SXSW Director of Film Janet Pierson on the Unique DNA of SXSW + How to Get There

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Film festivals are a dime a dozen. From Sundance and Slamdance in Utah, to Cannes in France, cinephiles are never lacking in gatherings to attend and discover their next favorite at. But not all can really claim to have cultivated a community, and one that’s cross-sectional at that.

Janet Pierson is the Director of Film at one such gathering, South by Southwest, otherwise known as SXSW. The Austin-based conference and festival event was founded in 1987 and is known for its unique convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries—in a down-to-earth, friendly setting ripe for unusual collaborations and unconventional conversations. The event is technically four different festivals—interactive, film, music, and comedy—in addition to a conference with tracks that vary from “Intelligent Future” to “Experiential Storytelling,” “Music Influencers” and more.

Hopping on the phone with Pierson, we talk shop about the unique DNA of SXSW, the mystery behind good filmmaking, and what lies ahead for the festival.

SXSW Film / 2016
SXSW Film / 2016

DNA + CHANGES FOR 2017

Part of SXSW’s success is undeniably its setting—home to famously sunny weather, countless food trucks, and an insane concentration of bars, Austin, Texas is a mecca for everyone from artists, to musicians and high-tech businesses. The city has cultivated its own brand of approachability and accessibility that is critical to SXSW, as Pierson explains.

“I used to come out here as industry from New York … we’d come here and the weather’s great in March, the people are really friendly—it’s a place that’s changing a lot now but it was a place that was never about money—it didn’t feel like it was about money, it was easy to be here, it had a real creative sensibility, and SXSW is not separated from that. It’s part and parcel of it.”

“… it’s a place that’s changing a lot now but it was a place that was never about money “

Another part of what makes SXSW so distinct is its unique format which allows for badge holders to have a broader variety of tracks they can attend. This year SXSW are making a massive expansion on that aspect. SXSW’s badges will be assigned a primary access and secondary access type for each badge, which means an attendee who purchases a Film badge will, for example, have primary access to all Interactive events, and have secondary access to a smattering of Interactive and Music events. While there will be an exclusive party here or there, Pierson tells me that, overall, “it’s easier, with more fluidity for people to roam around and choose your own adventure.”

"Everybody Wants Some" screening at SXSW 2016. Photo by Amanda Stronza.
“Everybody Wants Some” screening at SXSW 2016. Photo by Amanda Stronza.

EYE OF THE HURRICANE

Growth is not without its challenges. As I probe Janet about difficulties her team may have faced, she notes, “When you’re in the eye of the hurricane, you don’t always have the perspective.” She tells me the team has grown to about three times the size of what it was in terms of full-time employees. When Pierson came on board in April 2008, she says much of the footprint for formatting and the diversity of programming had already been laid out for her by her well-respected predecessor, Matt Dentler. “I shared the sensibility. I didn’t reinvent the wheel—I was able to come in and just somehow assemble my own team.” But sometimes even those who make their living recognizing good storytellers need help with their stories, so Pierson hired a PR person. “The work was always good but we were able to tell it better.”

Another complication for the team is noise pollution. “Let’s say we’re a pure film festival—let’s say we take what’s so special about us —that’s what filmmakers are used to, the main event is about them, but here we’re the smallest part of the event … there’s tremendous competition for your attention.”

Competing for attention amongst other aspects of SXSW is a challenge for SXSW Film / Jack Garratt performs / Photo: Justin Yee
Competing for attention amongst other aspects of SXSW is a challenge for SXSW Film / Jack Garratt performs / Photo: Justin Yee

WHAT MAKES A GOOD MOVIE?

So what captures Pierson’s attention when it comes to selecting SXSW’s films? “There’s a mystery to it … We look for these films that are made with like nothing, no production value, it’s people in a room.” Pierson points out that oftentimes they’re watching films with the same cast, the same elements, but “something comes alive, some combination of script, performance, and direction that somehow is able to work.” She’s unable to really break down what makes a film successful, but uses Krisha as an example: “Sometimes when you see a film like Krisha, it’s just magic—I still don’t know why that film is so good, it just is.”

Krisha (2016) / Dir: Trey Edward Shults
Krisha (2016) / Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Ultimately, Pierson explains, they focus on trying to find work that is attuned to a certain sensibility: “We look for work that moves us, has a strong point-of-view, is edgy, has a diversity of budgets and geography and emotional tonality.”

While the magic of a film can’t always be pinpointed, one thing is for certain—SXSW wants to be the connective tissue for inventive projects and new conversations that wouldn’t otherwise take place. Harnessing the spirit of Austin and a diverse range of creatives alike, the event is not to be missed.

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This year’s SXSW Film Festival takes place March 10-18. Get more info + tickets here.

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