SXSW Film Producer Janet Pierson
SXSW Film Producer Janet Pierson

SXSW Film Festival producer Janet Pierson has one of more challenging roles among North American festival programmers. Unlike any other festival, SXSW commands voluminous attention for its non-film ingredients, including the ever-expanding Interactive conference and the chaotic Music portion. It arrives on the tail of Sundance and Berlin, but just before Tribeca and Cannes. Along with the crowded market at the top of the year, SXSW has its own integrity to look after. The festival quickly accumulated a reputation over the past decade for championing ultra-low budget film productions and bringing a lot of emerging talent to the foreground of media attention. With another edition of SXSW just around the corner and the program's 109 features recently announced, Pierson spoke to Indiewire about the festival's latest.

You received 1,482 U.S. feature submissions and 614 international features. Overall, submissions were up by 7%. Were you surprised by this increase?

No, not at all. It is increasing for everybody every year. And even if it wasn't, things have been going so well -- we've been getting such acclaim from people enjoying being part of it, so the expectation was that it would continue.  More and more people are making films, so why wouldn't they want to premiere them here?

Why do you think there are so many more films being each year?

My husband [producer John Pierson] would sort of talk about it being an unsustainable business for a lot of people, and there's a lot of talk about that.  Can people afford it and make better films?  My feeling is that the creative spirit is so powerful for people that it's what makes people feel alive. More and more people want that -- and the tools and means of making films keep getting more and more accessible. You can do more for less so why not try?  You have a film like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which fulfills every single dream any [filmmaker] may have. You know, "I'm gonna make a film with my friends, it's going to be inventive, original and different…and I'm going to take it to Sundance, I'm going to go to Cannes and I'm gonna win an Academy Award."  Why wouldn't that fuel the dream of having a creative life?

Does the influx of movies make your choices harder?

"You want some films that are funny, some films that are scary and some that are heart-wrenching."

I think it's the same.  The only difference is that it becomes challenging to actually do the work. There's a tiny infrastructure and there's a very tight turnaround time so it's hard to actually do it. But we approach it the same way.  We are excited that people trust us and want to show their work with us. We are excited to look through it and we are really excited about the stuff that we get to show.  There are a lot of films that we like enormously that we can't fit in the program and that's frustrating.  It's frustrating for the filmmaker and it's frustrating for us. There's the joy of discovery that we have when we're programming that we hope our audiences have when there's a festival.

You're showing 69 world premieres, which is five fewer than last year.

The difference is that we're showing fewer films this year because the Alamo South Llamar is under construction and that was a key venue for us.  We have a new venue that we've brought in with top theater execs. It's a great, state of the art theater with 420 seats and it's first time it's being used as a film venue.  So we're down a key venue and we have to tighten up our program logistically. For me there's a balance of world premieres and showing work that other people have shown that we love. As long as it's within the balance I'm comfortable.  I don't get too particularly hung up on a particular number.

It seems like there are more unfamiliar names in this year's competition lineup.

It's funny because I'm still watching films so I haven't been able to step back and analyze. Of course there are some factors that come into play: You look a little bit into geographic diversity, budget range diversity, sensibility... you know, you want some films that are funny, some films that are scary and some that are heart-wrenching. The intent is always the same, to show really interesting work and to look for new people, so it's interesting to see that you feel that way. It helps me get the perspective of what we've actually done.

Joe Swanberg.
Joe Swanberg.

Over the years you always have certain kinds of names associated with SXSW and the Austin film community, like Brian Poyser and Joe Swanberg, both of whom have bigger films at the festival this year. Are we witnessing a whole generation of filmmaker grow up?

It's not like everybody has the same dream and it's not like there's only one path and it's not like there's only one kind of success. I think about this all the time. I think there are lots and lots of ways to work and a lot of different audiences to reach and a lot of ways to feel good about what you're doing. Along with Joe and Brian, Jake Vaughn [director of the Narrative Spotlight entry "Milo"] is part of this, too. He's an Austin filmmaker but he's now in Los Angeles. The three of them come from a micro-budget background and have made really entertaining, satisfying popular films that I hope will connect with audiences.  There's nothing niche, indie or art house about these three films.  They are all enjoyable, entertaining works that have distinct points of view. One of my favorite parts of Joe as a filmmaker is his observation of social nuances: He's so current about the way people deal with each other today.  His film has been passed around the office here and people just love it.  It's a socially acute movies with smart observations about people.