(Todd Gilchrist will be covering SXSW this year for In Contention. His dispatches will include reviews and interviews from the ground in Austin. We're happy to have him on board and look forward to his discoveries.)

AUSTIN, Texas - Because of the furor – and quite frankly, the films – at festivals like Cannes and Toronto, it’s easy to overlook South by Southwest as a destination for moviegoers, much less professionals and industry insiders eager to see what’s hot and what isn’t.

But SXSW has in recent years grown to epic proportions, thanks in no small part to its convergence of attendees from not just the film world, but music and technology as well, and that’s why it’s effectively the biggest festival stop in between Sundance in January and Cannes in May. Biggest doesn’t always necessarily mean best, mind you, but as with seemingly everything in Texas, where the festival is held, “more is more,” even when it just comes to where and in what context those movies are shown.

2012 marks the third time I’ve attended SXSW and I’ve had admittedly mixed experiences in past years: while there have been some incredible opportunities, once-in-a-lifetime interviews and historic screenings, there have also been transportation issues, schedule mishaps and struggles to find enough work to make all of that effort worthwhile. As such, don’t expect this primer to be endlessly sunny or full of first-world complaints; you’re likely to have a great time, as long as you can get into the right mindset. But the first, last and most important thing to know going in is that you’re not alone – ever.

Far from a rallying cry for folks in need of cinematic solidarity, the sheer volume of people that pours into Austin ensures a number of different things. First, you’ll probably run into someone you know, or maybe just want to know, so it can be great for making overdue introductions, catching up with old friends and doing some serious networking. But it also means you might end up losing the last seat in an auditorium to that same acquaintance, or fighting a new contact for what seems like the last cab in town. (And it probably is, so it’s mine!)

Nevertheless, once you’ve come to terms with the fact you’ll literally be rubbing elbows with hundreds of people the entire time you’re in Austin, SXSW can be an incredibly inspiring place to be as a film lover, much less a filmmaker. Unlike at festivals that take place in mainstay movie cities like New York and Los Angeles, or ones such as Sundance that have cultivated a reputation for non-movie hijinks, South By attendees (mostly) really love movies, and are there to see things because they’re genuinely looking for great content.

That said, there will always be scenesters angling to meet celebrities and execs and publicists hard-selling their future blockbusters. But when you’re queueing up to wait for your next screening, chances are you’re going to be chatting about movies old and new with your linemates rather than which gifting suites offer the hottest swag.

The other really great thing about SXSW is that due in no small part to the Film, Music and Interactive components of the entire festival, their programming is much more varied and interesting, even if the average quality is probably equal to most others you might attend. They of course have marquee premieres and other event-movie screenings, but they also have separate categories for documentaries, music videos and other sorts of entries that allow attendees to focus their attention on niches they prefer, or in the case of professionals, follow the beat or beats most important to their readers.

Mind you, there will always be a couple of left-field choices in the broader categories – that horror flick that happens to be a Korean national treasure – but there’s a wide and intriguing variety of films to choose from, whether you’re investigating unknown areas or targeting familiar territory.

This year, for example, centerpiece screenings include "21 Jump Street," which I’ve been lucky enough to see already, and "Cabin in the Woods," which it seems like every one of my colleagues has already seen. In both cases, I’m eager to hear reactions from crowds outside Los Angeles, and the filmmakers for each will be making appearances not only at the screenings but at press events and panels.

Via the festival’s Midnighters series, there’s "The Aggression Scale," which pits a family against a group of gangsters for $500,000 in cash, and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s "Intruders," which is his follow-up to "28 Weeks Later" and stars Clive Owen as a man trying to stop ghosts from stealing children. Genre films at festivals can often be hit or miss, but the pedigree of many of the filmmakers offering entries this year holds more promise than in the past.

A handful of Sundance films found their way to SXSW this year, including the terrific "V/H/S," which should easily scare the crap out of audiences, and "Compliance," Craig Zobel’s transgressive, based-on-a-true-story look at what we’ll submit to (and submit others to) when instructed to be an authoritative voice. Meanwhile, documentaries like "We Are Legion" promise heretofore unseen looks inside organizations that, well, we might not want to see, such as the cyberterrorist group Anonymous, even as filmmakers like Bobcat Goldthwait promise (or maybe threaten) comebacks with entries like "God Bless America," the former standup’s acerbic look at contemporary culture and the one man who decides to take a stand against it. And then there’s "Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines," which offers an overdue look at the female side of the comic book spectrum.

But ultimately, my recommendation for first-timers is that they mostly let the festival wash over them – don’t have too many specific expectations, go with the flow and whenever possible play things by ear. Ironically, that requires a greater deal of preparation, checking through the programming schedule, researching titles, and mapping out days and night of screenings and alternates. But once you get a general idea what you’re looking for, and have familiarized yourself with the programming options, it won’t be tough to figure out where to go, and when, for what.

Although it’s quite honestly almost gotten too big to be an epicenter of activity for three different disciplines in one week, SXSW is a great festival – one of the few where what you lose in sleep, you actually make up in entertainment value.

(HitFix's Drew McWeeny will also by covering SXSW at Motion/Captured.)

For year-round entertainment news and other musings follow @mtgilchrist on Twitter.

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