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February 3, 2003

The Piersons: A Movie Honcho Moves His Family to Fiji

"The Only thing I didn't want to leave behind
was my family," says Pierson of leaving for remote Taveuni, Fiji.
If Jennifer Lopez ever washes up on the beaches of Taveuni, Fiji, she'll find she has fans. "Everyone here loves J. Lo," says John Pierson, owner of the Meridian 180, the island's only movie theater. "But no one knew what to make of Stuart Little 2. They called the hero 'the little talking rat.'" That kind of audience response is precisely what lured Pierson, 48, to run a tiny theater (288 seats) on a small island (pop. 10,000) a long way (8,000 miles) from his former Garrison, N.Y., home.

A producer of independent films such as Clerks and The Blair Witch Project. Pierson says he was suffering from a "spiritual crisis" after a decade in the biz. Then, in 1999, he heard about Meridian 180 and flew out for a visit. At a Three Stooges screening, he was floored by the locals' unjaded enthusiasm. "The love of that audience for the movie was reenergizing," he says. Learning that the owner planned to shut down the theater, he decided to take it over. Hollywood friends, including Kevin Smith and Spike Lee, agreed to finance the venture. (Pierson won't mention the six-figure sum.) Last September he and his family - wife and business partner Janet, 45; Georgia, 15; and son Wyatt, 12, moves to a $200-a-week villa in an abandoned resort. "It was liberating," he says.

"Liberating for him, excruciating for me," says Janet, a homemaker, who is still adjusting to the absence of pretzels, fresh coffee and hairdresser. The family is living off savings while Pierson - who hopes to sell a book about his experience - serves as projectionist. (Nightly admission is free.) The children attend local schools, which are taught in English, and Wyatt is learning Fijian. "It's a parred-down life," says Janet. "Our days are full just being together."

Written by: J.D. Heyman

Reported by: Kevin Airs, Theresa Crapanzano, Susan Gray Gose, Esther Leach, Laurie Meyers, Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Jill Westfall

People - Facts & Fibs

Everyone wants their page in People. We were thrilled, then dismayed, and are now somewhere in between. It's too bad that after a four-hour pre-Fiji interview in LA in July, and 3 days in Taveuni with an Australian journalist in early October, the 3 measly paragraphs that were published contain 13 factual errors. For you media trackers, here's the breakdown in sequence. "Facts" that were fact checked but left uncorrected are marked with

  1. The theater is not called the "Meridian 180." It is called the 180 Meridian Cinema.

  2. Even using movie screens in the US as a measuring stick, 288 seats is not "tiny." It's not even small.

  3. John was not a "producer" of Clerks. He was a producer of Chasing Amy.

  4. John was not a "producer" of Blair Witch Project. He did contribute $10,000 to the shooting budget.

  5. John has been in "the biz" for 25 years, not "a decade."

  6. John didn't fly out for a "visit." John flew out, with crew and family, to make an episode of Split Screen, our TV series on IFC. It was February, 2000, not 1999.

  7. Kevin, Spike (+ Matt Stone & the Blair Witch Gang) didn't exactly "finance" the venture. That would imply an investment which will recoup their money or return a profit. They DONATED the money to back John's dream. (And why waste space in a short article with the line "Pierson won't name the six figure sum"?)

  8. We left on August 3rd, not in September.

  9. We live in an old, wooden plantation house, not a "villa" by any definition that we know. The "abandoned resort," Taveuni Estates, is more of a development with lots for houses, and it's still alive, if not well. Our home is the original building on the vast property. The important point would be that the twice-bankrupt development was an extremely incongruous project for Taveuni.

  10. "Excruciating" for Janet? People admits it's a quote from July 26th, a week before we left and six months before publication, about the grueling process of packing up the house in New York. It had nothing to do with life in Fiji. (Please read Janet's "The First Two Months" on the homepage written the same week that People's reporter visited.)

  11. "Homemaker" is not what we'd call Janet, nor is it what People called her two sentences earlier. She is in fact a "business partner" - for 15 years, 20 films, 66 episodes of a tv series, and 1 book.

  12. Family is not "living off savings" yet due to the largesse of those in #7.

  13. John does not "serve as projectionist." One of the fantastic events that Kevin Airs, the Australian writer, eyewitnessed when he visited only happened because John would never trust himself to operate that projection booth.

Georgia also swears that she's learned more Fijian than Wyatt. Despite her claims to the contrary, it's a nice photo of John. And in the end, that's what People's all about.

Incidentally, that beach was badly damaged, as was all of Taveuni except for our villa and the Meridian 180, by a ferocious South Pacific hurricane called Cyclone Ami which made a direct hit January 14th 2003, literally four days before People closed this issue. That latest drama didn't seem to fit into People's "paradise can be oh so excruciating" agenda although we pleaded with them to help raise public awareness.

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