SXSW Film Preview: Buzzy Studio Fare and Austin Indie Favorites to Collide

Pee Wee Herman, Richard Linklater and Jeff Nichols - Getty-Split - H 2016
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images; Rick Kern/WireImage/Getty Images; Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

SXSW film head Janet Pierson talks to THR about fest highlights, ranging from Richard Linkater and Jeff Nichols' latest pics to 'Keanu.'

In the eight years since Janet Pierson was hired as the head of SXSW Film, the festival's movie programming has grown into a notable launching pad for big studio films and indies alike. Over the years, there have been splashy premieres for Spring Breakers, 21 Jump Street and, last year, Amy Schumer's Trainwreck and a surprise screening of Furious 7. Plus, the Austin, Texas, fest has also launched some of TV's biggest hits, including Girls and Mr. Robot.

The 2016 edition, launching Friday, will likely continue the trend, with hot studio projects including Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some and Jeff Nichols' sci-fi film Midnight Special. "I think there's a real display of wonderful Austin filmmaking talent this year," says Pierson of the two Austin-based filmmakers' work.

Plus, Netflix makes its first SXSW film debut with Pee-wee's Big Holiday, New Line will show a work-in-progress screening of cat comedy Keanu and AMC's new series Preacher, based on the comic book, will premiere.

Just before the fest kicked off, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Pierson about this year's highlights, the Obamas' visit and what surprises she might still have up her sleeve.

Last year seemed like an especially big year for film, with Trainwreck, Spy and Furious 7 all screening.

It's interesting because it's my eighth year and I don't really feel that we're doing anything different. I feel like we've had a lot of exciting stuff every year since I've been doing it. But I know there was something really sensational about last year. Although, there was also the year we premiered the Girls series and 21 Jump Street and the year of Spring Breakers — there are all these different high points every year, but I know there was something particularly exciting about last year.

What do you expect as breakout moments this year?

I'm never quite sure. I wouldn't have been able to necessarily talk about it going into last year. This year there's so much we're excited about, but then it kind of takes on its own life once it connects with the audience. There's a lot of really wonderful work that's both working at the studio level and lots and lots of discovery. It's interesting on the studio front that you have filmmakers like Linklater and Jeff Nichols, who we've worked with before as independents who are here as studio filmmakers this year. Both are really wonderful films, but a lot of their films are wonderful.

On the TV side, Girls and Mr. Robot both premiered at SXSW and went on to big success. Are other new TV series clamoring to be a part of the festival?

Absolutely. I started the '09 festival when it was already post-Sopranos and The Wire and it was kind of what everyone I knew was watching. I remember thinking, 'How do we include this in this setting?' Then Girls really helped because Lena [Dunham] had already had two features here and she was able to work with us. Then the next year people started knocking on the door and we went with Bates Motel. So now this year a lot of people want to be a part of it. We're keeping it small, although we're flexible and open to changing things as we need to each year. We're looking for voices. It's the same way that we look at feature length-films and in the same way that the shorts are programmed. We're looking to be surprised, we're looking for originality, and we're looking for filmmaking with a point of view. 

How did the President and the first lady joining the festival come about?

It's fantastic, but it was something that was orchestrated by Interactive. They get credit for that. It's something they've been interested in for a long time. What's interesting is that in general, SXSW has come to be synonymous with so much of how we live today. It's so much about entrepreneurialism and creativity, you know, it covers a huge footprint. So many things fit into it. It was beautiful how it's being discussed that Obama is appealing to the creative tech community to engage in ways to help all of us. I think that's awesome.

Last year, Furious 7 was a surprise screening. You've already announced work-in-progress screenings for Keanu and Sausage Party, but are there any surprise screenings still planned?

That was not premeditated last year. So if you were to ask me that question this time last year I would be like, "No!" It literally came up after the festival had started. One of the [Furious 7] producers, Neal Moritz, said onstage that he was reading about SXSW and wondered, "Why aren't we there?"

So you don't have any more surprises up your sleeve?

I do not. I really don't. But I said we didn't last year, either. Announcing Keanu was an exciting thing and Sausage Party. Those aren't dry yet. They were kind of rushing to see if they could make it or not. They're both very exciting. There might be more announcements during the week, but certainly everything should be out and clear when we start on Friday, as far as I know.

How do you hope to grow or change the festival in the future?

I'm not big on reinventing the wheel. I'm interested in quality. Every year we're trying to figure out how to make it easier for the user: how to navigate it better, how to keep the quality up, how to keep the discovery quality there. It's been a real privilege to be able to give so many filmmakers a chance or an opportunity. I still love doing that. The life of a filmmaker is quite hard. There's so much they have to do. Not only do they have to raise money to make it, but now they have to distribute it themselves and get it to audiences. It's a very crowded, noisy world. It's wonderful to be able to say to someone, 'I believe in you, I think you're interesting, and here's an opportunity.'"

SXSW runs March 11-20 in Austin, Texas.