A Pilgrim's Progress
By Peter Biskind - February 1996
Sundance '96: John Pierson on the state of the indie union
Grainy Pictures' president, John Pierson, has discovered and promoted some of the decade's most
interesting filmmakers. In his new book, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, Pierson details his adventures
in the indie trade - including his writing of a $10,000 check to Spike Lee for She's Gotta Have it,
making a record-setting deal for Roger & Me with Warner Bros., and "laughing his ass off" when a kid
from New Jersey sent him a quirky videotape called Clerks. Up for discussion: the independent movement
and its preeminent festival.
Your book starts with Stranger Than Paradise, singles out sex, lies, and videotape as a key film,
end ends with Pulp Fiction. Why those films?
Obviously there were American independent features before Stranger Than Paradise. But it combined
artistry, a low budget, and commercial success. It inspired and galvanized other filmmakers across
the country, and its ripple effect continues to this day. Sex, lies was a watershed: winning at
Sundance and Cannes, and igniting industry interest in what an independent film might mean commercially.
Is Pulp, which was set up at TriStar and financed by Miramax, really an independent film? You could argue
that Pulp doesn't mean the movement's come of age so much as the movement's over.
When Wes Craven's New Nightmare gets nominated for a Spirit Award by the IFP West, you do have to do a
little head scratching. Pulp, by any old-fashioned definition, would be a problematic film to label as an
independent. It unfortunately gives further credence to this idea of quantifying everything according
to how much business it does. Audiences become more obsessed with keeping up with the huge hit of the
moment rather than with casting a wider net and checking out a lot of different films, which was
traditionally the case with the off-Hollywood audience.
Does Pulp show that the audience is expanding?
In '85, the ceiling for an indie was supposed to be $10 million, then Kiss of the Spider Woman came
along and did 17. And you went from The Piano, at 28, to The Crying Game, at 63. Independent films have
broken through to bigger and bigger audiences and have been marketed in a splashier and splashier
fashion, and the ultimate culmination of that is the phenomenon called Pulp Fiction. But it's
doubtful that this expanded audience spills over to other films. However, the fact that there are about
600 features submitted to Sundance this year, and that a third of them are probably sub-$100,000 films,
indicates that the movement is more gigantic than ever.
What kind of a year was '95?
At one end of the spectrum was Kids. At the other was The Brothers McMullen, which was soft and cuddly and
more middleof-the-road than any successful indie film I could ever think of. Which is a little troubling.
The Brothers, you can tell, is not my favorite film. I don't want to pick on it, but I do want to pick on
audiences that see that as an alternative to anything, 'cause if that's true, it's the end of me. I
better get my Sundance-channel show.
It's been more than ten years since Sundance took over the U.S. Film Festival....
And it's had an enormous impact. It's also become this magnet. Anybody who makes an independent feature
film wants it to play at Sundance, and so they gear their production schedule to try to have something to
show by the end of October. We have to fight this. Monopoly is not good. I don't like Microsoft, and
I don't want Sundance to be like Microsoft, but the good news is that they responded to this need to
make room for more films by adding the new noncompetitive section, American Spectrum, which is great.
Speaking of Microsoft, is it good that Miramax, which you have a deal with, dominates indie distribution?
Miramax may have more power than other people, but I don't find the same amount of bullying abusiveness
that I read about where Microsoft is concerned. They're not charging you for press screenings yet, are they?
Not yet. What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Stay away from drugs, guns, serial killers, and the Elvis imitators. If you have to give up one of your
limbs to make your film, make sure it's the one you use the least.