Indiewire: The Decade According to John Pierson
by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE

John Pierson's 1996 book, "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of Independent Cinema," capped a major chapter in his life as a producer and rep for some of the most important films among more than a decade of indies: Bill Sherwood's "Parting Glances," Lizzie Borden's "Working Girls," Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Yurek Bogayevicz's "Anna," Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," Richard Linklater's "Slacker," Rose Troche's "Go Fish," Kevin Smith's "Clerks," Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," and more.

In 1997, Pierson launched "Split Screen," the Independent Film Channel magazine-format program that showcases stories by and about independent filmmakers. The show's impact was felt in theaters this year, as "The Blair Witch Project," which first received notoriety as a show segment, struck a major chord with moviegoers. Also, Chris Smith's "American Movie," which was a part of the show's first season, won the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance and hit theaters this fall.

Pierson joined us the conference room at the AIVF to consider the decade in independent film.

"The number one problem that we have at the end of the decade is the surfeit of product."

indieWIRE: When we were talking with Bingham, he was talking about the whole Hollywood-ization or the consolidation of the film business. . .

John Pierson: Let me immediately pipe up and say that I hope he pointed out, or I will point out, that there are probably more companies that have filled in the ranks, of every size from living room or garage size to mid-level companies that are not studio affiliated than there have ever been before.

iW: Well, this is the interesting point, because when we interviewed John Sloss, he really felt that while yes, there's another consolidation going on -- he felt that it's just another part of the cycle continuing what happened in the early 80's. And he feels there haven't been enough companies that have come up and filled the gaps.

Pierson: He's wrong. There have been. But whether you are talking about movie theater screens or distribution companies or space in the papers, or for that matter the consumers' attention, the number one problem that we have at the end of the decade is the surfeit of product. And even though the system has vastly expanded to accommodate way more, because again, get ready for this, I went and counted what I would call "independent" releases in New York City in 1999, and I was up around 175 through last week. This is counting foreign language which I didn't count in the book ["Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes"]. I was doing an American indie count in the book, and there is a point where you reach about 30 theatrical releases a year for a span of four or five years and then you begin to leap forward right around the time that the book was concluding, you start to go to about 50 and beyond.

But again, because of all these middling to smaller size companies, there's way more activity in New York at least. It doesn't necessarily mean nationwide in every town and city, but in New York, there's way more foreign language films being released this year than there have been probably throughout the decade. The releases would be described with a word like "very marginal," but it's happening. It was a very high number, it was astonishing to me. So again, you do the math and you find out once again that you've got 3 - 4 films competing on average every Friday. Which from an audience standpoint is basically an impossibility. Forget about the other 1,000+ unreleased films. Even the ones that are getting some kind of release in New York City and are reviewed in the New York Times -- at the very least, they've got that they can put in the bank. But there's just no way theatrically that they're going to be able to grab the public's attention.

iW: Where does that really leave us as we prepare for another Sundance? Is it going to be another 175? Is it going to be 200 next year?

Pierson: Well, it could be, because whenever you're talking about systems, you really have to break it down into the individual elements. I'm old fashioned that way, and if you look at theatrical releasing in a city like New York, which has always been a pacesetter -- and you look at a theater like the Quad making itself so available for some direct-with-filmmaker openings or willingness to work with all the small companies (which maybe the Angelika won't do anymore) and when you look at what happens with the Cinema Village now with the three screens, and when you look at how the Village East is willing to do more overruns -- you suddenly have eight or nine screens right in a two block radius in the Village and there will be that many more screens on a weekly basis that are available to non-studio product.

So in the course of a year, that makes a big difference. Now is that a viable business for the Quad to be in? Only the Quad knows that answer. Is it a viable business for Cinema Village to have added the screens? Well, obviously you have to talk to that guy over there. But it's really enhanced the ability to open New York, even though that may not do you that much good when it comes to opening Minneapolis. Again, to be very site specific, the Landmark's got a theater [in Minneapolis] with five screens and then they have one other free-standing screen, so they have six in town. And then there was Al Milgrom at the Film Society who could handle as much of the spillover as possible. Now the University has finally closed Al down after 35 years. We profiled him on the ["Split Screen"] show last year, and he's a cranky, crotchety, impossible to work for old guy, but his contribution to the film community there was pretty much impossible to overpraise, and now he's gone, so what happens?

Well, they've got the Walker Arts Center and they've got other institutions that can pick up more of the slack, and maybe Sundance comes in and builds a theater there like they say they're going to, and that may make a difference. But that's the only way that you can perhaps take what's kind of a scattershot ability for a bunch of films, like [Tessa Blake's] "Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me" that opens at the Quad in New York. Will that play 50 other cities? No. Will it play 20 other cities? Probably in some form they'll manage to play 20 other cities. Is that good enough to make the film's investment back? Hell no. And is the licensing deal from Sundance Channel or IFC or some home video deal with some smaller company, whether it's a bigger smaller company like Winstar or smaller smaller company like well, pick one out of a hat, you're not going to make any kind of investment back unless it's a low-cost digital thing.

"Give me a list of five films, terrific, great films, that you think have not gotten out there -- people are stymied when I ask this in audience situations, or to individuals. It's easy for people to answer, name five films that you think are shit that did get released. But that's not the issue."

iW: I'm curious with the expanded amount of product out there, do you think the percentage of quality films is the same, or is the number of films outpacing the number of decent films?

Pierson: I think the number of films is far outpacing the number of high quality ones. You just changed a word mid-sentence and I would be careful about that. "Decent" is a very difficult word, like "Hey, that was pretty good."

A friend of mine made an early soft-core porn film in 1967 and [a character] says, "Hey, those photographs are OK" and the photographer character says, "Hey, OK is not art." And you know what, stupid line, but OK is not art, and decent is not good enough. Of course you can have decent, with some kind of extreme content, that attracts people and that's always been the case and it always will be the case -- we'll see how "Annabel Chong" does when it opens. You can have decent bad movies that have some other lure or allure. But in terms of quality, I always use the IFFM in 1985, the year "Parting Glances" was in. I think there were 43 features, and if you go back and look at them, I would say that 35 of those films were really good. [laughs] That's remarkable.

I walked in with Lory Smith's Sundance book, "Party in a Box," and the one thing I'll enjoy as I read through this thing is just remembering what years there was a real incredibly high percentage of really notable, powerful, terrific, original films at Sundance. And even if you can pluck films out from the last few years, the overall context I think is a lot weaker. Now this year, since we're eventually going to lead to this, you have all these veterans who are returning on an annual or a two-year basis with a new film at the festival or in the marketplace. This clearly clogs up the pipes as well. It makes it harder for some new first-time voice to get out of the box. And every time it works out OK for Neil LaBute or Darren Aronofsky, you can say, oh, the system still works, but it is kind of like Arteriosclerosis, because it is jamming up the arteries and eventually there will have to be some kind of radical surgery or the artery will completely shut.

iW: One thing that we asked John Sloss about is the filtering processes that are happening in the film business now, whether it's festivals doing some of the weeding out...

Pierson: Doing almost all of the weeding out at this point. I don't know of any company that's combing through unsolicited material on their own and making their own minds up.

iW: Festivals are definitely the first wave of weeding, and then Sloss or other producer's reps may do additional weeding, and he's on the phone trying to get representation on one of the Sundance films, so he's weeding out what's been weeded. By the time Sundance starts, you have a handful of films that have been pre-determined to be the ones that are of interest.

Pierson: Yeah, but that gets diverted all the time. Last year was the fourth out of five years that the New York Times declared to be the year of the documentary. But going in, they were talking about "American Pimp," and by mid-week they were talking about "American Movie." So that's subject to correction based on the quality of the films themselves. That's the good thing, you know. It's true, the hype machine causes some nightmares like, again the whole farce this year with "Happy, Texas." But there are generally still enough people who care enough about what they think is the real deal, that there's still this chance for correction. But if "The House of Yes" is sold on the first day of the festival, that correction unfortunately only takes place when the film comes out and bombs six months later instead of taking place during the course of the week at Sundance. And that's because every one feels like they have to move so fast.

iW: Well it's the issue of whether, because some of the filtering that takes place by Sloss or someone else representing a movie, and bringing it into the market at Sundance and getting a certain amount of attention for that film or filmmaker, it makes it harder for someone who comes in with a quality film, but maybe one that isn't as mainstream or doesn't have stars to get that awareness. You have to have a publicist to go to Sundance now. I hate having to say it that way, but it's essentially the case.

Pierson: I have a standard question I turn back on people when they worry about the tree falling in the forest but nobody hears -- the great film that's going undiscovered. I still see a lot of films, I don't know how much you watch. Give me a list of five films, terrific, great films, that you think have not gotten out there. And normally people are stymied when I ask this in audience situations, or to individuals. It's easy for people to answer, name five films that you think are shit that did get released. But that's not the issue. And it can be a slow burn. Chris Smith will be the first to tell you that there is no way that "American Job" could have been a key acquisition and big-time theatrical release. Because he saw on the Fuel Tour, he saw in Chicago a four-star review in the Chicago Tribune, and still nobody goes. So with the experience of this piecemeal release, there wasn't a way for that to be a normal, ordinary let's say Sony Classics release. And in fact, "American Movie," which has a huge ton of goodwill and press support going for it, is still going to be a struggle. Sony is a cautious company but they probably overpaid for that film -- but God bless them for doing it. I hope it all works out five months from now and it's just really gotten this word of mouth thing going. But it didn't open like "Crumb;" it didn't even open like [Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein's] "On the Ropes."

iW: Actually, I think we can name a handful of quality films, whether it's "American Job," [Arthur Borman's] "Shooting Lily," or [Julian Goldberger's] "Trans," or [Benson Lee's] "Miss Monday," or [Derek Cianfrance's] "Brother Tied."

Pierson: See, I think "Trans" is an impossible movie. I think that "Shooting Lily," I know you guys like it, I'm mixed about it. And "Miss Monday" I didn't go for. See, they're not on my list, and [Scott Ziehl's] "Broken Vessels" isn't either. Even though I like the movie to a point, it's got the world's worst last 15 minutes. What about Rob Nilsson winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in '88 -- sorry last decade -- for "Heat and Sunlight" and then having to self-release. If that year, 30 films were released, he happened to be somewhere beyond the 30. And this year, "Trans" winds up being beyond 175. Although I guarantee you, at some point, won't "Trans" open the Quad like everything else?

iW: Actually, it is opening at the new Screening Room space.

Pierson: There you go. And I even forgot that screen. You've got to count them one by one. This is just an arithmetic game. More screens, more openings in New York. Something catches on in New York, it'll spread.

iW: I guess the question is, what can be done to foster -- or is it a pointless challenge -- to try and make a place for some of these films?

Pierson: Again, here is what I think the big problem of the 90's is, which is also the big success of the 90's and again, Miramax takes all the credit for starting this although many have effectively copied them. Marketing is king. And we're not talking about getting a good review in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Marketing, full scale, full court press marketing has really effectively made the key films, the standout films, the indie-industry leader, profit-making films as dominant a force in independent film as "Titanic" is to studio film. And that's detrimental.

This is what people don't want to believe. They want to believe the audience is expanding, and you've heard me say this before but I feel stronger about it than ever. The audience for the great mass of independent films is not expanding. The audience for the breakout hit is always expanding. And you can't even factor "Blair Witch" in there, because it had nothing to do with the normal independent film audience anyway. Ninety percent of that audience was, "other."

But is it a tribute to Miramax that they can get $50 million worth of people to see "Life is Beautiful?" Yeah, it's a tribute to them. But does it make the film better, does it make the film historically significant -- aside from the Oscars which of course put it on the permanent history map -- is it likely to go down as being a more significant film than "The Good Earth," or some other Oscar winner from 50 years ago that no one would ever want to see? Hell no. But did they play that game just brilliantly and have others copy them to the point where Fox Searchlight has people believing that Hilary Swank is a lock for a Best Actress nomination this year. That's nuts -- not that I'm saying it's undeserved. But this whole idea that everyone in the press is now writing that this is a fait accompli seems to me insane.

iW: But is that really a new thing?

Pierson: It's not a new thing anymore. But if you trace it from '94 forward, I mean, Miramax started working harder on this in '92, and then harder still in '93 and then they nail it in '94 and it's been onward and upward ever since. I don't know whether to call "Shakespeare in Love" taking the cake, or "The English Patient." You can't even say what their ultimate triumph has been.

"Marketing is king. And we're not talking about getting a good review in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Marketing, full scale, full court press marketing has really effectively made the key films, the standout films, the indie-industry leader, profit-making films as dominant a force in independent film as 'Titanic' is to studio film."

iW: Everybody is talking about the next question, but I think we can only legitimately ask one person from our group of decade interviewees, and it's "Blair Witch." Being someone who is much closer to it and who has been monitoring it very, very closely, what do you think is the impact for better or worse, of this film?

Pierson: Well, all the wrong lessons for independent filmmakers, just the obvious superficial ones of, "Man, I'm going to get a cool website going and build up the myth of my film even if it doesn't have any myth behind it." Even if the myth is, hey I maxed out my credit cards. And of course, using video technologies, whether they happen to be digital or Hi8. I always say it's too bad for Peter Broderick [Next Wave Films] that "Blair Witch" wasn't digital because he can't put it on his lecture demo reel [laughs]. But anyway, those are the bad results. The result is that Artisan goes from being one of these mid-level companies that I wanted to sing the praises of, instantly into the stratosphere, so that's one thing that's bad. It doesn't make the major studios change their policies because they all already had their divisions set up. And that all resulted from "Pulp Fiction."

"Pulp Fiction," historically in '94, is the key event that wakes up the rest of the studio industry to what they consider to be at least the promising talent of independent film. I don't know what else they're looking for. But "Blair Witch" can't do anything any more on that front except show how you can propel a non-studio-affiliated smaller company into the stratosphere overnight. And so I would think that puts pressure on some of the other mid-level companies to find their "Blair Witch," just like all of the major studio divisions that already existed. You know, Ira Deutchman kind of lost his job at Fine Line, in a certain way, over "Pulp Fiction," because it was like, what are you doing with this "Naked" and "Once Were Warriors" that grossed $2 million. Look at what these guys did. And for divisions that already existed then, it was this extra pressure of "Get our 'Pulp Fiction'" which wound up being Ruth Vitale's "Shine" [at Fine Line Features]. Or the other guys started their divisions up, so that really put the -- I don't even call it the fear of God because it wasn't like they were afraid of anything -- I guess co-optation isn't the wrong word. The studios just felt, hey, we can co-opt this. What else does it mean? Again, for independent film in general, it just seems to me that it doesn't mean a lot.

One thing that strikes me so much about it is what everybody should learn from "Blair Witch." It attracted, through whatever combination of old and new media, an audience that has never gone to independent film, namely a young audience. And it took the press forever to figure that out, and I'm not sure they still have. Because at first it was like, oh, it's 18 - 24, and then it was oh, it's 20-somethings. But you know, you've heard me say this before but I swear I went and looked, and I know it's true, that was such a high school and just beyond high school phenomenon. And these people didn't go to "Pulp Fiction" and they saw "Clerks" on tape, OK? But they went to the theater and they owned that movie, they owned it. And in fact, I think it's performing great on DVD and video, but it would be performing better if people still felt a few months later that they needed to own it, but you know what, they just really needed to own it in the month of August. [laughs] That was a blitzkrieg, that was the definition of meteoric.

iW: Does anyone really believe that, "Wow," they suddenly tapped into and created this whole new viable audience?

Pierson: Some people probably think that they want to get that audience again. Filmmakers are saying it all the time now. When you have somebody that has been frustrated with two films, like Alexander Payne making a deal with Artisan and alluding to the fact that they're not going to let what happened to "Election" happen. Well, how on earth would they stop what happened to "Election" from happening? "Election" was actually handled pretty well, it just. . .

iW: It's a good movie, but it just didn't do well.

Pierson: Yeah. What's the "Election" mythology website going to have on it?

"They want to believe the audience is expanding, and you've heard me say this before but I feel stronger about it than ever. The audience for the great mass of independent films is not expanding."

iW: So many people our age who are mainstream, who aren't in the business, look at "Election" and look at "Go" and look at "Rushmore" and say, "That's a teen movie," and they don't go, and the teens say, "That's a grownup movie," I'm not interested in that, and then it disappears.

Pierson: I have the same problem. My daughter Georgia is 12 now, and I watched "Go" first and said, nah, too much sex and drugs, no way, mainly drugs. But the other two ["Election" and "Rushmore"], I wanted her to like them so much, and she tolerated them. But there's no sense of delight. It was like, goddamn, you should like "Rushmore," man, you should really find that kid funny.

iW: If you pick up your crystal ball and look ahead, what's going to happen in the next turn of the decade, what are the key challenges that need to be addressed in order for us to move forward successfully? Or are there really ever any unique issues?

Pierson: To me the really unique issue is that filmmakers and other people that are part of the infrastructure have to really adjust their thinking about theatrical releasing being the be-all and end-all. And again, it's nutty because it's like Edgar Bronfman Jr. saying movies should have different ticket prices based on their budgets and whether they're good or not, or whatever his theory was when he presented that to the board and got laughed out of the room. But to me it seems there should be more gradations, different ways and forms of releasing stuff, touring packages.

Whatever it's going to take and whatever gatekeeper or curator it's going to take to have highlighted programs on the net that really work for people, highlighting different forms of video or DVD direct releasing -- in the end you probably, psychologically, can never break people down and get them off this thinking, you know, about how their theatrical opening in New York and LA is what redeems them, is what legitimizes them, what gives them credibility. So I guess there's no reason to think that in light of all the theaters that have been springing up like mushrooms in New York to deal with this over the last two years here, why wouldn't that continue? There will be 30 choices on any given weekend. That's not the problem. The problem is why any one person who lives in New York would chose one of those films. Outside the top 5. This is the Ira Deutchman theory from the 80's and 90's. You've got to get a film on the top-5 choice list at any given moment for it to have a chance. Man, if there's 30, and I know they're not just playing for one week, they're playing over time, and so eventually you can catch up, but if there's 30 choices in any one weekend, how do you get into the top 5?

iW: John, if the 90's were a chapter in your next book, or the beginning of your next book, can you think of a title or a label to reference this decade?

Pierson: Yeah, it's the decade when every actor decided that he or she had to direct a movie. And I'm not saying that's all good, or all bad. Even my man Ed Norton succumbed.

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