Putting It All Together: How Janet Pierson Cultivated a Festival of Connectivity at SXSW

If there had been a more triumphant moment in the history of the SXSW Film Festival, it was hard to think of amidst the eruption of thunderous applause that met the closing credits of “Bottoms” this year, though that isn’t because they’ve been hard to come by. A mere day later at Austin’s grand old Paramount Theater, the decibel level might’ve been even higher when Keanu Reeves made his way to the stage for a sneak preview of “John Wick 4” or back in 2013, there was the far quieter satisfaction that could be felt as titters ran through the crowd when Joe Swanberg paid tribute to Matt Dentler, the festival director who first brought his microbudget films to Austin, by naming Jason Sudeikis’ otherwise uncredited character after him in “Drinking Buddies,” his graduation to playing the big house.

For the first decade of the film festival when it still was considered an addendum to the music side of the event that had a seven-year head start, locals might be more inclined to single out a panel rather than a film, most likely the now-mythical occasion of having Mike Judge, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and “Swimming with Sharks” director George Huang in 1997 all on one stage at the Austin Convention Center, and later on as discoveries such as “Spellbound,” “Thunder Road,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Short Term 12” and “Krisha” became a more regular occurrence, they only gradually built up a head of steam as the festival rolled on and word of mouth traveled.

As “Bottoms” director Emma Seligman would acknowledge in their introduction, a film no longer needs to actually screen at SXSW to generate buzz, as they unfortunately found out firsthand when their feature debut “Shiva Baby” was set to play the festival during the COVID-cancelled year of 2021. Past attendees likely already had carved out a space on their schedule for the film if they had seen the short it was adapted from at the festival in 2018 that introduced the barbed charms of Rachel Sennott to the world, part of a powerful perpetual motion machine developed over the years where filmmakers could gain exposure before taking their biggest swings and coming back to Texas with their feature even as other festivals may have beckoned.

A place in the SXSW lineup now grabs the attention of agents and studios — like Seligman, Cooper Raiff and Parker Finn had plans for “Shithouse” and the short “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” respectively, dashed, but nonetheless saw its usefulness as a launchpad for their next films “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and “Smile.” And before “Bottoms” could bring down the Paramount brick by brick, more than making up for lost time, the filmmaker thanked Claudette Godfrey, an 18-year veteran of the festival who assumed the position of festival director position this year, and Janet Pierson, who stepped into the role of director emeritus after a 15-year-run for the ages, for their support, offering the latter a tribute simply just standing there in the spotlight, completely owning the room after showing up to the festival as an unknown a few years earlier.

Mavis Staples in Jessica Edwards' "Mavis!"If you’ve had the pleasure of knowing Pierson at all, you’d make the time to catch any film that had a soul singer at its center. Pierson looked positively ebullient when she got to introduce Mavis Staples to the stage alongside director Jessica Edwards for her doc “Mavis!” in 2015 and while “20 Feet From Stardom” was scheduled to coincide with the music side of the festival on the back half of SXSW 2013, a time when anyone involved on the film side is exhausted, Pierson, who should’ve been more tired from hopping from theater to theater than any attendee to introduce screenings and handle Q & As, brought an energy to the room that made it feel like opening night. (This was such a signature of Pierson’s tenure that one year when I was at the Toronto Film Festival, I predicted “Presenting Princess Shaw,” about a street singer from New Orleans who strikes up an online collaboration with an Israeli musician, would be at SX the following spring on Twitter, learning only moments later that in fact Pierson had been in the same screening I was.)

It may have been Pierson’s taste in music that made these particularly selections so exciting for her personally, but they underlined what has made the festival so exciting for everybody else when they all gave shape to what would appear to be her core belief of giving a platform to big voices that haven’t yet been heard in their purest form. Pierson first sharpened her eye for such artists at Film Forum in New York where she worked an an assistant director, helping to bring attention to the theater’s biweekly engagements of international cinema and would meet John Pierson, who served as the theater manager until seeing a need in the independent film space for a producer’s rep, a go-between who could connect filmmakers with distributors and tend to all the needs of getting their films to the public in just the right way and positioning them for future success. With boundless enthusiasm and a profile nearly as striking as Jim Jarmusch, one of the first filmmakers they helped out, with a lithe frame, fashionably unkempt hair and distinctive glasses, John made for an attractive frontman for the business that he would start with Janet and the two would get as creative as the filmmakers they championed, introducing the likes of Spike Lee (“She’s Gotta Have It”), Rose Troche (“Go Fish”) and Richard Linklater (“Slacker”) to the world, the last of which would indirectly plant the seed for the couple to come to Austin.

There seemed to be a bit of uncertainty in the air that Austin would be a good fit when the couple first started thinking about the city as a permanent home after spending time setting up a movie theater in Fiji (entertainingly documented in the 2005 Steve James doc “Reel Paradise”), gingerly dipping their toe into the water with a screening at the University of Texas of “Split Screen,” their series for IFC that famously served a crucial role in launching “The Blair Witch Project” as well as ingeniously pairing Christopher Walken with Julian Schnabel for a cooking segment. (Not widely available after their initial airing, the gold mine now resides in the Criterion Channel.)

However, they became fixtures in the local film community quite quickly, with John taking a job as a professor in the Radio-TV-Film department, developing a curriculum in which students would actually have hands-on experience in the life of a film (they helped secure a distribution deal for the Manila-set thriller “Cavite” when they had an entire class working as a street team for the film when it played SXSW), and Janet taking a seat on the board of the Austin Film Society, a position that ultimately led the higher-ups at SXSW to waste no time in making an offer to her to take over the festival when Dentler departed in 2008, despite having no prior festival experience.

Dentler left behind enormous shoes to fill and something of a template in welcoming films that had been neglected by other major festivals, from major studio comedies such as “Knocked Up” to lo-fi millennial comedies and dramas from Swanberg, Jay and Mark Duplass, Ry Russo Young and Andrew Bujalski, whose meeting at the festival led to the film “Hannah Takes the Stairs” with Greta Gerwig as an on-screen anchor. Still, the festival always resisted having any overly defining distinctions, initially counting on the likes of the local triumvirate of Rodriguez, Linklater and Mike Judge to headline panels while the films that lurked underneath came from all provenances. The festival’s roots in music were reflected in its amorphous idea about what movies are, open to various running times, budgets and genres, and when no individual tickets were sold, the badge model allowed one to go where the spirit moved you, leaving everyone to have a different experience of the festival.

This may have made SXSW difficult to describe over the years, but it has become one of its major strengths, unusually pliable, diverse and immune to the awkward transitions of other festivals of its size. It was also an ethos that Pierson was unusually well-suited to, inviting as many voices as she could into the mix during her early days at the festival to seek ways to improve upon what was already there and has always been said to be intensely collaborative when working with a team of programmers including Godfrey, who delivered one of the best shorts programs around, Jarod Neece, who did the same with the midnight section, and Jim Kolmar, a Welshman who has helped broaden the festival’s international selection with the SXGlobal section.

Naturally, cross-pollination was at the heart of one of Pierson’s first moves, introducing an welcome luncheon for all the attending filmmakers at the Austin Studios hangar that made the inevitable run-ins later in front of the Drafthouse or the Violet Crown a bit more friendly. Slight tweaks that could make a major impact were a mark of her time at the festival as well as a festival in which unexpected connections could be made. The creative marriage of Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham occurred outside of Austin, with Jenni Konner playing matchmaker for the two following the premiere of “Tiny Furniture,” but after both had films at the festival, Pierson seized the opportunity to pitch them on presenting “Girls” at the festival when there was a mutual indifference from studios and festival programmers about showcasing television at a film festival, even as more filmmakers were finding a creative home in the medium.

The 2012 screening of the first three episodes of the HBO series wouldn’t only help launch the show, but an entirely new category for festivals everywhere and while it could foretell the future, the premiere also highlighted what had been built up as the two pillars of the festival over time — Dunham had first come there to be discovered with the hour-long “Creative Nonfiction” and Apatow burnished the festival’s reputation for major studios to test the waters with their riskier bets after first bringing a work-in-progress version of “Knocked Up,” with both benefiting from the credibility of having the other around.

“A Quiet Place” and “21 Jump Street” may look like slam dunks in retrospect, but there surely were a lot of jangled nerves for John Krasinski, who was an unlikely horror auteur based on his resume, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who had never made a live-action film, as they headed into the Paramount where the resounding audience reaction could not only instill confidence in the studios releasing them, but there were rewards in taking such risks. Meanwhile, what Pierson and the programming team did with the capital from those buzzy premieres may not have grabbed as many headlines, but without the pressure of being an awards launchpad or sales market with multi-million dollar deals expected to fly left and right, the programming team has opened up their screens to filmmakers often marginalized in the mainstream, defying not only cultural expectations but narrative conventions as well.

Sherri Shepherd, Gloria Reuben, Erica Ash in "Jean of the Joneses"As lines for the Paramount have grown longer and longer, the smart money was to sneak inside the State next door where you were likely see something as rewarding if not more, particularly when it feels like you’re walking in blind with no names in the credits to tip you off as to what you’re about to see. It was where one could see Stella Meghie and Julia Hart’s pair of knockout debuts “Jean of the Joneses” and “Miss Stevens,” respectively, in the banner year of 2016, Nijla Mu’min’s tale of a young Muslim dancer “Jinn,” Laura Steinel’s Juggalo-infused comedy “Family” and Megan Griffiths’ “Sadie” played in 2018 and had the 2020 festival commenced, they would’ve had to open to doors to let all the steam out after showing Angel Kristi Williams’ romance “Really Love” or to let some air into the room after dramas like Jeremy Hersh’s “The Surrogate” and Celine Held and Logan George’s “Topside” were apt to leave audiences breathless.

One also couldn’t expect what would happen in the doc section either where the festival has routinely played political-themed films given the festival’s locale mere blocks from Texas’ State Capitol building yet, under Pierson’s watch, has introduced a steady stream of filmmakers such as Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”), the Ross Brothers (“45365”) and Jeff Malmberg (“Marwencol”) that have helped usher in an entire reconsideration of what nonfiction films can be. Austin also became the first U.S. festival to play host to such filmmakers as “Bad Boys for Life” helmers Adil El Arbi and Billal Wallah (“Black”) and “45 Years” director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) and while the festival has earned a reputation as a place for discovery, Pierson was careful to cultivate a place for rediscovery when the festival has been unusually welcoming of filmmakers deviating from their past work in exciting ways mid-career, making room in the lineup for former New Line exec Janet Grillo’s directorial debut “Fly Away,” Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” Nick Cassavetes’ “Yellow” or in one of the festival’s Hilary Brougher’s “South Mountain.” The films may come into SXSW with a lower profile, but they are the ones the festival builds its reputation on, a demonstration of curatorial taste and community building that should be the foundation for any such endeavor.

There wasn’t much fanfare when Pierson made the announcement that she’d be stepping away last fall, though you’d suspect she wouldn’t have it any other way. As someone who made a habit of asking people how their festival was going every time she’d appear on stage, seemingly genuinely invested in the answer though she was posing the question to hundreds if not a thousand people every time, the focus had never been on herself and she could rest easy the festival was in good hands with Godfrey. There was said to have been genuine surprise when the Piersons learned from the usual invitation they receive to the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards that they would be honorees this year, followed by the similarly unexpected announcement at the festival’s own ceremony that a new prize would be named the Janet Pierson Champion Award, given to someone who was making a major difference behind the scenes. (The inaugural trophy went to Lizzie Shapiro, the producer who returned to the festival with “Parachute” and “Story Ave” after first arriving with Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey and the Bear.”)

It was to my disappointment that I didn’t cross paths with Pierson at the festival this time around, but I could see her influence everywhere. There was the usual array of glorious misfits that I couldn’t imagine a better place to premiere such as Tayarisha Poe’s “The Young Wife,” Dutch Southern’s “Only the Good Survive” and Kim Albright’s “With Love and a Major Organ,” all provocative and distinctive though admirably less interested in making any other point than having fun, and besides sitting so comfortably alongside each other, they could open up the space for exactly the right kind of audience to find their way into “Bloody Hell,” a tonal tightrope walk that ended in what was the most moving reception I personally witnessed as writer/director Molly McGlynn opened up about her experience with MRKH syndrome as a teen, not only reflecting on feeling as if her body was rebelling against her but actively fighting back against form in the film as she did in her youth. (The unusual overlap of this year’s Oscars with the festival made SXSW’s ability to clear a path for such seriocomic, emotionally charged and otherwise unclassifiable films was writ large when the previous year’s opening night selection “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won best picture.)

In Godfrey’s first year at the helm, the festival also boasted the strongest nonfiction lineup I can remember, creating a landing spot for all the top quality docs bereft of a social action campaign or a celebrity as a star attraction that simply had a great story to tell, whether it was Liza Mandelup’s “Caterpillar,” Cecilia Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey’s “You Were My First Boyfriend,” Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” Lagueria Davis’ “Black Barbie” or Chris Kasick’s “Citizen Sleuth,” and the shorts program once again offered a platform for exciting work across the spectrum, announcing its fair share of new talent like Lucy McKendrick and Charlie Polinger (“Fuck Me, Richard”) and Javier Devitt (“Eyestring”) and amplifying local excellence such as Anna Margaret Hollyman’s SXSW star-studded “Wüm,” Kayla Abuda Galang’s “When You Left Me on That Boulevard” and Amy Bench and Annie Silverstein’s “Breaking Silence.”

If there were signs of change, it wasn’t in the programming, but the larger framework of SXSW where festival bumpers are no longer made by filmmakers but graphic design firms and promotional activations are set up throughout downtown, largely tilted towards television, which now has equal billing with film. More than ever, the festival now reflects the issues faced by the city its set in where the badge system, once a mark of egalitarianism, is starting to look like a velvet rope given its cost, and the size and the geography of the venues, always a thorny issue, has also become a bit of a demarcation of wealth when there is an increasing feeling of distance between Congress and South Lamar as far as the movies that are shown when the major studio premieres not only take up the biggest spaces but also the most time with their hour-plus waits. While films on the south side of town still fill up, some filmmakers are threatened with cutting off any buzz that could be generated when even a limited amount of cast and crew can crowd out general attendees for their premieres at the small Alamo Lamar B or Violet Crown, leading to smaller audiences for the subsequent screenings.

These might not be the kinds of considerations that are on the minds of people describing the programming at SXSW, but they are the kind that are constantly running through the minds of the programmers as an always fluctuating puzzle to be solved as much as the fit of the films next to one another, making what Pierson did throughout the years so remarkable. To ascribe all the success the festival has had in either its artistic or logistic configuration entirely to her over her tenure would be the worst way to honor her when she saw SXSW as an event that was not only for the community but shaped by it, and it ran deeper than likely any one person will ever know.

For my part, I was taken aback when I first received an e-mail from Pierson not all that long after she took the job, and from interviewing her husband for an article, she had known that I was a regular at the festival since I was a student at the University of Texas. It was surreal enough to be sitting across from her in Los Angeles where I had relocated and I thought I had little to offer someone I had revered from reading John’s essential American indie film history “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” yet there I was reeling off panels that I thought had been successful and concerns about capacity issues that someone would only know from standing outside the SXSW venues for years. The fact that I was doing more talking than listening was only slightly less strange than the fact we were sitting less than 20 feet away from Dennis Rodman at the Four Seasons Hotel after a long day of meetings for Pierson, for whom this was surely the least important one she had that day yet never made it feel that way.

Looking back now and hearing similar accounts, this was chief among the singular qualities Pierson brought to the festival, recognizing the value that everyone could have in the process of putting on such a major event, bringing the best out of them and making the connections in which one could help out another. It was no accident that when she first arrived in Austin, she started a blog called “Friends Are My Artform,” and in the end, the community she was able to build was as monumental a piece of art, if not more than anything she helped bring to the screen.

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