Daily Variety - The Backlot
Pierson moves from indie shadows to
Deep Focus by Todd McCarthy - January 28th, 1996
Published just in time to become the biggest topic of conversation at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival,
John Pierson's highly subjective, detail-crammed, hilariously nasty, entirely absorbing chronicle of a
decade of independent cinema, " Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, " will be must-reading for anyone in the
It already is a must thumb-through: Over the past couple of weeks, industryites receiving advance
copies have turned directly to the index and then nervously looked up mentions of their names. At
least one acquaintance only mildly slighted by Pierson promptly placed it in the middle of his living room
and proceeded to stomp on it at every opportunity over the course of a week. Pierson plans to have a
book-signing party in Park City on Jan. 22, and there could be more than one person in town who might
want to invite Pierson out onto Main Street to give him a piece of their mind - or fist.
Pierson credits Daily Variety with having dubbed him the "guru of independent film,"
an accolade he fully earned by virtue of the critical role he
played in selling and launching such key indie pictures as Bill Sherwood's
"Parting Glances," Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Lizzie Borden's "Working Girls," Errol Morris'
"The Thin Blue Line," Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," Richard Linklater's "Slacker," Rose Troche's "Go
Fish" and Kevin Smith's "Clerks, " among numerous others. As a New York-based producer's rep, Pierson
was at the center of the action when many major deals went down, and always retained his film buff's
love for great films and discovering new talent in the rough.
I have been involved in much of what Pierson describes in the book, albeit from the other side of the
fence, having been the first critic to review virtually all the major films he mentions (incredibly
however, while we had many mutual friends, I scarcely met him through all those years). All the same,
I learned a great deal from Pierson's scene-setting, especially about how what he calls the "permanent
government" of independent cinema-such people as Bingham Ray, Jeff Lipsky, Michael Barker, Tom Bernard,
Donna Gigliotti, Ira Deutchman, Sam Kitt and Tom Rothman-actually goes way back to the grungiest days
of downtown New York film buffdom.
In fact, the early section of the book filled me with deep nostalgia for a time when the city was a
paradise for "artfilm brats, " when theaters like the Bleecker Street, Carnegie Hall, Elgin, Thalia and
New Yorker provided the settings for formative emotional and artistic experiences.
Pierson's descriptions of the low-key early years of the Sundance (then U.S.) Film Festival also rang
my bell, and his long section detailing his breakthrough in providing finishing funds, engineering
the deal and shepherding " She's Gotta Have It " through its early screenings and film festival appearances
has all the excitement of a triumphant thriller. The portrait of Spike Lee as a hungry, unknown young
film school grad making money inspecting prints at First Run Features is alone worth the cover price,
as is the account of the world premiere of "She's Gotta Have It" at the San Francisco Film Festival
when the power went out but Spike and actor Tommy Hicks, armed only with flashlights, managed to keep
everyone in their seats until the projector could turn again.
The book, which, many people will note, is being published by Miramax Books and Hyperion, is overflowing
with anecdotes, and many people who crossed Pierson's path will rue his acute memory for their faux pas
and embarrassing statements. Although the tome is tirelessly self-promoting, Pierson does not stint on
giving credit where credit is due on indie sensations with which he had little connection, notably "sex,
lies and videotape " and the Quentin Tarantino phenomenon. He also provides a vivid, partly inside look
at the demise of many companies that had their brief moments in the sun, such as Island, Alive, Vestron,
Cinecom and Spectrafilm.
He similarly had a ringside seat during the slow growth of Miramax, having sold "Working Girls" to the
Weinsteins early in the game and enjoying a first-look agreement with them today. Even so, he gets off
a few good ones at their expense, attributing their expertise at mixing sex with class "to their seminal
teenage experience of going to see 'The 400 Blows' under the misapprehension that it would be semi
pornographic, then being transformed by great art-a regular beauty and the beast tale. "
But Pierson takes the gloves off when it comes to one of his misguided efforts, the Long Island gangster
wannabe drama "Amongst Friends" and its director, Rob Weiss. In a chapter memorably called "Amongst Jerks,"
Pierson maintains that "Vanilla" Weiss "typifies everything you don't want to be as a first-time filmmaker,"
and backs up his claim with an astounding litany of arrogance, stupidity and silliness. Weiss still hasn't
made another film, but he did find Shannen Doherty.
For the more business-inclined, Pierson serves up quite a few breakdowns of deal specifics, providing an
indepth view of how the financial realities of indie distribution changed over the course of the past
decade. He charts the evolution of Sundance through the years, usefully lists the key independent releases
since 1984 and speculates tentatively on the future. Overall, the book is far from the complete story,
but could scarcely be better informed (it also is wittily written). Pierson remained one of the least-known
key players of his era because his name rarely appeared in the credits of pictures. But now he's the star
of his own book, and since it's good, like most of the films he's represented, he's in the limelight at last.