This year, South by Southwest (SXSW) has had to weather a storm in the buildup to the annual week-long festival in Austin. Artist outrage and an open letter concerning a clause in contracts that seemed to suggest collusion between organizers and immigration officials has seen the festival promise to make a change for 2018. It has overshadowed a year that looks like one of the strongest yet, with the film element snagging premieres from the likes of Terrence Malick and Edgar Wright, and a list of featured speakers that offers looks into the topical issues of surveillance and virtual reality. The TV coverage continues to become an increasingly important part of the festival, with first looks at the highly anticipated Neil Gaiman adaptation American Gods and the film to TV transformation of Dear White People. Music is its usual sprawling mix of on-site showcases and offerings off the beaten path. Here’s our pick of the must-see moments this year.
One of the most anticipated talks this year sees the Gawker founder, Nick Denton, discuss what has happened to first amendment rights in the internet era after his battle with Hulk Hogan in Life After Gawker (12 March, 11am, Austin Convention Center). You can also hear from one of the founders of the internet at Vint Cerf: An Internet For And By The People (12 March, 11am, JW Marriott). He’ll be talking about an initiative to help connect the 3 billion people who still don’t have access to the web.

Are Biometrics the New Face of Surveillance? (10 March, 5pm, Hilton Austin) will discuss the increasingly intrusive techniques used to track us wherever we go, from iris scans to palm prints. What this means for privacy and other questions will be answered there. Another menace of the digital age is fake news, brought to the fore in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. A Post-Truth World? Nope – We Can Fight Fake News (13 March, 11am, Hyatt Regency Austin) discusses how to ensure the truth wins out. In Virtual Life’s a Drag: Queering in VR (13 March, 3.30pm, Hilton Austin), artists and scholars will explore how virtual environments can be used to create empathy for others. Later that day the much-criticized FBI director James Comey was supposed to be in conversation with Jeffrey Herbst, CEO of the Newseum, but he dropped out and will be replaced by the FBI general counsel, James Baker, (13 March, 5pm, Hilton Austin), who will talk about terrorist threats at home and abroad.

SXSW’s opening film is bit of a coup: the world premiere of Song to Song (10 March, 6.30pm, Paramount Theatre), the new film from local boy Terrence Malick, with an extremely impressive cast of acting heavyweights: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett. Known for being media-shy, Malick always plays his cards close to his chest, but it’s emerged that much of this “modern love story set against the Austin music scene” was filmed in the city itself, with scenes shot at the Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun festivals. Good old-fashioned sci-fi horror is the premise for SXSW’s closing film, Life (18 March, 8pm, Zach Theatre): a team of astronauts on the International Space Station discover – to their consternation – that the extraterrestrial organism they are carrying home has turned nasty and may wipe out the planet. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds star; Child 44’s Daniel Espinosa directs.

Another high-profile world premiere for SXSW: this is Edgar Wright’s crime yarn, Baby Driver (11 March, 9pm, Paramount Theatre), which he rolled on to after parting ways with Marvel’s Ant-Man. Apparently inspired by a music video Wright made for Mint Royale and described as “the ultimate rock’n’roll car chase film”, this features Ansel Elgort as a music-obsessed getaway driver (called Baby) forced to work against his will by a crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. On the Road (16 March, 7pm, Paramount Theatre, among other showtimes) is another music-inflected film, which suits SXSW’s style: this is nothing to do with Jack Kerouac but is instead a creative merger of documentary and drama by the 24 Hour Party People director, Michael Winterbottom. It’s mostly a straight study of the British indie act Wolf Alice as they tour the UK’s big cities; the twist is that two of the backroom people – a roadie and a photographer – are actors, and Winterbottom films their romantic relationship alongside the real stuff. A Judd Apatow world premiere is definitely an event: here the prolific producer-director has co-directed a documentary about the folk-rockers the Avett Brothers with Michael Bonfiglio. May It Last (15 March, 7pm, Paramount Theatre) follows the Avetts (Scott and Seth) in the studio for two years as they work on their 2016 album True Sadness.

With the rise in small-screen importance and output (not sure if you’ve been told, but we’re in the golden age of television, ya know), festivals that are typically more film-focused have seen a relatively recent expansion to include TV premieres. In the past few years, Silicon Valley and Preacher screened for the first time at SXSW while 2016 saw a Mr Robot panel. This year has arguably the most tightly packed small-screen lineup at the festival, with a number of big shows being unveiled and well-known names chatting.

The most high-profile of these will be a first look at Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s cult fantasy novel American Gods (11 March, 11am, Vimeo Theatre) for Starz which, according to the trailer, has a Legion/Preacher vibe that could propel it into similar must-watch territory. Another notable premiere comes from Netflix and Justin Simien, who has expanded his satirical film Dear White People (13 March, 1.15pm, Zach Theatre) into a 10-part series, with an episode from the Oscar-winning Moonlight director, Barry Jenkins. Showtime will also roll out I’m Dying Up Here (15 March, 11.30pm, Paramount Theatre), its Jim Carrey-produced look at 70s standup comedy, starring Melissa Leo, and AMC will tease The Son (12 March, 7pm, Zach Theatre), a Pierce Brosnan-starring drama set in two different time periods.

Empire fans might want to catch the show’s outspoken creator, Lee Daniels (12 March, 11am, Austin Convention Center) as he gives a keynote speech (he’s previously described #OscarsSoWhite as “whiny”), while Game of Thrones fans will be thrilled to see stars Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner chat with the show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss (12 March, 3.30pm, Austin Convention Center) about what to expect from the impending new season. Winter, probably. There’s also a chance to catch up with the cast and creators behind the political satire Veep (13 March, 3.30pm, Austin Convention Center), with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and co being interviewed by Chuck Todd.

This year’s music fest has an impressive selection of talks that should satisfy most musical tastes. There’s Nile Rodgers’ keynote (15 March, 11am, Austin Convention Center), where he’ll talk about his career and position as one of the most sampled songwriters ever; while the Beats1 main man, Zane Lowe (16 March, 11am, Austin Convention Center), will also talk shop at his keynote on Friday. Kesha’s discussion about how women can reclaim the internet should be interesting (14 March, 3.30pm, Austin Convention Center), and for those who don’t want to stop, Mick Fleetwood (15 March, 5pm, Austin Convention Center) will talk about his time in a little-known 70s rock act. The musical offerings this year throw up the usual mix of interesting official showcases and potentially more interesting unofficial goings on off-site. Of the officially sanctioned slots, you’d struggle to find a more fun-sounding evening than the K-Pop Night Out (17 March, 7pm, the Belmont), where Red Velvet, Hyolyn of SISTAR and the hip-hop stars Drunken Tiger all preach the gospel of Seoul.

Elsewhere, Spin’s annual shindig looks as tempting as ever with a Tuesday day party being headlined by the perma-jolly rapper Lil Yachty and a night soiree topped off by Real Estate and Sleigh Bells (14 March, 3pm, Empire Garage). Fader Fort is still the place to find some of the most cutting-edge acts from the worlds of hip-hop, R’n’B and indie. It has moved to a new smaller location this year (15-18 March, 1209 East 6th Street AKA Volcom Garden) and the performers we know about so far include Young MA, Downtown Boys and Lizzo, but there’s always the prospect of a huge secret headliner on the final night (last year Drake dropped in). If you’re into country and Americana, Willie Nelson’s annual SXSW offshoot Luck Reunion at his ranch will appeal. Most of the younger generation of acts who have breathed new life into the genres, including Conor Oberst, Margo Price, Brent Cobb, Parker Millsap and Aaron Lee Tasjan.

This year’s festival has become unexpectedly political after the callout over wording in the artist’s contract, which some took exception to. There’s a special showcase of acts hailing from countries impacted by Donald Trump’s travel ban, with Ninjatune man Ash Koosha headlining proceedings (17 March, 1.05am after several other acts, Palm Door on Sixth). One of the acts who sent an open letter to the festival about the contracts was PWR BTTM (15 March, 7.30pm, Stubb’s BBQ). They’ve had a busy 12 months and are playing multiple shows in Austin. Raucous, funny and painfully honest, they’re one of the must-see bands at the festival. More pink triangle action comes courtesy of Weezer, who are one of the bigger bands playing this year with two (announced) gigs – one on the Friday (17 March, midnight, Brazos Hall) and one at Rachael Ray’s 10th SXSW Feedback Party (18 March, 8pm, Stubb’s BBQ).