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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.