The head of SXSW Film offers an all-encompassing look at the future of independent cinema, Kickstarter and strains on the industry
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.
For 20 years, SXSW has risen to become America's cultural hotbed of emerging cinematic talent. With the finest selection of shorts, features and genre films and a fierce nurturing of new young talent, SXSW offers us an exclusive glimpse into how they've conquered the independent film scene.
South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival's Janet Pierson has a varied history in independent film dating back to the late 70s. She was involved with the early work of renowned indie directors Richard Linklater and Spike Lee and has credits on classics such as Clerks and The Blair Witch Project. Working mostly in film exhibition and distribution, Janet was also the subject of a documentary but now spends her time on the hunt for new and invigorating talent to showcase at her festival in Austin, Texas.
Even though it seems she may have one of the greatest jobs in the world, Janet describes the binge-watching of films as often gruelling, yet embraces the process as her passion and quest. The quest to find vibrant, unchartered films by emerging voices with original concepts. Films that don't need a big budget or canvas to tell a captivating story but do so via a unique, compelling vision that will strike a chord with modern audiences.
SXSW is renowned for unveiling new and exciting artists across America, as well as presenting work by established indie filmmakers. Janet spoke to Dazed about the festival circuit, the landscape of independent cinema and its evolution and fluidity with the studio system. We also discussed how schemes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are becoming vital tools in independent film production and providing a much needed boost for the challenging and overpopulated market.
TIMES ARE TOUGH
"I've been involved with independent film since the late 70s, early 80s – the kind of films that featured just two people talking in a room. There are still a lot of films like that being made today as the means are more available but fewer people are seeing them. So it's harder for those films to find formal distribution, let alone make an impact with an audience.
It's a complicated time for filmmakers, easier to make films but harder getting financial remuneration from them. What we do have now is a festival world that exists which didn't before."
SHOW US WHAT YOU'VE GOT
"As festival organisers, we are looking for films that are emotionally assertive with a compelling quality. There's a lot of talented people out there but we are looking for something that transcends the norm. We talk about originality, but there are also plenty of films that tell a story that you have seen before but do it in an interesting new way that makes you notice."
“While your day to day life is busy with your work and kids, at festivals you kind of clear out the time, commit, indulge and immerse” – Janet Pierson
FORGET THE £££
"At SXSW we particularly love films that do a lot with very little and we look for films that get our attention with very little production value. The problem is we watch them in an incredibly unhealthy way, we binge watch, so we're watching a large number under a lot of pressure.
We are looking for films that are compelling through the quality of the performances or the dynamism of the script more so than production value. But also movies in general that move you to tears, make you scream, make you laugh – work that contributes to a transformative experience while watching."
BACK IN MY DAY
"Movie-going has changed a lot in my lifetime. I came of age when repertory cinemas were really a big deal and the only way to see a film was when it was first premiered or when it came back around through repertory programming.
There would be double features. It was before VHS, before DVD, before streaming. There were very few festivals at the time. Also they were extremely hard to get into, very selective. When I started getting involved in film, I think there were 35 independent films made in the first year we started counting. I believe that was just the American ones, there was much more going on internationally. Now there are thousands."
CELEBRATE THE FILM FESTIVITIES
"Audiences are watching films in all different ways but they still like to come out of the house for an event. Festivals have stepped in as a way for people to connect with their communities. They're wonderful experiences. They are places I can go and give in to my love of film and there are so many wonderful people there for me to talk to who are all there because we share the same love. It's immersion viewing and it's my favourite way to watch films. I think it works for a lot of people that way. While your day to day life is busy with your work and kids, at festivals you kind of clear out the time, commit, indulge and immerse.
One of the things we love about it here at SXSW is getting this creative combustion. All these people are looking for what's here, what's next and what's going to turn them on. Everybody is here and ready for that, that's what they want. Surprising collaborations have happened through random meetings at festivals solely because they share similar passions and intent."
MAKE ROOM FOR MORE
"If you want more characters and story telling you have to work in the independent vein. The studios are making fewer films and they tend to be really big and action orientated. I would put the quality television that is being made is similar to what is being made in independent film.
We introduced an 'episodic' category at SXSW, which was something we were interested in for a really long time. It took us a while to work out how to do it. In 2012, we were thrilled to present three episodes of HBO's Girls series. Then the following year we premiered Bates Motel. In 2014, we created the Episodic category, premiering 6 new series: Cosmos, Silicon Valley, From Dusk til Dawn: the series, Penny Dreadful, Deadbeat and Halt and Catch Fire. We presented one or two episodes and held talks with the creators and talent.
We are an extremely appealing environment for people to launch anything. No other place has so much creativity – TV, music, film, everything related to new technologies and the way we work now, everybody interested in everything."
"There is tremendous fluidity between the studio system and independent cinema. Director Jon Favreau started out as an independent filmmaker then went off to make the Iron Man films and came back with Chef, his own independent film this year, which we showed as our opening film this year. There are so many filmmakers who work within the studio system but then go on to their own more personal projects.
There are indie filmmakers who want to work in the studio system, then there are a huge amount who just want the right to be creative and to tell their stories their own way. Everybody wants to make money out of it but with the studios it's different. It feels like a committee and the stakes are very high. It's a different process and it works for some people but not everyone."
IT AIN'T EASY
"There is no easy way for filmmakers to make money now, even in the independent world. In the 80s, when I was involved, some people were making some serious cash. There were films that were incredibly successful and people did very well. Now there are so many independent films being made and the audiences are so incredibly fractured – it's very hard. Even for some of the filmmakers that seem more successful, it's difficult.
There were always key independent films that were adopted by Hollywood that never made any money. You hear the classic stories about how all the money is spent on marketing and studio paybacks and never found its way back to the producers. This has always been a complicated business."
SOMETIMES YOU'VE GOTTA SCHEME
"We encourage filmmakers to explore, experiment and figure out different methods. There are all different ways that they have been experimenting and finding different ways to realise income. There's not one clear way to do it. Filmmakers are having to be incredibly creative and responsible for having to really look into what the possibilities are for them.
Schemes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made profound differences in a lot of filmmakers's lives and have really worked incredibly well. We have had hundreds of filmmakers whose work we have shown that was financed through crowdsourcing. In a way, it's not that different. Thirty years ago it was always about asking your friends and your neighbours for help funding. I think Kickstarter has been a really wonderful tool."
“Schemes like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made profound differences in a lot of film-makers lives” – Janet Pierson
GET A GOOD ATTITUDE
"It's not just about raising the money; it's about getting people invested in your film early on so they can help promote it and build the community. Filmmakers talk about this all the time, about how instrumental it is in the release of the film. It's about getting people invested in the work who get other people involved. It's kind of a way of marketing at the get-go.
I have been talking to some filmmakers who have been working on projects for years, some of whom have had some success, but they have all been working very hard. I don't even know if they're paid for anything but they're attitude is "we're going to be making films till we die". They are creative people who are completely engaged with working in this really compelling medium. They are resilient and they change and adapt."
IT'S SOMETHING SPECIAL
"I just focus on what are the most interesting films that we can show that enrich our environment to present to the world. People are making films for all different reasons. Some people are making films to try to get into the studio system. Some people are making independent films as calling cards. Some people just want to tell their own stories. It works in different ways. I think Austin is a really magical place and is a big part of what makes SXSW so loved.
There's a very smart, creative and enthusiastic population. There's a lot of music and tech people and a thriving film culture. This is Richard Linklater's film base. At SXSW, there's a mixture of the industry and creative people coming from around the world. Mixing with the awesome Austin and SXSW population is a huge part of what people love about us."
WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO
"We get really excited by the work we get to show. It's a really fun process of discovery. There's a lot of work; it's gruelling, wading through it, but it's extremely exciting coming across filmmakers that are doing things in a way that surprises you and gets your attention. It's also great being able to offer them a transformative experience that could be potentially life changing for them, it's really why we do it."