SXSW’s head of film talks to Jeremy Kay about the upcoming edition, which starts today [March 13].

The film strand of the Austin jamboree returns on March 13 with the world premiere of BRAND: A Second Coming.

The documentary is one of many anticipated screenings that include Alex Garland’s AI chiller Ex Machina, the Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard and Colin Hanks’ Tower Records doc All Things Must Pass.

On the eve of her seventh year as head of film, Janet Pierson ponders the identity of SXSW, how many films is too many and whether anybody cares about the festival’s close ties to studios.

What’s new this year and is it irritating that journalists always ask what’s new?

There’s this pressure that there’s supposed to be something new. We have been really pleased with what we have been doing and every year we try to tweak it. Last year Episodes went so well so this year we continued it but we’re not debuting something new like that. SXSW Sports went well so we’re continuing it.

We’re happy to have the Alamo South Lamar back. It was a venue that was offline for two years. The 24 Beats category films tend to have some relationship to the music world and tend to be music docs but not exclusively – those films are accessible by Film Gold or Platinum badges and we have opened it up to Music badges.

Convergence seems to be in SXSW’s DNA, given that the festival covers so many elements. What’s it about?

We have enhanced our whole Convergence programme throughout the whole event. Convergence has to do with access to more than one badge type. So SXSW Sports lives in both film and interactive sections. It’s a mini-event.

You’re always going to be here for at least two [sections] because Interactive exists within the film dates. Some people are in and out over a weekend and plenty stay for the duration. So if you want to come to all events you get the Platinum badge.

Outline the film programming cycle

The core team works year-round. We start programming in early August and actually have a panel picker that opens in July, which is a competitive process to be part of the conferences. People submit panel ideas and we finish programming them by September. Features we open in August and it closes in mid-November.

This year there are more movies than ever. Why?

We were happy to pull back the programme this year and show fewer films and we literally programmed more than ever. We were at 133 features over the last three years and this year we had 150. [At time of interview Pierson was staying mum on whether there would be late additions.] There was too much we were interested in; there was too much we knew would be interesting. We intentionally created a very diverse programme and if you break it down it doesn’t seem like so many.

The festival has been knocked for its close ties to studio movies. Discuss.

We have been consistently showing two or three films a year before I started. Knocked Up played in 2007 and that was a game-changer. Forgetting Sarah Marshall played the next year. In the years I have been here opening night was I Love You, Man.

We have shown Bridesmaids, 21 Jump Street and we have loved doing that and we have looked happily to do it every year. We love smart, subversive comedies. Neighbors was a total humdinger last year. We enjoy showing these as much as we enjoy showing films that cost two cents. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years just screened really well in Berlin and we showed [his 2011 feature] Weekend. That was just two guys talking and we loved it.

What is the identity of SXSW?

A couple of years ago ‘interactive’ described SXSW and it was synonymous with creativity. You have got people coming here for a lot of different reasons. There’s the traditional film festival with discovery and we tend to skew edgy and young but there’s this traditional discovery / new voice, new talent [vibe] that goes on here. It’s a highly curated event and there’s this great alchemy between SXSW and film-makers and the audience. It’s not just industry or regional – it’s a mix of industry, press, fans and forward-thinkers from everything that Interactive encompasses and Music.

We’re joined at the hip by SX Interactive and Music, which are these huge events in their field. Now it’s about how is technology used in every facet of our lives. It’s thinking and privacy and last year was the first place where Edward Snowden spoke to the public via Skype. It’s about thinking who is your community and how do you raise money and reach your audience. It’s a really invigorating, exciting environment to be in.