology can bring to the live experience, and importantly where technology can take the live experience.

Has the pandemic united the event industry? Yes absolutely. The formation of industry body LEIF and having a united voice, direct to state and federal government has been paramount for the creative sector just to survive. From the artists and content creators, through to event promoters small and large scale.

Thea Jeanes-Cochrane is a keynote speaker at this year’s Australian Festival Industry Conference (31 August – 1 September). Tickets are on sale now. For more information, click here.