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The event is expected to bring 65,000 people to town for panels and screenings such as a sneak preview of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

July 3rd, 2017

In the summer of 2011, Gustavo Sorola, one of the co-founders of Austin’s Rooster Teeth Productions, approached the Austin Convention Center about hosting the video collective’s 2012 RTX event, a big video game and Internet culture conference.

It was to be a sizable upgrade.

“Our first RTX (in 2011) was in a field,” Sorola says now. “They were super skeptical. They didn’t think we could fill it. I told them that within five years, I was going to have the entire (Austin) Convention Center rented. Sure enough, last year was the fifth year at the Convention Center and we had the whole thing.”

What is RTX? It’s an annual event put on by Austin’s Rooster Teeth Studios that this year is expected to bring 65,000 to downtown Austin from July 7-9. RTX also happens in Sydney, Australia, in February and will launch in London for the first time this October. It combines a gaming convention with Internet culture panels, web video celebrities, and this year, a sizable animation festival and music concerts. Single-day passes for the event run from $35-$50 depending on the day or $95 for a weekend pass. Twitch.tv is partnering with Rooster Teeth and broadcasting live streams from the weekend.

And then some. RTX 2017, which takes place Friday, Saturday and Sunday after a series premiere night Thursday for the company’s series “Day 5,” is this year’s edition of an event that has grown and grown and grown. 

For 2017, the event will be spilling over as it expands further with venues in addition to the Austin Convention Center including the JW Marriott Austin and the Hilton Austin in addition to four nights of live-action and animation screenings at the Paramount Theatre. That’s what has to happen when you expect to attract about 65,000 attendees to downtown Austin.

It’s not just that the scale of what Rooster Teeth — a company known for its large stable of original web video shows and its incredibly loyal fan base — is doing has grown. Anyone who has walked the show floor or attended panels at RTX and has even the faintest interest in video games or the web can easily see its appeal. It’s a safe haven and fun opportunity for those who often only interact with their favorite web personalities, and even many good friends, online. In person, cosplayers and competitive gamers and aspiring animators and anyone with a “Let’s Play” YouTube channel can learn something, have some face time with kindred spirits and get inspired.

John Russo Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies and who stars as Caesar in the new film "War for the Planet of the Apes," is a keynote speaker at RTX 2017 and will appear at a Friday Q&A screening  at the Paramount Theatre.

This year, though, the organizers of RTX are betting that a maturing army of viewers and fans deserve a broader array of programming. In addition to Rooster Teeth’s own stable of home-grown web celebrities and voice actors that include Burnie Burns, Gavin Free and Barbara Dunkelman, highlights include a Paramount screening of the new film “War for the Planet of the Apes” with motion-capture star Andy Serkis in attendance for a Q&A session Friday night.

Two music concerts, including a private Friday show for VIPs with The Spazmatics and a public, sold-out Phantogram show on Saturday, add live music to the RTX mix.

Netflix will premiere its new animated series, “Castlevania,” on Friday as well. The much-anticipated show is based on the game franchise written by comics legend Warren Ellis and directed by Samuel Deats of Austin’s Powerhouse Animation Studios.

Rooster Teeth will begin RTX with a Season Two premiere of its own post-apocalyptic drama, “Day 5” on Thursday night, a show that has taken off for the company. 

And on top of all that, a beefed-up RTX Animation Festival that was tested out last year, goes bigger with close to a dozen panels and 45 curated screenings. 

Frederator Networks Dracula from the new Netflix animated show "Castlevania," which will be screened at RTX 2017 on Friday. The director of the series is Austinite Samuel Deats.

Gray G. Haddock, head of Rooster Teeth’s 100-employee-strong animation department, said that what started as an experiment last year with a few panels has gotten more serious as a major component of RTX.

“We’re calling it our very first second-annual Rooster Animation Fest,” he said. “Last year had a much bigger emphasis on independent animators. This year, we have Netflix’s ‘Castlevania’ as well as ‘Adult Swim’ coming to show some exclusive footage from some of their productions.”

Haddock said that in addition to celebrating indie and studio animation, the panels and screenings are also a way to plug in attendees to the minds behind new and established shows. “It’s a way for the Rooster Teeth community to connect with the people who actually produce animation and ask them questions about various parts of the pipeline.”

It seems to follow that Rooster Teeth’s boostrapped success — it began with a video game satire called “Red vs. Blue” that was produced in an apartment in Buda and continues today — would inspire its organizers to spotlight the craft of making online entertainment.

Haddock said that in animation ideas rule and the barriers to entry and production have largely fallen away. “It’s so much easier to get your hands on some quality software or to build your team online. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing stick-figure theater or complicated 3-D rendering that takes hours per frame. It’s a new golden age for animation, I would say.”

Alyssa Vidales / AMERICAN-STATESMANBurnie Burns, left, and Gavin Free of Rooster Teeth are two of the stars of shows from the studio who’ll be on panels and interacting with fans at RTX 2017.

In the past few years, Sorola has been stepping back from the role of one of RTX’s main organizers and will be able to enjoy RTX as a fan this weekend. Bethany Feinstein, the head of Rooster Teeth’s live events, however, is pushing to make the biggest RTX yet a show that offers more organized tracks and that has offers enough variety for everyone who comes out.

“There are just so many components,” Feinstein said. “Gaming is a part of it. But we have so many things going on at the same time for everyone to choose from, whether you’re interested in animation or the shows our live-action department produces. We really tried not to overlap competing things.”

That includes not only narrative shows, live podcasts (including the popular “Rooster Teeth Podcast,” but gaming tournaments, cosplay contests, “Achievement Hunter” (the company’s take on the “Let’s Play” watching-people-play-games phenomenon) and “Theater Mode Live,” the studio’s take on making fun of a terrible movie in front of an audience.

One of the ironic things about the growth of Rooster Teeth is that while its YouTube videos have earned more than five billion views (yes, billion with a B) and with its stable of dozens of shows, a live-action movie (last year’s “Lazer Team”) and millions of fans, its star personalities are not typically recognized as celebrities in Austin. And RTX, despite its size, is typically not an attention-getter like South by Southwest or Austin City Limits Festival in terms of large annual local events.

Unlike most gaming conventions or even SXSW, Sorola says, RTX is not an event unto itself; it’s part of a continually churning content empire that puts out new material all year.

Omar L. Gallaga/American-StatesmanCosplayers dressed as characters from Rooster Teeth's "RWBY" series attend RTX 2016 on July 1, 2016 at the Austin Convention Center.

“All those other shows happen for a weekend and then they’re gone,” he said. “RTX lives year round through Rooster Teeth. The convention is a small part of the overall ecosystem. It’s a crescendo of all the other work that’s happening.”

In 2016, RTX expanded internationally with an event in Sydney, Australia that started with 11,000 attendees and this year grew to 16,000. In October, Rooster Teeth is adding RTX London to its annual events; 15,000 tickets for the October convention sold out in 14 minutes when they went on sale in March. It’ll be a balancing act, Feinstein said, to see how two big additional conferences affect the original RTX in Austin.

“Now that we have RTX Australia and the U.K. show, those fans will likely not be traveling to the Austin one anymore,” she said. “There’s not a perfect equation that we’ve figured out yet. We’re gonna see how that changes things.”

The music shows, which Feinstein is particularly proud of as a music fan, are one way that RTX is trying to draw the eyes of not just fans online traveling to Austin, but to locals who may not have given the convention a look in the past.

“It’s a way to show the local scene what RTX is,” Feinstein said. 

Cover image: Attendees at RTX 2016 on July 1, 2016. Jay Janner / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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