This past April, long time South By Southwest Film Festival producer, Matt Dentler, stepped down and moved to New York City to head marketing and programming operations of the digital rights management unit at Cinetic Media. While many industry folks, journalists and bloggers alike were surprised and sorry to see Dentler leave, Janet Pierson’s name came into the mix as the new festival producer. Pierson’s 30 year history in the film industry includes working as a producer’s rep, alongside her husband John Pierson, on Roger & Me, producing and starring in the doc Reel Paradise, and acting as a board member for the Austin Film Society. She spoke to realscreen about her transition into this role and her early plans for the festival.
What is it about this job that made you want to take it?
I think it’s a great festival. I moved to Austin four years ago. I love living here. This festival is the real heartbeat here and it has a place in the international world as well, we’ve been coming here since before it even started. And I think the festival, in terms of the film stuff, has gotten more and more exciting over the last several years. And when Matt left there was this huge void and I felt like somebody had to help keep it going and I was happy to try to be the one.
I think it’s [strength is] the range of programs here. It’s been strong in documentary for a long time, so you kind of start with that. Then you’ve got the emerging filmmakers, microcinema stuff, emerging voices and places for new talent that’s maybe not as stacked up with pre-approved actors you might find elsewhere, but then you’ve also got room for Hollywood stuff.
It’s so nice to get that range. Then there’s the fact that everyone’s so accessible here, it’s a town where you can come and there’s a lot of intermix, and it’s not a high stress festival but there’s so much to involve yourself with. And what I’m really excited about, too, is the way the music and the interactive and film work together. It’s something that nobody else has to this degree. And particularly the interactive stuff which is exploding as the world is changing. All the models are imploding. We’re in a great position here to kind of try to help figure out what the future’s going to be because you’ve already got a lot of the prime thinkers and explorers here.
Is there anything you plan to change as you take over?
I’m hoping to continue the work Matt started but I’d also like to see us build some strong bridges, better, stronger practical bridges to the interactive world because they’re all intertwined. It’s all the same thing these days.
How’s it been going since you took over this role in April?
It’s a big change for me. It’s certainly a learning curve. I was the closest outsider, somebody who was really close to Matt. I was on the screening committees, I followed it like sport. I was a really high user. But it’s different to be on the inside.
How many documentaries are submitted versus how many are shown?
There’s a guess of 700 or 800 doc submissions. The program is about 120 features that we show, and based on an informal count we think about 60% of them are docs.
What kind of films, in terms of documentaries, are you hoping to find when you’re selecting?
Britdoc is doing a best of fests. They invited Sundance, IDFA, Toronto, Berlin and Southby each to present the best film of their festival and it was funny to think which film would that be? There were so many films that I thought were strong this year and it ended up that we’re going to show At the Death House Door, Steve James’ newest film. But my own list of personal favorite films from last year was all over the place.
What we don’t have is a preconceived agenda. We look at films and we look at films that are of the most interesting range to us. So it’s true that it wouldn’t be all political documentaries, you would want to cover the range of the best work that’s available at the time.
What don’t you want to see? For instance, are you tired of any subjects?
I was just one of the people on the screening committee in previous years so I’ve never had to see the whole scope before. It’s funny how there are these funny pockets. A couple years back everything was a faux documentary. In my screening bag alone of 10 films eight of them were faux documentaries. But I’m not going to dictate what we’ll see.
What advice would you give filmmakers who’re submitting to your festival?
To be aware how competitive the world is. That documentaries are fundamentally interesting because of their subjects but that you’re in a world right now where tens of thousands of people are making films too and you’ve really gotta try to make something really interesting and really good and be aware that you’re not the only one.