Last week, we began our gander at this year's SXSW Film Festival lineup (see here, here and here). We asked SXSW's new director of programming, Janet Pierson, to weigh in this year's documentary slate as well as her own programming philosophy.
ATWT: SXSW became, over the past few years, pretty unique amongst festivals in that it had carved its own identity in terms of its programming. Certainly this was true on the narrative side, with the mumblecore films, but also in nonfiction where the emphasis was less focused on social justice films. What were your thoughts about SXSW's documentary lineup before you took over and how did you see it in comparison to other festivals?
Janet Pierson: I've been a champion of films for a very long time, but I haven't been living on the festival circuit, nor have I ever put myself forth as a critic/analyst/film blogger. So I don't really have a well thought out theory about SXSW docs compared to other fests, I know SXSW docs range on the irreverent scale from fun to serious, and I really embrace that range.
We're aware that we're a film festival that people really enjoy, so as we're programming, we're thinking, "What makes a satisfying movie viewing experience" or "How does this move us?" more than, "How important is this subject?" Certainly, one ends up, hopefully, with a blend of both. But even if you look at the social justice films that have done well, for example, last year's THEY KILLED SISTER DOROTHY and ONE MINUTE TO NINE, both films had a great, strong narrative!!! Ultimately, I'll leave it to you and other bloggers/critics/writers to define the distinction. And too, I think there is always a sensitivity to discovering new filmmakers, new voices.
ATWT: I've noticed the last two years that when I'm profiling the Sundance slate and then, two months later, the SXSW lineup, that the filmmakers who are headed to Austin seem to be much further along in terms of having a website built, having a trailer, having a kind of web presence. I've already gotten a bunch of emails from filmmakers asking questions about SXSW or wanting us to see their films - and I barely heard from Sundance filmmakers, until their publicists jumped on board. Is that just a coincidence or do you think there's some conclusion to draw from that evidence?
JP: That's something you'll have to ask the filmmakers. But I think it may have to do with the general filmmaking trend of finishing in time for the Sundance deadline. I'm not saying that everything submitted to us has already been submitted to Sundance, but it is a factor. And if that's the case then, in many of the instances, they have the extra time to work on their websites. Or else, they're just a super hands-on creative bunch who know how it essential it is! I mean SXSW is not only the home of a great film and music conference/festival, it hosts of the pre-eminent Interactive Conferences in the world...and everyone knows that!!
ATWT: Can you talk about how you built your competition slate? Was there any idea you had before you started of wanting to have new filmmakers or wanting to have a certain diversity of theme? How did you decide what was a competition film and what fell in, say, Emerging Visions?
JP: Well, this is my first year doing this, so there's still some learning going on. Matt [Dentler] didn't leave a primer save for his blog archive (which, actually is so useful!!) and the program books! I've been studying last year's program all year...and frankly, trying to decipher the pattern of competition films myself. It's not a science, but there is a integrity to it. You start by knowing it's limited to 8 world premieres without distribution. Largely, the more experimental films are shifted into Emerging Visions, as are first-timers, but there's not a set rule. There are plenty of first time filmmakers in both the competition and Spotlight Premieres. I know this is a vague answer, but it just evolves as a balanced group of 8 world premieres without distribution . Being in competition versus another category, by the way, is not a measure of the quality of the films. Competition doesn't equal "better." Many of last year's most exciting (and successfully launched) films, were not in competition: IN A DREAM, ONE MINUTE TO NINE, CRAWFORD, SECOND SKIN, THROW DOWN YOUR HEART, OF ALL THE THINGS, for example.
ATWT: One thing I tell filmmakers about SXSW is that they should try to enjoy themselves, see lots of movies, meet other filmmakers and try not to get too caught up in the notion of sales. I'm always under the impression that industry folks take in a few films but generally aren't on the hunt to buy in the way that they are at Sundance or Toronto. Am I wrong? Is this changing? Should filmmakers be making a big effort to sell their film in Austin?
JP: I agree with you that filmmakers should enjoy their film festival experiences!! Most definitely filmmakers should see other films and engage with the other filmmakers! It's essential!!
But, of course too, a premiere is a premiere, and how and where you launch your film makes a difference. I know from first hand experience that even though REEL PARADISE premiered at Sundance in 2005, it was the SXSW screening that triggered its theatrical distribution deal. I've been pleasantly surprised to see all the distribution activity just from last year's festival alone. Off the top of my head, IFC bought 8 flms (fiction, but still..) , HBO picked up two docs (THEY KILLED SISTER DOROTHY, ONE MINUTE TO NINE), Oscilloscope picked up another two (FRONTRUNNERS, DEAR ZACHARY). CRAWFORD was the first doc ever to premiere on Hulu via b-side in addition to its active house party screenings, the latter which was also a viable and excellent roll out for SUPER HIGH ME.
And, again anecdotally, off the top of my head (again) I'm aware of how successful the SXSW launch was for a locally made documentary called INSIDE THE CIRCLE which premiered in 2007. It played actively in film and dance festivals internationally, secured semi-theatrical and DVD distribution via Cinema Libre Studio, then just premiered in primetime on MTV within the last month! That's a great life for a doc, but certainly has nothing to do with a high profile sale on site at a festival.
Having said that, I do think you should be advising all filmmakers to enjoy and network, wherever their film is premiering. I mean, really, even with a few distribution deals out of Sundance this year, which ones were for non-fiction films?
ATWT: It's probably not fair to ask you to play favorites with your programming, so let me ask you this. Is there a film that you think people might overlook because the description doesn't do it justice? As an example, I skipped ONE MINUTE TO NINE last year because I read the synopsis and thought, that's not a film that I'd love, and of course I see it months later and it's one of my favorite films of the year. What films should people take care not to miss?
JP: I love hearing ONE MINUTE TO NINE singled out - because I believe I was the first screener last year to discover it. What a great film! But hey, now that I think of it, I wrote that synopsis!! So, sorry about that. I thought I made it pretty compelling....:)
But you're right, I can't play favorites, and the program book synopses aren't even written yet. There are so many wonderful films this year! I wish I could share my personal favorites but it doesn't seem right. Perhaps I can discuss more thematically? I'm going to have to try to revisit this question a little closer to the fest - if you'll allow.
ATWT: Certainly, we should continue the conversation as we get closer to Austin. Also, I think that my knne jerk reaction toward certain social justice topics probably precluded me from seeing ONE MINUTE moreso that your synopsis, but in any case, great work usually win out in the end, as Tommy Davis' film did with me. Looking forward to seeing more of this year's SXSW class in the weeks to come.