Janet Pierson did not set out to become the head of a film festival, but aged 51 she finds herself with the unexpected task of running the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference & Festival.

'It was a great surprise,' Pierson says of the chance to lead the Austin, Texas-based festival (which runs March 13-21). 'I didn't go looking for it, it came to me. But it's the perfect culmination of what I've done in the past.'

Pierson was an assistant director at New York's Film Forum in the 1980s and became a producers' representative in 1986 with her husband, John Pierson, working on such seminal titles as She's Gotta Have It, Roger & Me, Clerks and Slacker. She was the co-creator of the IFC TV series Split Screen and one of the subjects of Steve James' documentary Reel Paradise, about the Piersons' move to Fiji to set up a cinema.

She adds: 'I've always wanted to work connecting films with audiences. I like working with new films and new talents and that's a big part of the job at SXSW.'

The festival opens with the world premiere of DreamWorks' comedy I Love You, Man and will screen 108 features including 54 world premieres - including both narrative and documentary competitions. Pierson is not yet sure how her programme differs from those of her popular predecessor, Matt Dentler. 'We had a lot of shared sensibilities,' she says of her friend. 'But then again, I'm twice his age and I'm sure there are differences.'

Although the number of US deals done at SXSW grows each year, international buyers and sellers have not usually flocked to Austin. Pierson is, naturally, open to having more international industry attendees. 'We're not a market but we want the best opportunities for our film-makers,' she says. 'There have always been some international films sprinkled in the programme, but we're trying to be open to having even more.'

This year's international offerings include foreign titles throughout programme sections, plus SXGlobal, a programme of 11 international documentaries; and the internationally leaning new midnight series with Fantastic Film Fest, which will open with Ong Bak 2 from Thailand. She notes that Austin audiences can have specific tastes in regards to foreign fare. 'Something foreign-language and arthouse, like a (Michael) Haneke film, might not play as well here as foreign-language genre films can,' she says.

On the domestic front, SXSW has become synonymous with the 'mumblecore' movement of recent years - and while Pierson says 'I don't like the tag', she is a fan of the kinds of creative, low-budget films made by this loose group of film-makers. She even appeared in Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax, which will screen at SXSW (she shot her role in 2007 before taking the festival job).

SXSW Film Festival also has the sister Interactive event (in addition to the music festival that started it all in 1987), so the festival is open to the connections between technology and film. This year SXSW has partnered with distributor IFC Films to offer video-on-demand releases of five festival films, including the world premiere of Joe Swanberg's Alexander The Last. 'It seems to me an appropriate experiment and exploration,' Pierson says. 'A festival shouldn't just be about a premiere but becoming part of a film's life.'