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Photo: Axios

This year, HBO and its agency Giant Spoon have SXSW's break-out exhibition — a massive replica of Sweetwater, the town featured in HBO's blockbuster hit Westworld, built 15 miles outside Austin, Texas.

Why it matters: What began as a startup tech conference has turned into a must-see Hollywood event, with HBO and others going all-in on the Texas festival show off their storytelling and film marketing skills.

HBO sought out Giant Spoon, a full-service marketing agency, for the exhibition after watching them do a mega-activation for Blade Runner at Comic-Con last year. Giant Spoon, which specializes in experiential marketing, flew drones above the space to map it out ahead of time.

  • "For us, this is how brands need to be activating," says Trevor Guthrie, co-founder of Giant Spoon. "It's much more immersive than traditional media."

The experience has transcended the entire city. Downtown, SXSW attendees could be seen wearing hats they received on the tour. It's so far the most talked-about exhibition at the conference.

  • The tour starts in downtown Austin, where people are told to meet at the EastSide Tavern to board shuttle buses to "Westworld." For some lucky guests, a Delta flight out of LAX was labeled "Westworld" on its way to Austin at the airport.
  • Upon arrival, visitors are given white or black hats, like the ones featured in the show. They then walk through dozens of installations that recreate the show down to every last detail, including dozens of paid actors dressed in full Westworld garb.
  • Users stay for hours at the exhibition, experiencing actors play out Westworld scenes in real-time at salons, restaurants, barber shops, cemeteries, etc. All of which actually serve the people walking through, with custom old-fashions, spicy beef jerky, knife throwing lessons and old-school photo booths.

The bottom line: It's a Disney World-quality exhibition in the middle of Austin, Texas, and so far it's the most exclusive and memorable exhibition at SXSW.

The marketing success has already paid off for HBO, which was hoping to drive viewership with the massive investment.

  • #Westworld was trending on Twitter in Austin leading up to the event.
  • Household names like Jake Tapper and dozens of journalists contributed to the buzz by posting photos on social media in their Westworld hats.
  • Well over 3,500 guests will have explored the exhibition by the end of the 3-day event. An HBO spokesperson says "tickets have sold out in minutes."

Asked about a budget, Steven Cardwell, director of program marketing, says: "It was an investment worth the price." He notes that their marketing efforts are about taking risks. "We want people to look at are marketing as a standard-bearer, just like they would with our content."

By the numbers:

  • It took a 40-person crew five weeks to build the park onsite in Texas.
  • 58 different vendors had a hand in the production, from scenic design and construction to catering, landscaping and electrical.
  • The final script came in at 444 pages. There are 30 easter eggs buried in the park for people to find and uncover.
  • The cast features 60 actors, 6 stunt people and 5 bands, scouted primarily from the local Austin area, in addition to 6 local horses.
Passengers awaiting flight to Austin from LAX — Credit: HBO
Photo: Axios
Photo: Axios
Photo: Axios
Photo: Axios
Photo: Axios

Go deeper

Trio of Saturday mass shootings rock U.S.

Police officers in New York City's Times Square on Saturday. Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

The U.S. was hit by mass shootings in New York City's Times Square, a shopping mall in Florida and at a townhome near Baltimore that left four people dead, including the suspected shooter.

The big picture: Since President Biden took office in January, over 700 people have been injured or killed in 139 mass shootings as of late last month.

Scottish first minister vows independence referendum after election win

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, reacts after being declared the winner of the Glasgow Southside seat at Glasgow counting centre in the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on Friday. Photo: Andy Buchanan /AFP via Getty Images

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans Saturday for a second independence referendum once the pandemic has abated following the country's parliamentary elections.

The big picture: Sturgeon's Scottish National Party won 64 seats, one seat short of an outright majority in the 129-seat Parliament. But most seats went to pro-independence parties.

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India records its deadliest day of the pandemic

A health worker moving an oxygen cylinder in a coronavirus ward of a hospital in New Delhi on May 8. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India saw its deadliest day of the pandemic yet with more than 4,180 confirmed COVID-19 deaths reported Saturday.

Why it matters: The country has recorded more than 21.8 million coronavirus cases and 238,270 deaths since the pandemic began. The true numbers, however, are likely much higher, experts say, as the country battles a continued surge in cases that has left hospitals and health workers overwhelmed.