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Netflix wants to immerse you in ‘The Highwaymen’ at SXSW

Rainey Street bar will be recreated as a tech-based 1930s speakeasy simulation to promote new movie during festival

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson in ‘The Highwaymen’
Courtesy of the film

Over the years, SXSW has increasingly attracted elaborate, participatory installations—usually but not always driven by hype around films and episodic (television-style) programming—that help turn Austin into the amusement park that it already teeters on the edge of being year round.

There was (Grammy winner!) Lady Gaga’s performance in front of a giant Doritos vending machine in 2014. In 2016, a ferris wheel and elaborate reproduction of a Mr. Robot set popped up on a street corner where a parking lot was usually located, while an activation featuring an upside-down church promoted AMC series Preacher across the street from the Convention Center.

2017 featured a pop-up Los Pollos Hermanos stand in tribute to Breaking Bad. Last year saw a reproduction of Roseanne’s diner to promote the show’s short-lived comeback and an elaborate replication of a Westworld set. That’s hardly a complete list, but it conveys the essence of the pop-culture-oriented activation.

Now that such events have come to be expected and we’ve settled on calling them “immersive experiences,” or something like that, it’s a bit easier to shorthand what’s coming up this week at SXSW 2019. A combination blood drive and Game of Thrones immersion is set to take place March 7-9 and sounds somewhat restrained in light of the show’s bloody theatrics.

More elaborate, multi-event immersions for new Netflix film The Highwaymen, however, should satisfy those in search of a world transformed, if only temporarily, at this year’s SXSW. Starring Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner, the movie tells the story of the two former Texas Rangers who ended the murderous crime spree of notorious Texans Bonnie and Clyde. (The Highwaymen director John Lee Hancock will also be honored Thursday at the Texas Film Awards, an immersive experience in its own right.)

Netflix, which partnered with local hospitality outfit Bunkhouse on the activation, promises a “fully immersive” experience that puts participants in control and weaves them into the story. The story starts with a ride in a 1930s car from Bunkhouse-operated hotels St. Cecilia and San Jose to the Banger’s basement bar, where they will find the Rainey Street stalwart transformed into a speakeasy.

The fully immersed guest will then experience a combination of participatory theater, interacting with in-character actors, and gaming (with prizes!). Outfitted with RFID bands, visitors can check in at various stations to access different kinds of activation content: photos, messages, points to be earned, contests to be entered, and the like. Points can be redeemed for swag at the activation’s General Store. (It’s possible that, by the end of the experience, guest might feel a little like they’re in old-timey country-music tourist mecca Branson, Missouri—which incidentally, also claims to be the “Live Music Capital of the World.”).

The Highwaymen speakeasy will be free and open to badge- and invitation-holders all weekend.