Cancellation Turns to renewal
The Baltimore Sun

Creator: John Pierson thought his TV series about independent film was a goner. But he had another segment shot in Baltimore, and then his luck began to change.

By Michael Ollove
Sun Staff

John Pierson lived his first 13 years in Baltimore, and It was here that his recent run of bad luck began to dissipate.

As Thanksgiving approached in 1996, Pierson received word that Robert Redford's Sundance cable channel was withdrawing Its backing from Pierson's television series, "Split Screen." The show; conceived as a sort of weekly celebration of independent film, had not even had its air debut, and already it was being canceled.

Naturally, Pierson was distraught and not all that welcoming of a call just then from Steve Yeager, a Baltimore filmmaker making a documentary on director John Waters. Yeager wanted to discuss details of a segment he was eager to shoot for "Split Screen."

"I said, 'Steve, I'm miserable. I'm shattered. I want to shoot myself,'" Pierson recalled. "'We're out of money. We've spent money we don't even have. There's no way we can do that shoot anymore."'

But Yeager was insistent. Everyone in Baltimore was counting on the filming he said. It wasn't clear whom he was talking about. Still, Pierson. not knowing what else to do, relented. So right after Thanksgiving, and in a gloomy disposition, he arrived in Baltimore to be on hand for the filming.

The piece featured a staged reunion between Waters and one of his filmmaking heroes, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the legendary schlockmeister. Their interplay perfectly captures the unabashed relish of two grown men for the most melodramatic and goriest of exploitation films. At one point, Waters fondly remembers that they passed out vomit bags at screenings of Lewis' "Blood Fest."

"That deeply impressed me," Waters remarks.

'Fantastic, great stuff'

As the filming proceeded, Pierson found his mood improving despite himself "We shot only 22 minutes, and I could tell that It was fantastic, great stuff," he says.

It was precisely the sort of off-kilter segment Pierson envisioned for "Spilt Screen," one that, among other things, reflected the joy of filmmaking. In Pierson's mind, it also marked the turning point for "Split Screen.".'

"From that day on," Pierson says, "everything has gone perfectly."

Shortly thereafter, the Independent Film Channel agreed to pick up "Split Screen" for its first season, 10 shows that impressed viewers and critics enough to merit renewals for a second and a third season, a total of 44 more episodes.

Pierson, who recounted all this from West Texas, where he was filming a new segment, is now preparing for the April 6 debut of "Split Screen's" second season.

The guiding philosophy of the show Is to avoid anything that smacks of convention. It is not an interview show with guests sitting in a studio answering questions. Instead, filmmakers, both on and off staff, are encouraged to be bold and creative. The result is a show that is never predictable and is as quirky as independent films themselves. Usually, they are also very funny.

Popular segments.

One of the most popular segments last year was a satire called "Swing Blade," in which swingers try to transform Karl, the angelic but dimly comprehending hero of "Sling Blade," into a ladles' man. In another, "Split Screen" attends a teen-agers'' film festival in Massachusetts and finds all manner of filmmaking types, albeit in neophyte form. "Split Screen" even manages to be on hand when a would-be starlet stomps out on her teen-age director.

In yet another piece, two filmmakers attend a pricey screencourse in Los Angeles where they are plied with all sorts of inane advice. The piece ends the day after the course, with the two screenwriting-course graduates staring oft into space, completely bereft of ideas.

"I think we're not just doing the old, tired stuff," Pierson says. "We're not trying to sit down and talk to someone In a chair. It's more work, but it's more fun, too,"

Pierson was in Texas filming a segment on Barry Tubb, an actor/bull-rider/rodeo hand who is now directing a western. Pierson was also on the trail of Jeff Dowd, a familiar figure in independent film circles, who insists that he is the real-life Dude, the terminally laidback protagonist played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers" latest movie, "The Big Lebowski."

Some television shows are derived from books. Pierson's originated in a book tour. In 1995, he published a well-regarded book on independent film called "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes." As part of his promotional tour, he showed takes and outtakes from various movies he had been associated with (more on that in a moment).

"People were having a good time looking at that stuff, and that became the genesis for the show," he says. "I thought, 'I'll do this and that, and 'I'll do It with filmmakers I know.' But then, It became fun working with other people. We have 50 different filmmakers working on the show."

Pierson, 43, is not himsef a filmmaker, although he has become a key figure in independent movies In the last decade. He lived in Glen Arm until age 13, when his father left Martin Marietta and moved the family to Long Island. (His mother now lives in Baltimore.)

He graduated from the film school at New York University and worked in various capacities in independent film. Eventually, he became one of the pioneers in a new sub-specialty in him: a producers' representative. That means that he forged deals enabling independent filmmakers to finish and distribute their works.

In the mid-'80s, he performed that function for the film "Parting Glances,", generating a big enough return to enable him to become the largest equity investor in Spike Lee's breakthrough movie, "She's Gotta Have It." That was followed by a string of successes as an independent film producers' rep, including "Working Girls," "The Thin Blue Line", "Slacker," "Roger &: Me," "Clerks" and "Crumb." On the strength of that track record, Pierson was able to form an investment company that finances the completion of independent films. Recently, he served as executive producer for last year's critically praised "Chasing Amy."

The prestige has emboldened Pierson, who is not shy about criticizing some formidable Hollywood players. For two years, Pierson had a contract to offer his pictures first to Miramax, the great generator of independent films. But Pierson says, success has made Miramax more conservative.

"After 'Pulp Fiction,' it started to become clear that they were a company way less interested in films like 'Clerks,'" he says.

He's also willing to chide Robert Redford, the creative force behind Sundance. Although Sundance was initially committed to Pierson's "Split Screen," Pierson says, "Me and Redford never saw eye to eye on It. They just didn't get It. God bless IFC for stepping in and saving [me] when Sundance pulled the plug. I was in way over my head financially then."

But then, he says, his experience with "Split Screen" Is a perfect parallel to the way most independent films are being made with an abundance of passion and creativity, a shortage of money and no idea whatsoever where or how your results will ever be shown

With "Split Screen," he hopes to provide some of those answers for some filmmakers. They can make films for him.

"I want it to be a show for other filmmakers to be able to strut their stuff and show their work,' he says.

Including Baitimoreans. Pierson hopes to get a second piece from Yeager, this one about the Kuchar brothers, makers of lurid and violent underground films.. He also wants to have Daryl Wharton a writer for television's "Homicide" do a piece on how that show has spawned a film community in Baltimore.

Pierson figures Baltimore deserves the attention. After all, it's where his own luck turned around.

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