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SXSW Head Janet Pierson Discusses SXSW 2013 Lineup: 'I get invested in so many of the films.'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 1, 2013 at 8:27AM

SXSW Film Festival producer Janet Pierson has one of more challenging roles among festival programmers in North America.
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Critical Consensus: Gay Romance "Weekend" Is The Critics' Pick For This Weekend
Andrew Haigh's "Weekend."

Are there any significant discoveries this year? I'm thinking about the way "Weekend" popped up out of nowhere a few years back...

I hope so. There are certainly a lot of filmmakers with whom we have no connection whose work has knocked us out and we hope it connects the same way. That alchemy happens when you see it and when the audience sees it.

Okay. But specifically: Is there anything on an extremely micro-budget scale that you can kind of single out?

I'll single out "Euphonia" for that.

That would be the one in the "Visions" section with a one-word description: "Listen."

Yes. It's about listening and hearing. It's extremely DIY and genius. I hope people embrace it as much as we have here.

You used to call this section "Emerging Visions." Now you've dropped the "Emerging."

There was debate about that. Swanberg's "Silver Bullets" was in there one year and Joe was like, "Am I emerging?" We realized that it was about a kind of filmmaking, not an age.  I think in the days before I came here it was for beginning filmmakers, but in the last five years it has been more about innovative filmmaking, hybrids of stuff with a very cinematic feel to it. It's important to differentiate, but the Narrative Spotlight section seems to be more conventional, with a higher cast, and more known subjects on the doc side.  Visions is more about playing with a form and taking risks so we see it as a kind of storytelling more than anything else.

"Our docs tend to specialize in the universal through the personal."

You seem to be echoing the conversation around the NEXT section at Sundance. Defining these kind of categories is a real challenge for a lot of people.

It is. We are just announcing 110 films today that you haven't heard of -- maybe you've heard 20 of them. How do you present information to people in a way that they can absorb? In our case, Festival Favorites really is different than Narrative Spotlight. It's more about how to make the programming accessible to people, and it's not so much about how there's this many different kinds of films. If it was up to me, I don't know that I would make the distinction between docs and narratives, but some people find it easier to make their decisions that way, so you're just trying to make it more accessible to people.

In a lot of festivals, the competition is the main event and a lot of the other stuff is just in sidebars. We don't feel that way. We love our program, we think every section has great films in it, so really its about helping people make decisions about what they're going to see. To us, they're all equally interesting and it's more about choosing your own adventures and following your own interests. With the competitions, we try to make those decisions based on not big casts.  A lot of availability you can find across the spectrum.

I was looking at the doc competition and one of the things that I noticed is that this kind of section tends to be dominated by issue heavy movies, whereas you've got far more character studies.

"The Central Park Effect."
"The Central Park Effect."

I feel like people have said that for years about us: Our docs tend to specialize in the universal through the personal.  "The Central Park Effect" was actually a big environmental subject that also involved bird watching in Central Park. We're known for being strong in character-driven personal stories and we absolutely have a bias for culturally relevant films. How do you define that difference between socially relevant and culturally relevant? I don't know. It's tough, but since there are a lot of docs, it's incredibly hard to make the choices of which ones you should give the space to.

There are so many huge subjects and areas of topics that need attention, but we're SXSW. People come here to have a good time. We skew toward a culturally relevant film movement but we don't shy away from entertainment. We program as much as we can that's true to our unique environment and doesn't exist anywhere else. It'd be interesting to me if you thought this year was different. When I look at the doc competition this year there's a lot of joy and there's a lot of fun. It's not simplistic either -- there's a lot of nuance and range of emotion but it definitely skews towards our culture all the way.  I think that's a strength of ours.

What about the marketplace? It looks like most of these movies don't have distribution yet.  Are you expecting a fair amount of activity in that regard?

I don't even know how to talk about it.  I wish good things and I hope they have great opportunities and launches.

Have you considered helping out any further? I look at Sundance's Artist Services, which helps its alumni self-distribute their work, and wonder if more festivals will add that resource.

Two things occur to me.  Sundance is a nonprofit that was set up to support artists and SXSW is an event set up to connect artists with an audience, so they're very different. We're not a nonprofit and we're not a membership organization, so currently we are not going to be involved in doing this for the filmmakers. We hear about it anecdotally all the time that filmmakers meet people here who are tuned into new paradigms which they are then going to use for their films.

We certainly have filmmakers who are very DIY and really taking the release of their films into their own hands, but we are not in the middle of it. We provide an event that the eyes of the world are coming to, with a great melting pot of talent from people that are here, then it's up to the filmmakers if they want to take advantage of it. They certainly get all the spectrum of different kinds of ways that people are trying to reach their audiences. You hear all different ideas and we certainly celebrate the innovation that is possible.

This article is related to: South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Janet Pierson, Joe Swanberg, Bryan Poyser, The Central Park Effect






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