Love and Cinema: Janet and John Pierson
Texas Film Awards honorees and indie cinema's fairy godparents look back on 40 years at the movies
It's a big year for Janet and John Pierson. May will mark their 40th wedding anniversary, and they're finally able to enjoy retirement together in their serene turn-of-the-century Central Austin home.
But before that, they have to take a trip on March 3 out to Luck, where they'll be inducted – alongside megaproducer Mike de Luca, Cocaine Bear star Margo Martindale, and Creed III star Jonathan Majors – into the Texas Film Awards' roster of honorees. They bristle a little at concepts like "power couple" or "the first couple of indie cinema," but glow a little at a countersuggestion: indie cinema's fairy godparents. That sort of undersells the monumental impact they have had on movies for the past four decades. Janet explained, "Both of us decided in college that we weren't going to make films, but we were going to be involved in supporting people we thought were incredibly talented."
Act I: New York
Scene 1: The Film Forum, New York City, 1981
"August 1981," Janet clarifies. Fresh out of running the Canyon Cinema Coop and waitressing in San Francisco, she'd been hired as the assistant to Film Forum Director Karen Cooper as the arthouse collective switched from leasing screens to having its own two-screen theatre. That's where she met John, a former exhibitor and NYU film grad who'd been hired as manager.
"Rom-com," John laughs. Yeah, When Harry Met Sally....
"We fought for nine months," Janet explains. As Cooper's right hand, "Technically I had to boss him [John] around."
But over time, something softened. Her office was over the box office where he worked "and I would hear him come in, and I fell in love with his voice." Later that winter, she was having a drink with Cooper "and I remember telling her, 'Oh, he's not so bad,' and she says, 'Oh my god, you're going to get married.'"
May 1983, Cooper's prediction came true with a wedding at the Film Forum. "At noon," Janet says, "because we had to do it before the regular 2 o'clock showing."
Scene 2: NYC, 1986
John had already left the Film Forum, and found himself at this incredible moment in film history. American independent cinema – this new middle ground between the underground and the arthouse, facilitated by a new infrastructure of distribution and criticism, funded by the new revenue streams of VHS rights, and inspired by the DIY ethos of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. Janet said, "We were alive and young at a certain time, but I give John all the credit in the world for understanding what a huge moment it was."
John didn't create the concept of a producer's rep – the intermediary between indie movies and distributors – yet his amplification of this role, picking a couple of titles a year to really concentrate on, came at the perfect moment for a rising tide of new filmmakers like Errol Morris, Lizzie Borden, Kevin Smith, and, pivotally, Spike Lee. He'd invited the Piersons to a rough-cut screening of She's Gotta Have It. In a moment that has now become a film lore, Janet recalls John aping
The Real Paper's Jon Landau's early canonization of Bruce Springsteen: "John literally walks out of the screening and says, 'I've seen the future of cinema and his name is Spike Lee.'"
Scene 3: Garrison, N.Y., 1991
Janet pulls out a copy of Chuck Klosterman's The Nineties and opens it at a highlighted passage. "There are decades when nothing happened, Vladimir Lenin allegedly claimed, and then there are weeks when decades happened." In terms of indie cinema, the Piersons had lived through a decade full of weeks full of decades, hands-on with pivotal films of the era: Working Girls, Slacker, The Thin Blue Line, Clerks, Go Fish, and Michael Moore's Roger & Me, a film that was as artistically and professionally significant for the Piersons as She's Gotta Have It. "I always say Spike paid for our daughter and Michael paid for our son," Janet smiles.
But by 1991, John had tired of NYC, and so they traveled up the Hudson River to the small hamlet of Garrison. "I would have stayed in the city forever," Janet says, "but John needs change. He's mercurial." Fortunately, a friend of hers who grew up in Vermont gave her some words of comfort: "'It's OK, Janet, people talk in the country too.' ... Like every single change in our lives, John has pushed me into it and I've enjoyed it more."
Not that this cuts into their engagement with film. In 1995, John wrote Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes, his war reports from the front line of the indie scene (or rather, John wrote it, longhand, and Janet typed it up), and then there was their show for IFC, Split Screen. John may have been the face in front of the camera, hipping audiences for the first time to films like The Blair Witch Project, but as always it was the Piersons combined, much like their famous annual Cold Spring Film Workshop (held in the chapel where Hello, Dolly! was filmed), advising filmmakers like a pre-South Park Matt Stone. "It was a cheap train ride out of New York City, and we fed them," says Janet.
Intermission: Fiji, 2002
The whole Pierson family decamps for a year to the island of Taveuni to run the world's most remote theatre, an adventure captured in the 2005 documentary, Reel Paradise. "But you didn't ask about that," says John, moving forward.
Act II: Austin
Scene 1: Austin, 2004
From the Pacific to the third coast. The pair had been coming to Austin for years, attending South by Southwest, repping films, even getting the Chronicle mailed to them in New York. In another of those moves instigated by John, he starts teaching at UT RTF, including his now-legendary master class. Janet, never one to sit on her hands, joins the board of the Austin Film Society, and the pair becomes a fixture in the Austin film scene. "And then," Janet said, "South By dropped into my lap."
Like that move out of NYC, John chortles, "look who this works out for."
Scene 2: SXSW, Austin, 2008
Janet had known SXSW head of film Matt Dentler for years, from attending SXSW to the interlocking circles of the local film scene, when the idea came up that she become his replacement. It was a huge step that would change the public perception of the Piersons. "[John] was this public figure," Janet says, "but I was always in the background. People would ask me what I did and I didn't have an answer." She was terrified that she wouldn't measure up to what Dentler – and also John – had done, and she faced a steep learning curve about what a film festival requires. "I'd never even done a red carpet before."
But while her title and responsibilities changed, the job remained what it had always been: supporting films that she liked and believed in. "I'm a film enthusiast," she says. "John kind of made fun of me at one point, 'Oh, your taste is so eclectic, who knows what this is going to look like,' but luckily it was terrific."
The thousands of filmmakers who got a SXSW breakout moment would probably agree. Under her tenure it becomes a true destination film festival. It's been the launch pad for surprise box-office smashes like I Love You, Man; A Quiet Place; and 2022 opening night title and Oscar contender Everything Everywhere All at Once. At the same time, it's nurtured an endless roster of new talents and new perspectives, and Janet has assembled a team of which she is deeply proud. She beams. "It feels nice that all these talented people, it was a link in their chains." And there's a personal joy in being "one of the first people to validate somebody and be like, 'Oh my god, what you did is special.'"
Last October, after 15 years, Janet stepped down as SXSW director – no other reason than that it was simply time. Now both she and John are getting their plaudits via the Texas Film Awards, an honor that came out of the blue. John recalls, "We just got this invitation letter signed by Rick [Linklater] and I went, 'Oh, look, Rick's inviting us!'"
"It's a perfect punctuation point for me," Janet adds.
Right now, they're enjoying having time back, and time together. Janet has time to read, practice yoga under a poster for Tiny Furniture (SXSW 10, the sophomore appearance for a pre-Girls Lena Dunham), maybe even catch up on Andor. And after four decades on redefining cinema, John's more than OK with letting that punctuation point be a period. "It's time for boomers to fucking move on already," he states. "Things are changing, and things are going to be different, and there's nothing wrong with that, but things should be coming from younger people."