By Warren Berger
ALTHOUGH John Pierson has helped usher a number of seminal independent films to the screen in the last
decade, including "She's Gotta Have It," "Roger and Me," and "Slacker," don't bother searching for his
name in the credits of any of these movies. Throughout the late 1980's and early 90's, as the American
independent film scene burgeoned and then exploded, Mr. Pierson hovered like a guardian angel, unnoticed
by moviegoers but an indispensable ally to aspiring filmmakers like Spike Lee and Michael Moore.
"Young directors started coming to me about a decade ago and asking if I could help get their films sold,"
said Mr. Pierson, 44, who had accumulated film business contacts while serving as a programmer at
influential art theaters in New York City. He responded by contributing financial support and taking
the films to distributors and studios to try to generate interest. In so doing, he played an important
role in the evolution of American independent film, yet remained behind the scenes, removed from the
creation of the films he so admired.
That changed two years ago when Mr. Pierson started his own television program, "Split Screen," which begins
its third season tomorrow night at 8 on the Independent Film Channel (it will also be shown on Friday night
at 7:30 on Bravo). A half-hour magazine-style show billed as "a wild ride through the world of independent
film," it features the lanky, slightly awkward Mr. Pierson as a host who drives across the country in search
of interesting filmmakers. "Independent film is alive and well everywhere you look these days," said Mr.
Pierson during a recent interview.
In each episode, Mr. Pierson introduces a series of on-location reports - actually mini-films running
about 7 to 10 minutes - that have some connection to the subject of film. The segments are usually shot
by young, obscure local filmmakers selected by Mr. Pierson. "If I see or hear something interesting
about a young filmmaker, I try to use that person in the show," he said, noting that about 50 filmmakers
contributed to the current season's episodes. Mr. Pierson gives each segment director a story assignment,
a lean budget (usually about $3,000) and, if needed, a movie camera on loan.
WITH its shoestring planning
and production, off-the-wall
subjects and inventive camera
work, "Split Screen" looks like nothing
else on television. In Monday night's
season premiere, one segment follows
the film stars Matt Damon and Edward
Norton as they travel to Las Vegas to
play in a high-stakes card game against
top professional poker players (the
actors end up being much less interesting than the oddball characters they
Next, Pierson introduces a profile of an amateur stuntman who dreams of breaking into
car-chase films one day and prepares for that possibility by driving maniacally in an
old junkyard. The episode closes with a report about a drive-in movie theater beside a
cow pasture, the filmmakers, having decided that the fenced-off cows were being unfairly
excluded from the movies, arranged a screening of "Red River" attended only by a bovine audience.
Not all the segments are so light. Last season, "Split Screen" featured a report on censorship
in Oklahoma City, and a recent segment showed a short film from 1970 in which the subject demonstrates
his determination to avoid serving in the Vietnam War by shooting himself in the foot on camera.
This kind of raw unpredictability has helped the series develop a small cult following. Caroline Kaplan,
vice president for productions at the Independent Film Channel, said the channel's Web site invariably
drew a crowd after each episode. Because of the reaction, Ms. Kaplan said, the fledgling channel has
decided to make "Split Screen" "our signature show and our main focus."
Meanwhile, Mr. Pierson, once anonymous, is becoming more recognizable. On Tuesday, the Walter Reade Theater at
Lincoln Center will pay tribute to him by showing past episodes of "Split Screen." And fans have been hailing
him on the street, including one admirer whose advice, Mr. Pierson reported, was to "keep it scruffy." Mr.
Pierson and his cadre of guerrilla filmmakers intend to do just that.