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SXSW Film Head Janet Pierson Says This Year’s Films Take Risks

SXSW Film Head Janet Pierson Says This Year's Films Take Risks

In preparation for today’s announcement of the 2012 SXSW lineup, SXSW film producer Janet Pierson spoke on the phone with Indiewire editor in chief Dana Harris and chief film critic Eric Kohn. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

ERIC KOHN: The first thing I thought when I saw this lineup was “very SXSW,” which is admittedly reductive. But would you agree on some level that it resembles the programs from earlier years?

JANET PIERSON: I’m thrilled with the lineup. As we go through, I always take a deep breath and think, “Well, is everyone else gonna like it, too?” (laughs) I really like it a lot and I’m just completely into these films. It’s a treasure hunt, and as we spent all the time looking, two things are happening. We’re completely open-minded. What’s out there? We have no preconceived notions about what is going to move us. So that’s one thing, just being fresh and open. And we don’t want to be predictable or stuck in our own bias or formulas, either.

One of the things I think a lot about is that we’re often passing on films because we think they’re too formulaic, and then I have to question if I’m just defaulting to my own formula. This year, I felt like we took a shot on things that are maybe outside the expected wheelhouse because you need to always be open to fresh and emerging voices. You have to work with that. On the other hand, we are looking for stuff that speaks to risk taking and is bold or different or doing something with nothing, giving people chances. Amy Seimetz has been in a lot of films as an actress and a producer and “Sun Don’t Shine” is her first time as a director. That evolution is exciting. Adele Romanski, producer of “The Myth of the American Sleepover” and “The Freebie,” is evolving into a director with “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” There are a lot of films that I’m sure people made assuming that they would be perfect for us that are not in this lineup.

DANA HARRIS: But that sounds like a real folly to presume that you know what’s going to be perfect for any outlet.

I’ve had conversations over the years with people. Every music doc, they’ll say, “Oh, this is perfect for you.” I’m like, “Yeah, 12 of them are, but the other 500 are not.” But to be fair, there are many fine films that we liked enormously that we didn’t have room to show. There are plenty of films that we would be happy to show if there were no time or venue constrictions. It’s an interesting process. We put it in the release that we feel this represents us. Last year felt kind of minimalist. I know we had a lot variations of “two people talking” films in different forms. This year, it’s more outrageous. There’s more visceral power. There’s definitely a lot of genre elements, which go back to when we started, too. There are a couple minimalist films, but there’s something that feels more like risk-taking to me this year.

DH: How did you guys do this year in comparison to the number of submissions you had last year?

It’s up. As you know, we made our submission deadline a month earlier. We knew we needed to because we were running out of time last year and we couldn’t repeat that again. We weren’t sure how it was going to work out. And as we were going through the season, our submissions were up 100%. We thought, “Oh my god, how can we keep up with this?” But it just meant everyone came in early. We were up 7% from the overall submissions last year, but what was great is that we pulled them in a month earlier.

EK: Last year, the definitive breakout story was “Weekend,” which seemed to catch people by surprise. Is there anything that you can single out that might have similar breakout potential?

If we’d had this conversation last year at this time, “Weekend” was one of the number of films that I thought might break out, but I wasn’t sure. In retrospect it’s one of the things I’m most excited and proud about, but it’s not like we knew it would happen. That film is great. Also, “Attack the Block” was hugely anticipated and kinda popped last year. “Turkey Bowl” was a huge surprise. “Natural Selection” as well–I didn’t see coming. “Undefeated,” one of the docs we showed, I didn’t think it would be the one that would get the Oscar nomination. So I think that there’s a lot of really cool films by either new talent or people evolving and that’s exciting to see what happens.

EK: Are all the films that are in competition are undistributed right now?


EK: It was a big deal at Sundance this year that all the films in the Premieres section didn’t have distribution going into the festival. Do you think that matters at SXSW?

I don’t track it so much, but when we look at the competition, they have to be world premieres, but there are only eight in Narrative and Dramatic Competition, and we have 67 world premieres throughout the whole program. I don’t know if there are some in there with distribution or not. There’s a tremendous overlap between our Competition, our Spotlight sections and our Emerging Visions.

EK: Are there any significant changes to various sections?

This year, one of the changes is we dropped the Lone Star section. It just didn’t seem to be necessary. We looked at the program and we thought there was no reason to isolate the Texas films. So we got rid of that and instead we broke Spotlight Premieres into a Doc Spotlight and a Narrative Spotlight. The Spotlight films have to be world, North American, or US premieres. Emerging Visions can be flexible; last year we had a couple of Sundance films in there. There’s a lot of flex between the sections. As we look at what belongs where, it seems like the Doc and Narrative Spotlight may have a more recognizable cast and they have a more recognizable subject or centerpiece, or maybe they’re more conventional in their storytelling. The competition films tend to have a point of view, they tend to be something about them that we think there’s a real filmmaker’s voice there, it’s a world premiere. For Emerging Visions, “emerging” doesn’t mean that it’s a new filmmaker, since you can have a first-time filmmaker in all three sections. Emerging just has something to do with a rawer, more innovative quality. It’s a sensibility, not an actual scientific criteria.

EK: In the last few years, you’ve had two midnight sections: The regular one and SX Fantastic, programmed by Fantastic Fest and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League. Now you’re back to just one midnight section.

We were always a very strong genre-based festival. The midnight program was always very interesting. When I took over the 2009 festival, Tim had the idea that it would be something to boost his brand. He was having a lot of fun programming Fantastic Fest, traveling around the world and he wondered if maybe he could add to our program by programming some Fantastic Fest-type titles six months out in our time frame. I’m not the strongest genre programmer by any means, so I thought this would be a great idea. And it was fun. We did if for three years. Tim brought a lot of showmanship and wonderful programming to it. But his empire is expanding. He’s super busy, not just as a father but with Drafthouse Films and with taking his theaters national. After three years it seemed that he was too busy to do it. Jarod Neece turned out to be a fantastic genre programmer who we both really admire so it just seemed unnecessary. So we put it to bed. So Jared is programming the Midnighters for a total of 10 films.

EK: Every year, you have to deal with a sizable crowd. Any new plans to accommodate it this time around?

Well, we felt really good last year about the systems that we incorporated that were really a huge improvement over the year before. Filmmakers have hard guest tickets now, which they didn’t used to have, that they can use to accommodate whoever they need which may include industry and press as well. They have hard tickets they get to control. They get them first. We have South by Express, which is for badgeholders. They can line up in the morning and a certain percentage of each house is available so that they can go. We have queue cards, which made things very, very orderly. It prevented 10 people from cutting in line in front of you. We staggered the showtimes. The intent is that the small theaters fill up first so that people have choices to go to the bigger ones. And we’ve added in a couple more venues. We’ve added in two of the Violet Crowns Cinemas, which are a little more intimate, but they’re really lovely eating/drinking theaters that are a bit different than the Alamo. So particularly like for the midnights because there is always such a high want for seats, we are increasing the number of screenings.

EK: Do you have a sense for what attendance is going to be like this year?

Registrations are up across the board in every badge category, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people going to movies because they’re also going to the conferences and the parties. You’re never quite sure. We have 13 venues going simultaneously and so you never know if everybody is just going to see “Cabin in the Woods” [on opening night] or if they are also going to see what’s at the Alamo. I think this year we’re going to try to message clearly that rush tickets work.

EK: Since you mentioned “Cabin in the Woods,” let’s talk about some of the bigger films at the festival this year, a list that also includes “21 Jump Street.” You’ve always had to deal with this one perception of SXSW as a marketing tool for studios to premiere to a certain crowd. And I know that’s obviously not the only thing that you’re for. How does this year’s lineup reflects those concerns?

Our feeling is we like really good films along a real range of budget lines and “wattage.” When I was here as a civilian in the audience for “Knocked Up” in 2007, that was exciting. So as programmers we’re very careful. We’re not a regional festival. We’re not a stop on a publicity tour. So we’re very open to films from major studios if we think they’re going to entertain us. Particularly if we think they’re an artistic voice that we think is worth supporting. So with “The Beaver” last year, it had everything to do with the respect I have for Jodie Foster and, whether you agree or not, I thought she did an amazing job directing the film. It had really amazing performances and I felt this film should be seen and we could help with that. So with “21 Jump Street,” frankly, I didn’t go into it assuming it would be right for us on any level. I thought it might just be a broad generic comedy. Myself and the programming committee thought it was really funny and really smart. It said so much about cultural changes and popularity and we think Jonah Hill’s career has been interesting. And so those are the reasons why we think it’s fun to include a film like that in the program.

EK: What’s the story with the Duplass brothers’ movie, “The Do-Deca-Penathlon”? It’s a few years old.

When the Duplasses made “Puffy Chair,” they really took their time thinking about what they were going to do next. They really thought a lot about what kind of living they were going to make and what kind of careers they were going to have. And they didn’t rush into anything. What happened was, they started this film before they had the opportunity to make “Cyrus” and “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” So this was the last film they made independently. They started making it on their own but got sidetracked by these other bigger budget films. But it was something that they really loved and were happy about and always wanted to finish and see the light of day. It is absolutely a work that precedes “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” but it stands on its own. It’s completely satisfying, funny… They have a very distinct sensibility. When you see their films you know it’s them. And this film is clearly them in more ways than one.

EK: It’s interesting that you have a unique Duplass film and the preview of a TV show created by Lena Dunham. These are people who have very much been a part of SXSW’s life over the past few years but aren’t exclusively locked into making low-budget indies anymore.

I couldn’t be more ecstatic about Lena, in terms of everything about her evolution. The fact that she came here in 2009 with “Creative Nonfiction,” which was so raw and there was a spark of a voice there. And it was here that she met her producers and her actors and her DP. And she made “Tiny Furniture” as a way to work with people she’d met at SXSW and kind of earn her way back. So that was huge success story for everybody. Here she is, still a very young woman who’s got this great opportunity. And we’ve been trying to figure out how to celebrate the kind of great work that’s on television these days–whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” or “Mad Men” or “Treme.” So we’ve been trying to do that for a while, and this was the first time that made sense organically. It meant a lot to Lena and it meant a lot to us to support this original strong voice so that she continues making work.

But we also like the idea of celebrating work outside the traditional film model. We’ve already announced Digital Domain, which is a forum to start working with original Web content. We’ve started doing it as part of a conference but we have a room that will be content that’s created for the web or outside the film lines. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. We’re really happy to be starting to put it into practice here.

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