AUSTIN, Texas—The hottest ticket at South by Southwest 2019 may not involve a band or a film. Instead… it’s for blood donations.
Fresh off its much hyped SXSW 2018 Westworld experience, HBO partnered up with the American Red Cross this year for “Bleed For The Throne,” a blood drive held within yet another signature “immersive activation” at the festival. While people anywhere can participate in the overall Red Cross initiative, donors in Austin this week get the perk of walking through recreations of Game of Throne‘s King’s Landing Throne Room and an exterior camp site where everyday people from Westeros await to perform and interact. According to the event press release, 80-plus actors and musicians have been hired to bring it all to life, and they’re working from 100-plus pages of character script and backstory. A royal woman told us we had to listen to light inside us; a female soldier at the camp commented on the excellent mobility of our “armor”—aka, a bike helmet attached to a backpack.
If you’re attending SXSW and haven’t reserved a spot yet, don’t bother. After a Thursday media preview, HBO PR sent out an update noting all available appointments for the weekend had been reserved within two hours of opening. On the plus side, the GoT tie-in has led to a reported 40 percent increase in new donor appointments since the campaign announcement.
The whole thing will inevitably be enjoyable for any Thrones diehards or Instagram influencers that managed to save a spot early, but it does make us wonder: have we finally reached peak installation?
At SXSW, these kind of experiences have been happening for at least the past five years (GoT itself even has a multi-year history of SXSWesteros). In 2015, A&E recreated the Bates Motel for its then-new TV series based in the Psycho universe. Two years later, people lined up around the block for chicken nuggets and photos of a used car at Los Pollos Hermanos (of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul fame) or to sip a damn fine cup of coffee at the Double R Diner (Twin Peaks). Food trucks from Kwik-E-Mart to Bob’s Burgers have done functional versions of these elaborative adver-activations. And after HBO rented an entire town and bused folks 45 minutes away to simulate the Westworld simulation IRL last year, SXSW finally created formal awards to recognize this increasingly elaborate and annual branding exercise.
Does any of this serve any purpose beyond marketing? You could probably ask the same thing about Harry Potter World or Disney’s upcoming Star Wars lands, and those require paid tickets. At least “Bleed The Throne” supports a good (albeit at times complicated) cause. It feels like fans increasingly want to interact with their favorite things—shows, chefs, bands, whatever—in a tactile way given our ever more digital reality, and these immersive setups do it in a different way when compared to cons or various art exhibits.
This year’s GoT installation is certainly smaller in stature than HBO’s 2018 effort, but the show’s cultural cache and reverence is much, much higher than its SXSW predecessors. People will line up all day just for a picture of the throne, or they’ll fly across the world to see sets. So an on-site mini-theme park before the show’s final season becomes maybe one of the last monocultural TV moments? It’s hard to imagine the SXSW-branded content experience finding another level—in terms of scale or fan enjoyment—in the coming years. That said, Netflix does have a Highwaymen speakeasy lined up at SXSW 2019 for one of its first entries into this competition.
(And for the most important question with all this: the whole thing had no spoilers… I think. But give the Internet a few days to figure it out. Game of Thrones’ final season debuts on HBO on April 14, 2019.)
Listing image by Nathan Mattise