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Posted: 2:46 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014

Janet Pierson talks SXSW Film 

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By Joe Gross

What "gets" surprised SXSW Film Director Janet Pierson this year?

Two words: Wes Anderson.

"It was a huge surprise getting Wes Anderson to come here," Pierson said Thursday.  Anderson, a UT graduate, is slated to screen and discuss his brand new “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” 

Pierson is also pleased to land "Chef," Jon Favreau's return to indie comedy starring Favreau, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman and Robert "Iron Man" Downey, Jr.

"That was one we didn't entirely know about until pretty recently," Pierson said. "There's a social media element to that one I think people will like."

Pierson, who has been at the helm of SXSW Film since 2008, refused to play favorites. "But we do end up binge-watching a lot of movies." she said. "It's a  really unhealthy way to watch stuff. But when something jumps out at you, you get attached.”

 And she agrees that the success of  the 2012 premier of “Girls” -- not to mention Lena Dunham's long relationship with SXSW -- was a key factor in establishing the TV-centric “Episodic” category, but noted the idea had been brewing for some time.

"By the time of the 2009 festival (the first with Pierson at the helm),  quality TV was already what I talked about with my friends," Pierson says. "'The Wire,' 'Friday Night Lights,' this is what people were making and watching.  But 'Girls' was a perfect storm.” It sure worked: The afternoon Paramount screening of “Girls” was jammed.

"What's most interesting about Lena is that she was here with her movie 'Creative Nonfiction' in 2009,” Pierson says. “She met a lot of the people she ended up workng with on 'Tiny Furniture' here at SXSW."

This makes Dunham a perfect example of the sort of success you want coming out of the film festival.

Besides, it is rare that TV folks get to see their work a) on the big screen and b) with a live audience.

"Judd Apatow mentioned that to me," Pierson said. "Her said they were starting to write the second season and that they don’t usually get the experience of seeing what works. And since a TV show episode is only 45 minutes long, you get some longer Q&A sessions that way."

This year has not been without its challenges. The Alamo Drafthouse's South Lamar theaters, closed since January of 2013 and an anchor location for SXSW Film, remains unfinished. "That forced us to pull back our programming a bit," Pierson says.

"It meant that we can program less at the last minute than we could before. There will be last minute additions, but we do not have screens for as many." 

In 2012, 132 features were screened in 2012, 133 in 2013, which meant a whole mess of serious lines at smaller screens. Pierson expects that the “Midnighters” or genre movies to be announced, will add about 10 more movies to this year’s total.

This year, the Austin Film Society's Marchesa Theater, which seats about 300, is being added as a screening location, most likely for the seconrd or third screening of a film rather than the premiere, which the festival tries to keep downtown.

The Violet Crown will also show one movie at once on all four screens (meaning 1 2p.m. screening of "X" will be on all four, while a 5 p.m. screening of "Y" will be on all four). This means that about 200 people will see something at once rather than about 50.

Joe Gross

About Joe Gross

Joe Gross writes about books, music and popular culture for the Austin American-Statesman. He's worked for the American-Statesman since 2002 and has contributed to Rolling Stone, Spin and other publications.

Send Joe Gross an email.

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