In 2009, Janet Pierson took over the South by Southwest Film Festival from longtime fest head Matt Dentler, stepping boldly into her new role — but not without a little trepidation. Dentler, after all, was one of indie film’s favorite sons, and under his watch, SXSW Film had grown from a small regional fest into a force to be reckoned with. Pierson’s career in independent film had begun three decades earlier, when the then-20-year-old, fresh out of the San Francisco Art Institute after starting college at 16 because she was “anxious to grow up,” was tapped to take over the Canyon Cinema Co-op.
Pierson was well-regarded in the industry, but by 2009 she was at a crux, frustrated that she’d been living and working in the shadow of her husband, indie-film producer John Pierson. Successfully running SXSW Film without John getting involved would allow Pierson to feel she had a career identity of her own, something she desperately needed as she turned 50 and her children were aging out of the nest. First, though, she had to build her own reputation as head of the fest and brand it in her own way. In 2015, near the end of the seventh year of her tenure as the head of SXSW Film, Pierson finally has enough breathing room in her schedule for a chat outside the Austin Convention Center, where she’s waiting to lead a Q&A after a screening.
When I meet her outside the Vimeo Theater, she’s engaged in an animated conversation with another staffer. Seven years later, Pierson looks much as she did coming into the job: Black shirt, black slacks, sneakers. Like Dentler before her, Pierson is forever running to and fro around the festival to introduce films, lead Q&As, and put out the inevitable fires. But whereas the 2009 Pierson was a bit cautious, choosing her words with care, the 2015 Pierson has an air of self-confidence and contentment, albeit tinged with just a hint of well-earned exhaustion. The fest is going fantastically, she tells mebetween bites of a gourmet grilled cheese from one of the nearby food trucks that circle the convention center like a wagon train, feeding the hungry masses. All around us, fest attendees bustle to and fro or eat their own lunch at one of the picnic tables. It’s busy at the convention center, but like a well-run kitchen at a restaurant, there’s a flow and grace to it all that bespeaks months of organization leading up to the fest.
“I keep pinching myself. Usually we’re very proud of the work we do, but there’s always a bunch of fires, stuff to do. But this year, it’s all gone really smoothly,” Pierson says. “My first year I was lucky; it went really well. I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could repeat it. Then the second year went really well, too, and I was more terrified. But then I hit year five and it was still good, and then we got past that to the sixth year and we were still going strong. So this year… I’m finally confident.”
I ask Pierson about what changes the fest has seen during her tenure. “There’ve been incremental improvements every year, and each year we get a tiny bit more help on the staff front. That makes a huge difference,” she explains. “The switch to DCP, that was a huge change, too. When Gabe [Van Amburgh] came in, he was the head projectionist at one of the Alamos, and he’d run our projection crew as a volunteer for a long time. We were able to hire him, which was great…. He was the one who took us into the future. Last year, it was maybe half the films. This year, it’s 100 percent.”
Addressing some of the quality issues surrounding DCP that cropped up at last year’s fest, Pierson notes that this year, they were able to change providers and those problems have gone away. Another positive change in the organization of the fest, she notes, was the addition of a seasonal staff member — a former volunteer-crew chief — who comes on board in January to be the liaison between the crew chiefs and staff. “That’s made a big difference, too,” Pierson adds. Another seasonal staffer comes on around the same time to manage the gargantuan, ever-shifting schedule as the programming staff makes decisions. “It sounds like a small thing, but it’s just huge in terms of logistics and everything getting done.”
I remind Pierson of our conversation seven years earlier as she stepped into her role and ask her how long it took for her to feel like SXSW was finally “her” fest. “Matt and I are very good friends. We’ve always been very close, and one of the reasons I ended up with this job is that we were always talking about what he did, because I thought it was very interesting. But it was kind of… a little strained in that first year. Awkward. But at the fest in 2009 I saw him and I said to him, it’s like this is our child and we’re divorced, but we’ll always share this. And he said no, after this festival, it’s yours. I’ll never forget that moment.”
I ask Pierson about the fairly recent shift to adding episodic and television programming to the fest, and the experienced programmer gleams out through the show-week tiredness. “Look, when I started working here ‘The Wire,’ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ — those things already existed. And what did me and my friends talk about? Those shows. So right away, I started thinking about how to incorporate it. But I’m still seeing films that I love, you know? I wanted to incorporate TV earlier, but it was hard to figure out logistically. Then we had ‘Girls’; it took Lena [Dunham] knocking it down from the inside, but then people were lining up to participate! So then again, the question for us became, ‘What is the selection criteria?’ It’s not like anything is taking over, though. We have a balance. It just becomes a part of the whole.”
We talk about the programming process of screening the thousands of films submitted to the fest to whittle them down to 150 or so final selections and whether she can tell by 20 minutes in whether a film is engaging enough to consider for the fest. “I watch a lot of complete films. I’m not as quick as some programmers are about that…. But there’s such a crush of films, and it’s true that the fest itself is such a competitive environment. If you can’t engage your audience in 20 minutes, then your film maybe just isn’t right for this festival. They have to be able to stand out. So I may consider changing that for the future.”
While SXSW Film finally feels like “her” fest now, Pierson notes that, structurally, while the fest overall has grown since she came on board, she really hasn’t changed much about how Dentler set things up. “Matt did a great job. He built SXSW into an internationally recognized fest,” she notes. “He was the one who set the balance of having both DIY and studio fare, and we’ve kept that, too.”
The itself job did take its toll on her marriage for a while, she muses — the hours, the schedule, the effect on their dynamic. She and John came through it stronger than ever, though, she says, and are in a really good place now. “You’ve got the work that you do and the life that you have. And it’s just intense to keep it all together.” She shrugs philosophically. “But it’s been great.” I tell her she looks self-confident and content. “I am,” she says. “I got this job when I was 50, I’m 57 now. It’s been really enormously rewarding, and I feel really grateful. There were so many years when I was insecure about my place in the world. I’m not insecure anymore.”