MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

SXSW’s Janet Pierson on Stepping Up to the Plate and Out of the Shadows


Photo Credit: Jason Whyte

This is Janet Pierson‘s “Hillary Moment,” and she’s loving every minute of it.

For Pierson, taking over the reins of the South by Southwest is something that’s been decades in the making. Pierson started college at 16, where she quickly determined that film was going to be a part of her future.  “I grew up on the East Coast, in suburban New York, and was just anxious to grow up, so I got out of high school at 16, and went to Hampshire College, which was new then; I wanted to be a journalist, that’s what was interesting to me then. And I went to college, but I couldn’t write, for some reason it just didn’t work out. But I fell in love with film, and with a different kind of film than Hampshire College. I was there at the same time asKen Burns, he was a couple years ahead of me. Rob Epstein and I met on our first day and were best friends, we were inseparable for our first three months of college.  But the Hampshire film thing was more what’s kind of turned into this ‘Ken Burns’ thing. And then I took a class at UMass and just really fell in love with experimental film, it just spoke to me in a way that I thought was really amazing. ”

After two years at Hampshire, Pierson transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute, then immediately upon graduating, at just twenty years old, was tapped to take over the Canyon Cinema co-op. “What I feel good about in retrospect is that Canyon Cinema still exists, that I was a sort of bridge that kept it alive at a time when it could have gone under,” Pierson says. She never wanted to be a filmmaker herself, she says, because she admired great filmmakers and felt there “wasn’t a need for mediocrity,” so for several years she ran Canyon Cinema and got involved with a theater troupe in the Castro District. “I was hanging around with this lesbian theater troupe — well, actually, it was a theater troupe of women who just happened to be lesbians, really — and they wanted me to direct, and I was just too timid. It was an interesting thing, being around this theater, and I liked being an assistant director. But I was always too chicken to actually direct a show.”

Pierson moved to New York in 1980 to take a job at Film Forum as Karen Cooper’s assistant at Film Forum, which was doing a major expansion at that time. She found more than a job there: that’s where Janet — then Janet Perlberg — met her future husband and partner in the world of film, John Pierson. “John was the other person they hired, he was the house manager. We both ended up at the same place at the same time, because we were into the same thing. I didn’t like him right away when I met him, at all,” she laughs. “But I lived a block from the theater, and we were running a Werner Herzog retrospective, so I’d work all day and then come back to the theater at night. Herzog just knocked me out, it was the ultimate in movies, it was all I ever wanted.  I think of Werner Herzog as the patron saint of our marriage, because that’s how I fell in love with John. I’d go to the movies, and I’d talk to John, because he was the manager.”

After working at the Film Forum from 1981 to 1986, Pierson quit  the month Spike Lee‘sShe’s Gotta Have It opened in New York. “John and I were early investors in that; we saw a rough cut, and Spike needed finishing funds. My quitting happened to be simultaneous; I’d just hit a wall at Film Forum. When I started at Film Forum I was 23, when I left I was 29, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a publicist, even though I had a natural inclination for it — I thought it was a ghetto for women and I didn’t want to do that. I loved the fact that Film Forum reached into all aspects of film society.”

The Piersons’ investment in She’s Gotta Have It paid off immediately, and it gave Pierson the freedom to quit her job without knowing what she wanted to do next. “I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.  John wanted to have kids, I didn’t, but I figured it would take a while, I was almost thirty, so I said, let’s see. It was almost like throwing the dice. And let’s see if I get pregnant, either I’ll take to it and I’ll love it, or it’ll drive me crazy and out of the house into my next career. It was the catalyst. So I got pregnant in three months, and we’d had this deliriously life changing event by getting involved with She’s Gotta Have It.”

Pierson speaks about the uncertainty of that time, and deciding what to do next. Ultimately, she ended up working with her husband.  “John was so interesting, why would you not want to be around him?” Pierson says. “We were just really, really compatible. The stuff we were doing was just as much my world as his, it was very legitimately ‘our’ thing.  And that was ten years. And then when he wrote his book — it’s his book, but I was always right there, in the room as he was writing, we’d talk it through. It’s very much his book that he wrote, but I was also completely engaged in the process as well.”

Although the couple worked together, Pierson says there was always a sense of collaboration, not competition, between the two of them, though people on the outside looking in didn’t always see the role she played.  Pierson elaborates, “The only real sense of competition would be me worrying about my role, how to talk about it with other people, was I getting credit? Did I care, should I get credit? I worried about other people’s perceptions. So it was kind of more that thing, not a real thing. The reality of my life was fine, but I worried about how I was perceived in the world.”

Pierson co-created and directed the television show Split Screen for about four years, and then “the whole Fiji thing happened.” The Piersons moved for a year to a remote island in Fiji so John could keep the only movie theater on the island running after the family that owned it was going to shut it down; the family’s experiences in Fiji were made into a documentary,Reel Paradise, directed by Steve James.  Pierson appears more thoughtful and serious when we start talking about the year in Fiji. “The film was Steve’s version of our lives, not our real lives. I was the one who limited it to a year, John would have just sold everything and gone, but it was a learning adventure, and the kids were very open to it.”

What was it like having cameras around for a year while adapting to living in such a different culture with two teenagers? “The film makes me look like the ‘little woman,’ which is one of the more annoying things for me. Doing the film Reel Paradise was never my idea, but I kind of gave myself over to it. It was such an extraordinary experience, and I love films like Southern Comfort, films where people are so brave about sharing theire own experiences, so I thought, how could I not allow our experience to be shared? And then doing the film, I went in 24 hours from not wanting to be filmed to being angry that they weren’t filming me more. It was so selective; Steve had a story he was creating, and there was all this stuff I was doing that’s not a part of the film.  It was fascinating to see how selective documentary filmmaking is — there’s no reality except for a ‘documentary filmmaking’ reality.  It’s a very selective truth.”

After Fiji, the family ended up relocating to Austin, in search of a place that would have the right mix of economically affordable living and the world of film the pair love. And then last year,Matt Dentler unexpectedly stepped down from South by Southwest to relocate to New York City for a new job with Cinetic Media, and Pierson suddenly found a new bend in the road. And after years of taking the back seat, and being perceived — or at least feeling she was perceived — as being in her husband’s shadow, she finally took the leap and put herself in the forefront, accepting the daunting task of taking the fest over with a “huge risk of being embarrased, of failing” — and succeeding. By herself.

Pierson reflects on the path her life has taken: both her passion for the world of film and filmmakers, and her reluctance — until now — to take the risk of failure by being the one in charge. At at 51, she finally has the self-confidence to put all the pieces together to lead SXSW into the future with the reins firmly in her own hands.

“This is very much mine, and not John’s, although this is his world too. Had John been offered this job, he wouldn’t have taken it, he couldn’t have done it. He is brilliant and he’s fascinating … but he’s also a maverick and an iconoclast, and he wouldn’t have the patience, it wouldn’t hold his interest. This is something that very much does use all my variety of skills. I’ve always been really torn about what I should be doing, what’s my role, I’ve been a headcase about it for decades. And what’s so funny about having this job now is, that’s totally gone. Every single thing I’ve ever done has helped me prepare for doing this job. So all of a sudden, it all makes sense. But until a year ago, if you asked me what to do I’d stumble and stutter and say, yeah, I don’t know …  it’s been super complicated. I’ve had this situation even with John where we’ve been active partners for so long, but even before that, with Karen Cooper at Film Forum, with being an assistant director but not wanting to be the director, I always played this second shadow role, I liked making other people better.  And this is the first time I’ve been pushed out,” Pierson reflects.

“This job … I earned it by a life of being generous and engaged and caring about something deeply, and being lucky enough to pursue those interests. And when I got this job, there was this immediate sense of, instead of having to worry about how I was defined by the world, I had this immediate answer: I run this festival. And it just kind of shut down all this distracting noise that had been nagging at me for twenty years. And it was like, okay, now this is what I do, and I get to actually care about the stuff that I care about, rather than where my place is in the world. And it’s been really, really fun.”
- by Kim Voynar

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