By Don R. Lewis | March 13, 2009

If you’ve paid attention or been involved with independent film over the last three decades or more, you either know or know of Janet Pierson. She’s been the passionate, fiery companion to husband John Pierson who was at the forefront of the indie explosion in the early 1990’s as he shepherded indie film kingpins Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and others into the more-or-less mainstream of the cinematic conscience. While John has settled into a groove of teaching, writing, programming screenings and championing various projects, it now seems to be Janet Pierson’s time at the fore as South by Southwest 2009 gets underway with Janet at the helm.

After the somewhat surprising departure of head programmer Matt Dentler following last years South by Southwest Film Festival, Janet immediately assumed the role and acted as a salve to the many who wondered “what the f**k is SXSW gonna do now!?” Who better to run a festival that has managed to premiere great films, spotlight up and comers as well as keep an easy going but lively vibe than someone who’s not only been involved in independent film for many years, but has also calls Austin home? We sat down with Janet Pierson (at our computers…and from different states) to see what it’s like being handed the torch to what many believe has become the best film festival in America.

Film Threat: You have truly done everything there is to do in the world of independent film alongside your husband, indie film guru John Pierson. But this is the first time you’ve been given the reins to a full-fledged, already formed film festival. What experiences that you’ve had in the past did you bring to the table for SXSW? What have you learned works and what things did you avoid at all costs?

Janet Pierson: I ran Canyon Cinema Coop – an experimental film coop right out of college. I was assistant director of the Film Forum in NYC from 1981-1986 working on a new premiere every two weeks. As producer reps we worked with first time filmmakers – selecting those few we chose to work with, but considering hundreds of others on a regular basis. We ran the Cold Spring Annual Film Workshop for five years. We produced the IFC tv cable series Split Screen working with over a hundred independent filmmakers. We lived in Fiji and ran a free movie theatre for a year. I did tons of local political work involving database design and outreach as my kids’ were growing up. Everything I’ve done has contributed to the demands of this job. What I guess has mattered the most is my deep commitment to what I consider strong, interesting work, and relationships with people all over the film industry, both new and spanning decades.

FT: Matt Dentler really put the SXSW film festival on the map and his departure was a bit of a surprise. How did you end up taking over the role of program director?

J.P.: I think Matt’s departure was only a surprise to people who didn’t consider that he’d spent his entire working life at SXSW, had already run the festival for five years, was turning 29, and is tremendously talented and ambitious. He could have stayed here forever, but should he have? Isn’t it healthy to grow and evolve? I believe he was completely engaged with SXSW but when an offer came along to help invent the new models for marketing and distribution in a new city, with other tremendously talented professionals- he couldn’t resist the challenge.

I was asked to take over in about 48 hours. Austin is a small town. In the four years we’d lived here, as Vice President of AFS (Austin Film Society), and just the way I live my life, I’d made myself tremendously available, engaged in, and useful in the overall film scene. I was one of Matt’s volunteer screeners as well as a close friend. Louis Black, one of the co-founders of SXSW, and AFS, was very aware of my involvement in the Austin film world, and my background, and thought I’d be a good fit.

FT: Since taking over at SXSW, you’ve already programmed several SXSW alumni films at this years festival. Obviously you’re a fan of these filmmakers and may want to keep the path that SXSW has created for these filmmakers moving forward. Are there any films or types of films you are a fan of that you made it a point to bring to the festival this year? What will Janet Pierson’s contribution to the growth of SXSW be?

J.P.: I’ve been coming to SXSW Film since its started. I’ve been involved with championing new filmmakers for 30 years. I was a huge fan of the evolution under Matt’s leadership, which coincided with our move to Austin. Is it so surprising that I’d program some SXSW alumns? Or filmmakers I’ve known before? Not that it’s that simple. There are plenty of alumns who aren’t in the program this year. It’s an organic process, not an automatic one. You try to choose the strongest program of the work available in your timeframe. We strive for a lot of different balances. I worked very hard on the program this year – so whatever you see, that, in some way, is my contribution. It’ll be up to others to analyze.

FT : Do you feel like there’s a conflict of interest in the programming of Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax” seeing as how you appear in the film? Was there any trepidation in programming the film or have you received any flak for programming it?

J.P.: No, I don’t see any conflict. What would it be? Andrew has a long, really satisfying relationship with SXSW. He uses non-professionals. He cast me to play a small role in the summer of 2007, nine months before I took over this job. It was shot in Austin. And I really liked it. Wouldn’t it be unfair if I denied SXSW the film because I’m in a tiny role that has nothing to do with my job? People have been WAITING for Bujalski’s next film! The only flak I’ve received is repeatedly having to answer this question.

FT: What’s proven to be an unforeseen challenge you’ve faced in programming SXSW and what’s been the highlight so far?

J.P. : I wish I had a better memory. I waste a lot of time having to re-look things up. The highlights have been many. I love the people I work with. It’s a great talented group both within the film staff, and beyond, to the full SXSW ranks. And there’s nothing like discovering a film you think is wonderful, and being able to call or write and say, I love your film – I’m happy to invite you to be a part of this great festival that might be life changing, and that so many people love.

FT: Having attended so many film festivals, what do you feel makes for a great festival experience (for filmmakers, viewers and press) and what do you think should be avoided?

J.P.: Ease is a big factor on the plus side. For me the enjoyment comes from a mix of great work, and great people along with user ease.

FT: How many film submissions did SXSW receive this year and how many films did you end up programming?

J.P.: Over 3500 films – over half of which were shorts. We ended up programming about 133 features, and 11 shorts programs. That’s approximate because I haven’t actually counted – although it’s funny, everyone asks. I’m so not a statistician – don’t organize the world that way. I just know the programming slots are full.

FT: Do you have any advice for filmmakers in terms of getting their work shown at SXSW or even festivals in general? What are some mistakes filmmakers are making when submitting to SXSW?

J.P.: Festivals really are looking to premiere work they think is original and moving and just, well…works. The competition is overwhelming, but some films just jump out. I feel for filmmakers, because it is really hard. I don’t technically what makes one film completely compelling and another a mix- it’s an alchemy. On the practical side, it does help to have advocates. That doesn’t mean having too many people call or pestering festival programmers yourselves. But having a few, real genuine advocates? That’s helpful. Programmers do talk to one another, and to a whole stream of associates in the filmmaking world. There’s also a crazy randomness to it that you can’t really do anything about. There are plenty of quite good films that don’t make the cut for any number of reasons – something else is too similar, or it’s too long or short. I wish I had an easy answer but I don’t.

The South by Southwest Film Festival runs March 13-21…check out their OFFICIAL SITEfor more info

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