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Lena Dunham’s Breakthrough and the Evolution of Joe Swanberg: Janet Pierson Looks Back at 10 Years of SXSW Film

From rising talent to the introduction of TV programming, Pierson's tenure at SXSW tracks a number of key moments in the independent film scene.

Janet PiersonSXSW Film Awards presented by FilmStruck, SXSW Festival, Austin, USA - 14 Mar 2017

Janet Pierson

Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Unlike Sundance or Cannes, the SXSW Film Festival has undergone rapid changes over the past decade. Tied in with the swirling chaos of its Interactive and Music sections, the Austin-based event is known for the discovery of low-budget features and as a launch pad for edgy studio projects favored by the city’s hipsters.

Much of SXSW’s identity took shape during the early aughts, when current iTunes independent film coordinator Matt Dentler brought a range of new American talent into the program. When he left in 2008 for a job in New York, incoming SXSW film producer Janet Pierson was a programming newcomer but a veteran of scene. With her husband, John Pierson, she shepherded the careers of independent filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, and Errol Morris. With SXSW, she was tasked with funneling that experience into the ever-changing ecosystem of film and television.

To commemorate her 10th year running the festival (and its 25th edition), Pierson shared her favorite moments from the past decade.

2009

My first year was marked by a sort of terror about not wanting to screw it up. I had really loved what Matt Dentler had done. I was trying to figure out how you do an opening night. I came from the independent world and didn’t have studio relationships. The film “I Love You, Man” just came to us. I was having a meeting with Paramount, and they said, “We don’t have anything that’s right, timing-wise.” Then I got back to Austin and two days later, they said, “We forgot about this other film that might be right for you.” It was a wonderful opening night film for my first year — funny, entertaining, full of wonderful talent. Then we also showed “Observe and Report,” which was the best screening they ever had with that film.

“45365” was another gift that year. It was submitted to us, we loved it, and decided to put it in the doc competition. It won the grand jury prize, and I remember thinking that a film as beautiful and intelligent as this — which was unconventional — would define my festival. I loved what it signified about the kind of talent we were interested in.

alexander the last joe swanberg

“Alexander the Last”

We also had the first VOD day-and-date deal ever at a festival, with IFC and Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last.” He had a relationship with SXSW, and I’d met him in 2005, when I was at the festival with “Reel Paradise” [the documentary about the Piersons]. We’d always come at the festival as industry people, but when we were there with the documentary we met a lot of the filmmakers. We also met the Duplasses then. It was a different way to engage with the festival. So with “Alexander the Last,” having Joe evolve his career was a big moment and had more impact than I expected. You’re always trying to be current and find out how filmmakers can reach their audiences. It was a long negotiation with IFC, but a very cool thing.

That same year, Jody Lee Lipes had directed “Brock Enright,” his first documentary, and he’d been a DP for Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool.” Meanwhile, Lena Dunham was here with “Creative Nonfiction.” They met here, and that’s how he wound up shooting “Tiny Furniture.”

The whole mumblecore thing really started in 2007 with “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” where you had everybody in one film. But to me, mumblecore was interesting because I had a different relationship to it than other people because I’m so much older. Being involved with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Clerks” meant being familiar with films made for no money with a lot of people talking in rooms. There was nothing new about mumblecore in that people were making films where people talk a lot in rooms. That was on a continuum of other films I’d been involved with previously with my husband. The difference was the collaborative nature of it. These people all met each other and loved the way they worked together. Look at what David Lowery and Amy Seimetz worked on. They’d DP, edit, act, making themselves available to all these other filmmakers in a very generous way. You see it with Swanberg and the Duplasses, too. They’re producing other films they find interesting even as they’re talented directors.

I didn’t invent this — Matt Dentler found the momentum, and before him, Nancy Schaefer started it with the sheer chutzpah of getting a festival together. Matt had the eye for this extraordinary talent early in their career. So many of them met here and because it was an open, hospitable place, it inspired people to start working together. So in 2009, Lena meets Jody, she meets Alex Karpovsky, Alicia Van Couvering, and those are the key people that led her to make “Tiny Furniture,” which came here the next year. That’s the essential SXSW story.

2010

Lena Dunham was here the year before with a very, very rough film. The experience inspired her to make “Tiny Furniture.” Literally, her mother told me, this movie was made to earn her a second year. It came out so accomplished, which was very exciting.

The two other pivotal movies this year were “Marwencol” and “Monsters.” With “Marwencol,” you had this extraordinary film from Jeff Malmberg that he’d made over four years all by himself. It’s just a really beautiful film. Then with “Monsters,” Gareth Edwards’ whole career was launched with one movie.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tiny Ponies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5875871c)Laurie Simmons, Lena DunhamTiny Furniture - 2010Director: Lena DunhamTiny PoniesUSAScene StillComedy

“Tiny Furniture”

Tiny Ponies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Two other films that really resonated for me. There was “Pelada,” Ryan White’s first film, about this couple that played soccer together their whole lives who hit a crisis when they don’t go pro. They go around the world playing pickup games. I refer to it all the time. It’s super raw, but he’s gone on to have an incredible career. He came back a few years later with “Good Ol’ Freda” and then “The Case Against 8.” Launching his career was significant to me, and I love everything his first first stands for.

That year, we also showed Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather.” He’d already showed “Dance Party USA” and “Quiet City,” but I just loved everything about this new film so much and that we could premiere it.

2011

We hit this reality with studios where we’re looking at what the window is that makes sense where they can premiere here before the release. Some people think a week ahead, but others think several months ahead. It’s a conversation about why it’s good for us and why it’s good for them. Even with the studio films, we’re looking for the same things as the independent work, which is a filmmaker’s point of view. We try to avoid anything too broad or formulaic. The exciting thing about our 2011 opening film “Source Code” was that we’d had such an exciting time showing “Moon” two years earlier. It was this great sci-fi thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal, whose popularity is so extraordinary.

We also showed “Bridesmaids” and “The Beaver,” which was very complicated. There were big concerns about Mel Gibson, but we thought it was a really good film and we were supporting Jodie Foster as a director. It’s interesting to think about it now. I don’t know how it would play out now, in 2018.

“Attack the Block”

In the midnight section, we showed “Attack the Block,” “Insidious” and “Kill List.” SXSW was always really strong with genre. One of the reasons that the Alamo Drafthouse had the idea to create Fantastic Fest was because we were already in that space. The audience interest was very strong. “Hellboy” was here in 2002 and people loved it. There’s a populist quality here. However, midnights are not a strong area for me. In my first year, Tim League approached me about programming some midnights to elevate Fantastic Fest, which had just started. Then Jarod Neece expressed interest in handling midnights. Our midnights for the first few years were both Jarod’s choices and SX Fantastic. They were both successful. Then we parted ways with Tim after three years. Jarod works closely on all the programming, but the midnighters are all him. That’s what a lot of the younger people want to see.

That year also had the premiere of “Weekend,” Andrew Haigh’s debut film, in the Visions category. It was basically two guys talking. We’re looking for films that blow us away with the least amount of elements. It premiered kind of quietly, everybody’d told the filmmakers not to expect overnight deals, but it did get distribution right after it was discovered here. Haigh’s films are extraordinary. There’s something about the way he works with actors. Andrew, as it turns out — we didn’t know this at the time — he was completely inspired by the career of Joe Swanberg.

2012

When I started, I was already watching a lot of quality television and thinking about how we could do it here. In 2011, I tried getting some series here, but everyone I asked was like, “Why?” It didn’t make sense to them. So the intent was there. Then we wanted to show the first few episodes of “Girls.” It took Lena telling HBO that she wanted to do it for it to come together. It was an amazing event. I thanked Judd Apatow, who I’d never met before, and he said, “This is great, because we’re writing the second season and it’s incredible for the creators to get feedback from the audience.” They could hear how it was playing for the audience. Television people usually don’t get that.

Girls 606 Lena Dunham

“Girls”

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

I was crying onstage. Lena had been here with 13 people in her audience for “Creative Nonfiction” and had this wonderful experience with “Tiny Furniture” winning the Grand Jury Prize. Now there were 1,000 people here on a Monday afternoon to watch her TV show and they loved it.

We also showed “21 Jump Street,” with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum wearing their cop outfits, which was so much fun. They had the best energy. At first, we didn’t know why we were considering this movie. It was so much funnier and smarter than anyone anticipated. The reception helped elevate expectations for the film and that wound up being a real highlight moment for me.

2013

“Drinking Buddies” was exciting because it was the first time Joe Swanberg had worked with name cast. It was his old method, but he was working with more-experienced actors. Another film that really meant a lot to us that year wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and it was called “Euphonia,” made by Ornana Films. This year, its producer Jim Cummings has his directorial debut with “Thunder Road.” We just really loved those guys. They made bumpers for us a few years later. “Euphonia” was this really short feature that came out of nowhere, but we found something really special about it.

Short Term 12

“Short Term 12”

Cinedigm

The great thing about “Short Term 12,” which won the Grand Jury Prize, was not only how much people loved it, but how much talent was launched from it. The frustrating thing for me at the time was the conversation surrounding it, which was, “Why didn’t Sundance pick it?” Sundance had a wonderful year. They did a fantastic job. That never needed to be a part of the conversation. There’s this wonderful ecosystem, a lot of films, and “Short Term 12” had this great SXSW premiere. But it had to be a backhanded compliment. Still, how about that talent — not only Brie Larson, but Rami Malek and Destin Cretton.

2014

Josh Lucas was so great in “The Mend,” relishing the performance of this awful guy. I love the messiness of it. “Fort Tilden” won the Grand Jury Prize and it was super funny. Those filmmakers also moved into television. The “Veronica Mars” premiere was OK, but in terms of studio stuff, I’d really look to “Neighbors.” It was a huge launch. The next year, all these studios wanted to do what “Neighbors” did. Seth Rogen has been this really important participant over the years — first with “Knocked Up” and “Observe and Report,” but “Neighbors” was a really big hit for him here.

Bates Motel -- "The Cord" -- Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC -- © 2017 A&E Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

“Bates Motel”

Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC

This was the year that we formalized creating an episodics section. “Girls” had been really successful. Everyone wanted to show stuff here. There was so much television to consider. We ended up showing “Bates Motel” because we wanted something filmic. I remember thinking very clearly, “There’s so much quality work being done here. If we can find enough, we need to create a new section.” So that’s what we did. Later, there was “Silicon Valley,” “Cosmos,” “From Dusk Til Dawn,” “Penny Dreadful,” and more.

2015

I’d heard about “Trainwreck” while it was in production. It was Jody Lee Lipes, who had done the “Brock Enright” film in 2009. He was shooting it, and it had Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, and Apatow was directing it. So when I heard all this, I started trying to show it. That wasn’t easy. The studio didn’t want us to show it. The producer worked it out with me. All credit to Barry Mendel. I knew it sounded right and when we saw it, we realized it was what we wanted.

Our shorts programmer, Claudette Godfrey, had selected the short film “Krisha” a year earlier and it won an award here. Trey Shults was very inspired and had a great time, so he turned around a feature right away and came back. Just reading about it on paper, though, I didn’t want to see this film — a family meets over Thanksgiving. That’s a plot a lot of people try to do. We see thousands of them that don’t work. But with “Krisha,” I was on the edge of my chair in minutes. I don’t have the words to describe how I feel about it, but it was similar to “Weekend” — just a few people. Everybody keeps trying to make a film like this, but this one actually was really special. Not everything we likes connects with the rest of the world, so it was very satisfying when it got a lot of attention and won the Grand Jury Prize.

"Krisha"

“Krisha”

The other pivotal film was “Hello, My Name is Doris.” It was a film that could’ve been too quirky but we really thought it worked. Michael Showalter had done a lot of different things, but not a feature, and it played amazingly well. Then it found distribution and did well in theaters, just connecting with people in a way that we feel wonderful about.

In terms of episodics, we all knew “Silicon Valley” was going to be great. But “Mr. Robot” was something nobody saw coming. It was a game changer. “Unreal” was a short that Claudette had shown and got picked up from our programming to be a series, so that was also very important to us.

2016

We had shown “Sleepwalk With Me” after it hit big at Sundance. Mike Birbiglia called me after he finished “Don’t Think Twice” and said, “I’m making a film and my intention is to premiere with you.” He’s this incredibly talented filmmaker who’s good at controlling every aspect of his audience.

We premiered “Jean of the Joneses,” which launched Stella Meghie, who’s now working in Hollywood and made a big YA movie [“Everything, Everything”]. There was also the documentary “An Accidental Courtesy” that has become more and more important because it’s about a black musician who’s made it his purpose to befriend Klansmen and confront them one-on-one. It’s very powerful.

“White Reindeer” was a special film for us. We’d shown Zach Clark’s first film, “Modern Love is Automatic,” and he’s such a distinctive voice even as his films are all different.

2017

“Baby Driver”

The whole staff came away from seeing “Baby Driver” tapping their toes. Edgar Wright has this strong personality, so to be able to support him with such an audience-pleasing film was so much fun. But “Lucky” was also a major film for us last year, since it was Harry Dean Stanton’s last performance.

2018

Every year there’s a sense of how we can top the last one, but it’s really just about trying to create a good experience and launch careers. I live with somebody who’s an industry expert. He’s always looking at things that way. That’s one of the riches of our relationship because we don’t think about things the same way. I can’t give you the big picture view of SXSW or its future, but maybe he can.

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