Curtain Rises on SXSW Film
The South by Southwest Film festival gets underway Friday. In the coming days, theaters all over Austin will host dozens of screenings, many of them world premieres. Joining us to talk about this year’s festival is Janet Pierson, who produces the event.
Janet Pierson: Hi, good morning. Great to be with you.
ML: Looking at the line up for this year’s festival, do you see sort of a theme or common thread in the kind of films that you’ve chosen this year?
JP: You don’t realize when you’re programming it. You only realize it when interviewers start asking you about it. And we realized that a lot of films are about obsession and addiction this year but it wasn’t intentional. And once again, you know, there are only, you know, it’s small faction within a large group. We work very hard at programming a diverse festival. That’s got all different kinds of films. We have 5,000, almost 5,000, films submitted to us. And it’s about 3,000 shorts and 2,000 features. And it’s actually rare to have an original idea, so what’s so interesting about the process is, like this year, we have a lot of films where two guys are talking. And then, that’s it. Two guys are talking. They can be boys, in one case, one’s a vet and a garage mechanic. And what’s so interesting is when you have something as simple as two men talking in a room, there will be so many times it doesn’t work , and then it’s magical, when it does! You know. I mean some of the films – this film “Weekend” is so simple. These two guys meet in a bar, and they come home and they talk. And you just – you are so interested in them. You’re completely interested in their characters and the dynamic between them. And that’s kind of the magic when something happens that simply.
ML: Let’s talk about the narrative competition. When you look at that field, is there anything that stands out for you about those films?
JP: Of the eight we have this year, there are a couple that are very – they are not inventing in a new form – but they are incredibly moving. “Fly Away” is a single mother and her autistic teenager. “A Year in Mooring” actually has Austin producers, Chris Eyre is the director. It’s about Josh Lucas dealing with something and he’s working on a boat. A very, very simple premise, working on a boat in a mooring. And then, two other films, “Charlie Casanova” and “American Animal,” those are films that are really different characters. I mean there are people in a room talking but really in a way that made us sit up and take notice.
ML: Then, when we look at the documentary category there are a lot of interesting films in there, films that I am really excited about seeing.
JP: Which are the ones jump out at you?
ML: I am really actually interested in “The City Dark.” That sounds fascinating.
JP: I am glad that jumped off the page because it’s magical. It’s magical. It’s beautiful. It’s about the night sky and a pollution of the night sky. You know, I try not to talk about any of the competition films. I try to treat them all the same, but it’s funny. That was one of the first films that we invited. You know, I’ve always been interested in light and that’s one of the reasons I was drawn into the film world and photography. And this is very much about the essence of light.
ML: Outside the films themselves, is the experience going to be different this year for people in the audience?
JP: Last year, we had a lot of capacity issues, particularly with pass holders. So I am not recommending — last year, I was really pushing the passes; you can buy a pass at Waterloo for $70. It’s a great deal. And I’m not actually pushing it as I was last year because it only works in some venues. We are actually not recommending people if they want to go any of the shows at the Alamo Ritz or the Alamo South Lamar, your pass is not going to get you in. You can try, but don’t count on it. We put a lot of work into improving a line management because to me, the goal is to not have anybody wait in line who can’t get in. I don’t mind if we’re in line and getting in, but if you can’t get in, then you’re frustrated. We’ve added two venues: The State which is wonderful, got re-opened. It’s got about 300 seats. We’re using The Rollins. We’ve also added in two satellite venues. We’ve got three shows at night at one of the Regal Arbor and one of the Regal Westgate venues.
ML: Now, if you look at the list of stars that are going to be here this year, you got Jodie Foster for her film “The Beaver” and Billy Bob Thornton for his Willie Nelson documentary “The King of Luck,” Ellen Page and Jake Gyllenhaal; has SXSW moved away from its indie roots, do you think, to become much more mainstream event?
JP: There were always headliners. It’s about entertainment. You’re providing an environment where people come to enjoy something. So there is a discovery but there is also glamour. You know, I think the difference is that people are hearing about it more and our reputation has grown so much that we have more choices. So I think they were able to get perhaps some higher wattage films, but the intent is — there is no change other than trying each year to be better than the last and last year was — people refer to it as watershed. So this year, the approach is just “we had such a great your last year, can we do it again?”
ML: Well, Janet Pierson thanks so much. And good luck with the festival.
JP: Thank you.
ML: Janet Pierson is the producer of the SXSW Film festival.