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SXSW Film Festival: More Commercial, More Comedy, (A Little) Less Music

South by Southwest Festival director Janet Pierson tells TheWrap that while Sundance may have had a wave of movies from female directors this year, that's old hat for them

South by Southwest is selling out this year – but in a good way. The film festival unveiled its 2013 lineup on Thursday, and festival director Janet Pierson told TheWrap that this year the films just feel more accessible, and, dare she say, commercial than in year’s past.

Don’t fret South By loyalists, the lineup includes plenty of quirky and unnerving entrants, and most of the films in competition are from unknown or less established filmmakers.

Pierson does that intentionally. Why make Carlos Puga compete against Richard Linklater? Or a documentary about a windmill compete against one about legendary physicist Stephen Hawking?

This year's selection includes films from well-heeled veterans like Linklater and John Sayles, documentaries about Green Day and Snoop Lion and 69 movies nobody has ever seen. 

Also Read: SXSW Film Festival Lineup: Richard Linklater, Joss Whedon and Dozens of Unknowns

TheWrap spoke with Pierson about this year’s lineup, how South by Southwest was feminist before it was cool and why a festival filled with nerds can’t put its movies online.

What jumped out at you this year?

This year there are a lot of really entertaining films. Not that past films aren’t entertaining, but in an accessible way. We tend to skew edgy and be in peoples’ faces. This year we were laughing a lot and in really good moods. 

Accessible in a commercial way?

Yeah, in a mainstream kind of way. There’s something with wide appeal about a lot of these films. They are funny, different, surprising and entertaining. They speak to a lot of different people and not just niche, art house, Austin fanboy.

Are there a couple of movies that stand out as lighter or more accessible than what we’ve seen from South By in the past?

“The Bounceback” from Bryan Poyser It’s a very unique individual working on a super low budget. I don’t want to be negative about indies but it’s not a little indie. It’s a movie that’s really a crowd pleaser.

“Milo” is similar. It’s a crazy concept and sounds like the worst movie ever made but it’s just really funny and surprising. Romantic comedies are not our wheelhouse, but this one took use by surprise.

A film like 'Good Ol Fred," which is an interview with this middle-aged woman who was The Beatles’ secretary for seven years. She was plucked out of the fan club to be a part of this world. She was super discreet and never talked about it before.

In “Milius,” you see filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Milius’ friends and peers, speaking from the heart about someone so important to them. You get access to all of them in a way you don’t often see.

But if you…

One more – “Unhung Hero.” The tagline is about a guy whose dick is smaller than average. That’s what the film takes off on. It sounds uncomfortable or yucky but is so charming and yucky and revealing in ways that surprised and delighted us.

While the movies are more accessible this year, pretty much all of the films in competition are from lesser known filmmakers.

The way we deal with competition is different from most other festivals. Competition does not equal best. We don’t put more established filmmakers and cast into narrative competition. We’re looking for films from directors who are earlier in their career or not as well known. The elements aren’t as big.

One of the reasons I haven’t called out any of those titles is I want to let people discover them. There is so much attention on competition as is.

Also Read: How Fox Searchlight Made the Biggest Deal at Sundance: $9.75M on an Egg Sandwich

And then you have some filmmaker names that jump off the page, whether it's Joss Whedon or John Sayles.

John Sayles is still  doing things exactly as we want to see them. As for Joss, we loved having "Cabin in the Woods" last year; it was a fantastic opening night. This one is fun because it's a very person movie for him. A lot of the movies are theatrical this year — that, "Some Girl(s)," the Neil LaBute adaptation, "Improvement Club" is an avant garde theater group. That hasn't happened before, but this year is very wild and highly theatrical.

You had a record number of submissions of this year. Are you just seeing more movies or are there actually more good movies?

More good movies. There is the same number of transcendent, truly unique films. That’s the rarest quality and has stayed the same over the years. There are more good films and a lot of films we had to pass on that we think are terrific. On the documentary side, it becomes: which subject should we give a platform to, which ones will speak to the audience? On the narrative side, there are so many ways you can go with and this year we had to pull in our program because one of the key venues is under construction.

There has been a growing number of music documentaries and music-themed narrative films over the past year. That was definitely the case at Sundance. At the risk of repeating myself, are there more good music documentaries being made or just the same music documentaries being made over and over again?

I’ve definitely seen the same music documentary made over and over again. It’s one of the downsides of being the best place for music documentaries. Guys get together, they go on road, have a drug problem and take a break.

On the other hand, when you get great ones it’s so exciting. This is not a heavier year where music is in every section, which is how it was last year. But you show music films for different reasons. We’re showing “The Punk Singer which is about the girl from Bikini Kill. I’m totally into it. That music really resonates with me. Somebody else might pick something totally different.

Also Read: The Eagles Talk and Dave Grohl Rocks as Sundance Gets Musical 

You have a music festival at the same time. Does that make your job easier or harder?

We have about 2,000 bands in four days and so many of the bands have films that accompany what they are doing. I hope this is the place it can all happen for them, but we are showing 110 features so the equation doesn’t work. There’s a great variety between the films that have premiered elsewhere and those that have their world premiere here.

Do you try and avoid the movies that screen elsewhere? Or at least consider that when making your selections?

We pay attention to the balance. We are a festival of discovery and so much of what we think we’re doing is showing films for the first time, giving filmmakers world premiere exposure.

One of the most brilliant films we’re showing this year is “The Act of Killing,” which was at Toronto. It’s stunning. Amazing. It actually premiered at Telluride. “Spring Breakers” premiered at Venice and played at Toronto. We know we’re the U.S. premiere and we’ll raise the roof. A film like “Bellflower” or “Moon” or “Sound of My Voice.” Those premiered at Sundance but came alive here. They weren’t the story there but connect in our environment.

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Do you see one this year where that can happen? Something like Joseph Gordon-Levitt's “Don Jon’s Addiction” got a lot of buzz out of Sundance. “Before Midnight” got incredible reviews but didn’t get the same press for whatever reason. Or given the filmmaker, the type of festival SXSW is, I have my eye on “Upstream Color.”

I would love it if “Upstream Color” did. It’s beautiful, stunning and original.

As for Richard Linklater (left with Pierson), he is a godfather of Austin film; I moved here because of him. He’s had such an incredible career and "Before Midnight" is a masterpiece. I cannot get more excited about a film. “Before Sunset” is pretty perfect. “Before Sunrise” is pretty cool. How do you come back from that? This film transcends it. I’m in awe of what he’s achieved. We have this world-class filmmaker who lives here.

I don’t want to harp on Sundance, but there was a report released there about the growing number of female filmmakers in independent film. Is that something you noticed in your selections this year as well? Do you make a conscious effort to include more films from female directors?

Without being formulaic about it, we pay attention. We’re proud that Lena Dunham emerged out of us. With “Creative Nonfiction,” we took a chance on a 19-year old with a film that was very flawed but had that spark. We took a chance and she way more than delivered.

There are always so many strong women on the documentary side. On the narrative side, we celebrated women narrative directors with a special award two years ago. This year it was a big talking point for Sundance but not for us. It’s revolutionary for them. Not for us. It’s not what jumps out of the program this year. It’s not half of our program like it was there. [Half of the films in competition at Sundance were directed by women.]

Also Read: Women Are on the Rise at Sundance – When Will Studios Take Note?

To shift gears, you have a prominent event for technologists happening at the same time. One of the projects you’ve listed under “events” is “Burning Love” a web series that’s about to debut on Yahoo. Do you look for films that will be distributed digitally?

Last year we created the “Digital Domain” panels, which was specifically for online content. This just happens to be special event because it’s a big deal with all the talent coming. There’s bigger wattage on it.

We absolutely look for things that crossover with the interactive audience. Take the movie about The Pirate Bay. It’s in special events because it is going for a wide release after the Berlin premiere, but it’s an interesting look at the guys who created this changing technology. We wanted to show it anyways.

How about making the films accessible online during the festival?

No, because we’re not a distributor. Indie filmmakers have the freedom to work their films any number of ways. There could be films in the lineup that debut the same day online but we’re not going to take that on.

I’ve been around too long and have too much respect for how hard of a business distribution is. We concentrate on a really great live event.