In the run-up to SXSW 2014, head of SXSW film Janet Pierson and head of film media relations and programmer Rebecca Feferman sat down with Screen to talk about international cinema, the golden years of TV and Jurgen Klinsmann.
The festival and conference is set to run in Austin, Texas, from March 7-15. The world premiere of Jon Favreau’s Chef kicks off the film component on March 7.
So another festival is upon us and all the hard work of the last year is about to be put to the test. What’s the mood behind the scenes?
Janet Pierson: There’s this funny momentum and all of a sudden you have to switch directions. You are at the beginning of the next phase. This will be my sixth festival. The [thrust] of the brand has always been to be vibrant and stay ahead of what is happening. We feel we’ve hit our stride. It’s been very exciting every year. We’ve tried to top what we’ve done before and show what we care about. We want to be vital. We don’t see a reason to reinvent the wheel, but we don’t want to get lazy.
Two additions to the event stand out
JP: SXsports and Episodic are about seeing what is interesting to people and what’s the zeitgeist. SXsports is an evolution of what we’ve been doing already and Rebecca can speak to that.
Rebecca Feferman: We’re calling SXsports a convergence track. It’s not a stand-alone event – it’s a convergence between film and interactive. We have 40 panels and events from March 7-9. We’ve got five films that are branded SXsports that are in various screening [sections] throughout the programme.
JP: We don’t programme [separately] – we’ve tagged films in the festival that relate to sports.
RF: We’re looking at a sport in a pretty unique way – it’s forward-thinking and considers the impact of sports. It’s getting the sports industry in front of the film audience. Sports are exciting for a lot of people. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you know about it. People use sports vernacular.
Former Germany striker and current US team coach Jurgen Klinsmann will take part in an on-stage conversation on March 9 with Roger Bennett. How did that come about?
RF: Roger [Bennett, ESPN football presenter and co-presented of Grantland and SiriusXM’s Men In Blazers] suggested Jurgen. That conversation with Roger started in July and the offer went to Jurgen in October and we announced him in November. It’s incredibly exciting.
Talk about the Episodic programme
JP: All of us have been watching more and more TV – we’re really in the golden years. Girls was that perfect storm and Lena’s [Dunham, who delivers a keynote speech on March 10] was a new voice. If you want to use shorthand and label this space television it’s a big subject, a million channels. So [the question is] what are we going to put our name to? We’re looking for new, exciting voices. What are we going to premiere? Not a third season. Girls was a home run. Last year we showed Bates Motel. So we’re looking for something new. Episodics opens up the door to whatever the modality is, something that’s being told over time. I was so excited when I heard of Silicon Valley [the upcoming HBO series – SXSW will show two episodes] because I am such a huge Mike Judge fan. All the entries are really great. We’ve got Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series pilot and Robert’s completely dedicated to this new network for Hispanics [El Rey Network] and the such a good representation of what he is doing.
There’s a strong Latino contingent this year with Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez, Emilio Aragón’s A Night In Old Mexico and Guillermo Galdos’ The Legend Of Shorty, among others. Was that deliberate?
JP: Every year is case-by-case. New York and Chicago are more international places so we tend to skew to English-speaking content for the most part, but this year we realised there is a huge Latin emphasis. Some are English-language but from Latin American filmmakers.
Apart from more commercial entries like opener Chef, Universal’s Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors (work-in-progress), Ethan Hawke in Predestination and the crowd-funded Veronica Mars there is something like Boyhood from Austin alumnus Richard Linklater. Did you try to beat Sundance to that one?
JP: I find Richard’s career so extraordinary and to see his combination of adventure and artistry. He is the godfather of the artistic film community [in Austin]. No, I don’t try to get anything before Sundance. I have tremendous respect for them. They make the choices they make.
But there are a lot of Sundance movies in the Festival Favorites strand
JP: Historically we look for about 12-14 films [from Sundance]. They dominate Festival Favorites and we have to pick very selectively.
When does the hard work begin as you put together the film component of SXSW?
JP: After the festival we do a lot of debriefing and analyse what happened. Anything that needs to be fixed, like technical changes, has to be done in April or May. We travel when we can. The programming season starts in August. So April to August is about analyzing and contextualising and that’s when we do a lot of work. Panel outreach starts in June.
There’s been a 14% rise in submissions over last year. And a 45% rise since 2009 when Janet came on board. How does the team cope?
JP: What’s happening is that with a very small staff we cannot bounce it about all year. Submissions start in August and a lot of things come in late so it’s harder and harder to get through the greater number of films in a small amount of time.
Yet each year you manage to put together a festival that inspires a fanatical following
JP: We’re very different from other festivals. It’s a very egalitarian event where people come a enjoy things in a relaxed environment. The film festival is a high-quality event. No two people have the same experience here. It’s a very rich, multi-layered experience.