Festival director Janet Pierson talks about this year’s discoveries, including hot opener The Cabin In The Woods.

The SXSW film festival (Mar 9-17) has evolved from a hip regional event in Austin, Texas, into a hip national festival that has become something acquisitions executives – particularly those with a passion for genre – miss at their peril. Perusing the highlights of the past couple of years and it is clear from the likes of The Divide, Kill List and Monsters that certain selections linger long in the mind.

“We have a curatorial voice that’s kind of unique,” says festival director Janet Pierson, a formerly itinerant spirit whose wanderlust has been somewhat abated since she took over from Matt Dentler in 2009. “We skew edgier, more entertaining. We are not particularly politically correct, which doesn’t mean we don’t have socially conscious films.

“I have been involved in independent film since the 1970s,” says Pierson, whose CV includes being a producers rep like her husband John, serving as assistant director of Film Forum in New York, producing cable TV and becoming an Austin Film Society stalwart. “I hadn’t been looking for [the job] and my original instinct was to follow the blueprint Matt created – he had a lot of super low-budget filmmaking but also showed Knocked Up, so there was that range.

“There were always strong docs. I wanted to continue the quality that he started. I have heard that the festival has gone to new level but when he was doing it, it was already [reaching new levels]. It may have something to do with my 30-year relationships with the industry and maybe that’s come into play and maybe my taste is a bit more accessible.”

Festival opener The Cabin In The Woods looks set to continue SXSW’s reputation for championing buzz titles and the genre-bender has already got tongues wagging among those who have sneaked a peek ahead of the Mar 9 world premiere. Jonas Akerlund’s dark comedy Small Apartments, SXSW favourite Lena Dunham’s new HBO comedy series Girls and Ciarán Foy’s psychological horror Citadel are among a line-up that may well be the new festival hits of 2012.

Pierson and her programming team of Jared Neece, Jim Kolmar and Claudette Godfrey (with considerable assistance from media relations chief Rebecca Feferman) moved back the submissions deadline by one month this cycle to Jan 15. “The whole point is discovering films you don’t know anything about, but we were running out of time.”

They received around 5,200 submissions this year, of which 2,000 were features and 3,000 were shorts. The total was up by around 7% on the previous year and in the end the team selected 132 features, of which more than half are world premieres and 58 are documentaries. Gone is the Lonestar section for Texan entries but there remains a Lonestar Award for the best Texan film across all sections and there is a new showcase of web-created content called Digital Domain.

At a time when US festivals are making tentative inroads into self-distribution it is refreshing to hear that SXSW has no such ambitions. Festival top brass are approached frequently on the matter and got involved on the 2008 day-and-date release of Joe Swanberg’s Alexander The Last, but that is as far as it has gone. “Since then we have no interest in being a distributor,” Pierson says. “We are an environment where all these great creative people come together and work that stuff out.”

That said, Pierson welcomes the industry buzz and overnight deals that have crept into proceedings. “We are thrilled when films do well and we want films to do well. [Best documentary Oscar winner] Undefeated is a great story. A film like Weekend was small and the filmmakers had been told not to get their hopes up and they had a deal the next day. They made it out of nothing.”