SXSW film fest keeps Austin weird

New producer Pierson aims to uphold its niche

Austin prides itself in being a little bit “out there” — a personality reflected in the Texas capital’s annual South by Southwest film fest. Maintaining that vibe was top priority for SXSW’s new film fest producer, Janet Pierson, who took over when fest head Matt Dentler ankled after 2008’s event.

During his tenure, Dentler leveraged Austin’s hipster/slacker image for a dual purpose. Studios saw Austin’s college-kid-and-granola crowd as the perfect demo for preems of “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But Dentler also cultivated a scrappy, DIY brand of rising filmmakers including Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”), Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), Lynn Shelton (“Humpday”) and brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”).

Locals enjoyed getting a first glimpse at major releases, but also forgave the lo-fi production values of films too ragged for Sundance. In upholding that tradition, Pierson admits to being daunted at first. “I’d been such a fan of what Matt had done,” she says. “I’d been involved in this world for decades, but I wasn’t sure how I’d put it all together.”

Pierson’s independent film roots go back to a partnership with husband John Pierson, the legendary sales rep who championed such landmarks as “Slacker” and “Clerks.” The couple moved to Austin in 2004. “Immediately (SXSW founder) Louis Black nominated me to be on the Austin Film Society board,” she says. “That became this incredible home for me where I learned Austin.”

When Pierson was handed the reins of the SXSW film fest, experience taught her not to mess with a good thing. While the industry watched and whispered, she landed studio preems of opener “I Love You, Man” and “Observe and Report.” Jody Hill, who helmed “Report,” is looking forward to how the Austin aud reacts. “I feel like if there’s one place this film will be accepted, it’ll be SXSW,” he says.

Pierson also stuck to SXSW’s brand of indies, slotting the preem of fest regular Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last”; Andrew Bujalski’s latest, “Beeswax”; and Craig Johnson’s comedy “True Adolescents,” starring Mark Duplass and Melissa Leo.

To amplify the fest’s Austin-specific edge, Pierson partnered with Tim League, head of the city’s genre-oriented Fantastic Fest, to program an additional midnight section, augmenting SXSW’s outre late-night offerings.

“Tim is a natural P.T. Barnum who puts enormous energy into knowing his audience,” she says.

“It gives me a way to expand my program,” explains League, whose samplings include “Lesbian Vampire Killers” and martial arts prequel “Ong Bak 2.”

Sweating the small stuff, Pierson added a much-needed shuttle service between the disparate theaters, found more links between SXSW’s industry-heavy film and interactive conferences, and created a private filmmaker lunch at Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios.

“SXSW has a pretty strong brand at this point,” Pierson says. “The pitching has been pretty easy. You just never leave Austin out of the pitch.”


When: March 13-22

Where: Alamo Ritz, Alamo Lamar, Austin Convention Center, the Hideout, Paramount Theater — Austin, Texas

Web: sxsw.com