An Interview with Janet Pierson of SXSW

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Anne del CastilloAnne del Castillo, POV’s director of development and business affairs, will be attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin from March 14-17. This year, SXSW Film has a new producer, Janet Pierson. Anne gets the scoop by asking Janet some questions about what’s new at the festival.

Last year, the indie world seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when SXSW announced that Janet Pierson would be taking over the helm as producer of the film festival and conference. What better person to head up one of the most indie-spirited film fests than one of independent film’s strongest advocates? With her partner/husband John Pierson, Janet was instrumental in the launch of films such as Roger and Me, She’s Gotta Have It, Slacker, and Clerks, and was co-creator of the Independent Film Channel series Split Screen. Though I have only known Janet through mutual acquaintances in Austin, I have long admired her work and was delighted to have an opportunity to connect with her on the eve of SXSW.

With over 20 years in producing, what has the transition to programming been like for you?
Janet PiersonJanet Pierson: My background is not exactly as a producer, certainly not in the traditional sense… It’s more as a film champion. I worked in distribution immediately after art school, was assistant director to Karen Cooper at Film Forum, 1981-86. The decades spent with my husband John involved being a producer’s rep, investor, completion financing, running a film workshop and more. We created and produced a television show and executive produced Reel Paradise. But more importantly, it’s been a life immersed with championing talented filmmakers in any number of ways and…solving problems.

I see running SXSW as more of the same. It’s an opportunity to champion film and support filmmakers that I think are talented, an opportunity to create an environment that helps them connect with an audience. The work is extremely familiar to me, although technically, I’ve not programmed before. I just paid attention to the balance of work that SXSW has become known for. I programmed work that felt strong to me, and listened to a lot of other trusted voices to round out the program beyond my own taste.
How do you insure that the documentary slate stays strong?

Pierson: Docs are only hard to program because there are a variety of ways to assess them. You can fall in love with a subject even though the filmmaking itself is weak. You can skew towards more socially conscious films, or towards personal films. I’m using pretty much the same set of volunteer screeners my predecessor did, and I have strong support on my staff. I love docs! So as long as filmmakers are making strong docs, we’ll be showing them!
Last year, SXSW introduced SXGlobal, a new international program. What is the goal of the program and how does it fit within the purview of the festival?

Pierson: It’s an initiative to build upon our strong commitment to international films, organized in conjunction with a variety of international film agencies, institutes, broadcasters and producers. Lya Guerra is the programmer for SXGlobal, and she has put a great deal of work into seeking out excellent international fare to expand our program.

Do you find that the convergence of interactive technologies and film production, promotion and distribution is impacting the way SXSW programs panels for the film conference so as not to duplicate the conversations taking place in the interactive conference?

Pierson: Oh sure — but I see it as a great asset! We’re working more and more closely together as all the lines blur. We’re already ahead on these conversations. You’ve got this amazing cross section of creative artists and entrepreneurs across the spectrum thinking about the same questions: How to reach an audience? What’s community, and how do you reach them and harness their power? How to make money using technology? How to use media for social good and/or entertainment? The film conference and interactive conference are bolstered and excited by each other.

SXSW is defined by its location — Austin. And yet at the same time, the programming manages to balance local, big films, and international work. What is SXSW’s strategy for maintaining that balance?

Pierson: Just that, paying attention to the balance.

What is your vision for the future of the festival?

Pierson: Hopefully to keep it vital and exciting and worth coming to! But nothing dramatically different. I love what it is, and look forward to an organic evolution.

What are you looking forward to most at this year’s festival?

Pierson: Audiences enjoying the program as much as we do! Filmmakers experiencing that great unique joy of premiering their work to excited, enthusiastic and smart audiences. And getting through the intensity, gracefully if possible. :)

Anne del Castillo
Anne del Castillo
Anne is POV's director of development and special projects; she has been active in the independent media arts and public television as a producer, programmer and fundraiser for over 12 years. She currently manages American Documentary's fundraising activities, content research and program licensing. Prior to joining the AmDoc staff in 2002, she was a production associate at American Masters in New York and then series coordinator for Frontline in Boston. In 1997, she moved to Austin, Texas, where she served as associate director of the Austin Film Society, and worked on numerous documentary and narrative film projects. She served as vice president of the board of Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and has been a panelist for numerous arts and media organizations.
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