Austin Translation: Janet Pierson, SXSW

In the first of a week-long series of conversations with the good and the great at SXSW in Texas, realscreen talks to Janet Pierson (pictured), the producer of SXSW Film, about her aims for this year's event, and the relationship between the festival's Interactive and Film components.
March 12, 2012

In the first of a week-long series of conversations with the good and the great at SXSW in Texas, realscreen talks to Janet Pierson (pictured), the producer of SXSW Film, about her aims for this year’s event, and the relationship between the festival’s Interactive and Film components.

SXSW 2012 is in full swing – how has it started for you so far?

I’m feeling great about it because I’m hearing great enthusiasm for the films that we’ve programmed and, to me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s always hard because you only get to experience the part that you get to see and there’s quite a lot going on, so I look forward to hearing from everybody else.

I haven’t had time to check out and read the press yet or catch up with Twitter much, but there’s a sense that people are in really good moods, even though the weather started out terrible, and they seem to be really enjoying the films.

Looking at the schedule, what are the key areas or themes you’ve been focusing on this year?

Well, we program by section, rather than thematically, so we really want range. We want headliners and we want about eight of them – we want the narrative and the documentary competition to each have eight films, which is quite small, and there’s room for between 10 and 20 of the Spotlight Premieres, the Emerging Visions and the Festival Favorites, so it’s sort of a balance between a range of work that we think is interesting.

In documentary – after the fact – it seems like there are a lot of very intimate films that show you worlds that you didn’t know existed before. Take The Central Park Effect – who knew about bird-watching in Central Park in the middle of Manhattan and migratory patterns? It’s kind of exquisite. Or a film like Jeff, which examines such a crazy story in a very intimate, quiet way – beautifully done.

There are several films along those lines – Welcome to the Machine is such a personal look into the true inter-mix of humanity and technology. There are so many people trying to make that same film. On the other hand something like Waiting for Lightning – that film is exciting and suspenseful, and a film like Degenerate Art – they are [both] sort of more conventional filmmaking, but they’re on subjects that are subcultures that are fascinating and looked at from several different viewpoints.

We had a lot to choose from, but I think it’s for others to decide what the themes look like – we’re just looking for films that move us somehow.

You had several documentaries last year that broke out in a big way after premiering in Austin, but none more so than Undefeated. Do you think there’s something this year that could do the same?

I don’t care, actually. I mean, I’m delighted for them [the team behind Undefeated] but we loved that film as much as we love all these other films and we celebrate any film that connects with audiences, and there are just so many ways to do it.

The Oscars are important and it was huge for Undefeated, and I’m thrilled for them, but that’s just one kind of success and it’s not everything for us at all. What we look for as a festival are films that are distinct and move us, and filmmakers who meet one another, are inspired by each other, and get ideas and work together to connect with people.

A lot of the chatter on the ground this year has been about the size of the Interactive element of SXSW and the notable increase in the number of attendees from the digital space. How do you view that?

That’s been happening for years and it just keeps happening more. You keep thinking, OK, that’s enough, it’s jumped the shark or it’s too crowded and people won’t want to come any more, and then it is clearly the place that everybody wants to be.

Every single badge category [across Film, Music and Interactive] is significantly up and I think it’s because it’s a unique environment that doesn’t exist anywhere else. And what does “interactive” mean? I know plenty of filmmakers who come [with] Interactive badges because this is that one place where they can have that experience.

There’s not a single definition of who an “interactive” person is. Here you have people working in visual, music, and then interactive covers everything else. There’s no other place that exists that I’m aware of that has the depth of creatives in all areas, and they all want to be here at the same time.

And what kind of challenges does that pose for you and your team?

Well, internally, we spend quite a lot of time thinking about how we can maintain a quality experience when there are so many people. I think one of the things that people really love about SXSW is the humanity here – you can meet real people and talk to them. Austin is very personable, so preserving that in the face of the growth is a challenge but we work that out. We want to have a great experience for our attendees.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.