Janet Pierson: The Indie’s Indie

You don’t get much more indie than Janet Pierson, the current head honcho of the film division of the South By Southwest Film and Media Conference. Pierson has been partnered with her husband John Pierson, an indie pioneer, since 1986. The latter Pierson gained a reputation as one of the indie industry’s most provocative producers and innovators, fostering careers and introducing to the world such talents as Richard Linklater, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith and Spike Lee, among many others. Co-partnered with her husband with the firm Grainy Pictures, the duo became celebrated as “indies’ first couple” in the year that they lived in and just outside New York City in the 1980s through the 1990s.

Pierson herself has indie cinema flowing in her veins since her start in the film business. After two years at Hampshire College, she transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute for her higher education and graduated in 1977. Immediately upon graduating, at the tender age of 20, she was tapped to take over the Canyon Cinema co-op, a Bay Area filmmakers organization that continues to this day. The organization filled in a gap for adventurous distribution by creating the Canyon Cinema label, which she ran for several years.  In 1980, Pierson moved to New York City to take a job at the celebrated New York arthouse cinema complex Film Forum as executive director Karen Cooper’s assistant. Not only did she have a prized job at the nexus of indie cinema, she also met her future husband John Pierson there, who was working as the house manager.

John and Janet Pierson

After working at the Film Forum from 1981 to 1986, both Piersons left when the Spike Lee film SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT became a major indie hit of its era. Both had been early investors in the film and also provided the finishing funds when Lee hit a wall with getting the film finished. They became the beneficiaries when the film became a box office sensation, giving Pierson the freedom and courage to leave her job. During this period, as she co-founded Grainy Pictures, she made the decision to start a family and the Piersons eventually moved to Cold Spring, a bucolic hamlet on the Hudson River about 90 minutes north of Manhattan. From this base, they hosted staging the Cold Spring Film Workshop, a mini-Sundance-like event for the indie community that includes film screenings, workshops and outdoor parties (a good preparation for her current job). Grainy Pictures also became producers and producer reps for over two dozen original American independent features, including the landmark films PARTING GLANCES, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND, GO FISH, CRUMB, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CHASING AMY, ROGER & ME, SLACKER and CLERKS.  Janet also was a silent contributor and editor for her husband’s celebrated 1997 memoir of the indie film industry, “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema” published by Hyperion Press and Miramax Books.

After the heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, American indie film went into a kind of creative and financial slump, which was only exacerbated by the economic malaise following 9/11. The Piersons also needed a big change and made the gusty move of relocating to the Pacific island of Fiji in 2002, where they ran the island nation’s first independent cinema……a cultural dram that was captured in the Steve James documentary REEL PARADISE. When they returned to the United States, the Piersons executive produced a magazine-format cable series SPLIT SCREEN that focused on indie and international cinema. Ready for another bold move by 2004, the Piersons relocated to Austin, Texas, where John joined the teaching staff at the University of Texas and Janet served a six-year term on the board of the Austin Film Society. In 2008, she was offered a dream job that pulled together all her knowledge and experience. In April of that year, she accepted the position as Producer of the SXSW Film Conference and Festival, making this month’s 2012 event her fourth at the helm.

Under her tenure, the event has expanded and become one of the country’s most important showcases for new indie features and documentaries. In an interview she gave following her first year at the job, she described the strengths that she has been able to give the job, her first that is solely her own and not shared with her husband, in almost 30 years. “This is very much mine, and not John’s, although this is his world too. 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. 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.” Janet Pierson has not just talked the talk, but she has walked the walk, and her entire career has culminated into this challenged but rewarding job as the indie’s indie. For more information on SXSW, visit: www.sxsw.com

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