The Boston Globe

Independent films' money man

By Michael Blowen - February 17th, 1996

When Spike Lee needed an additional $10,000 to finish his debut feature, "She's Gotta Have It," he got it tom John Pierson. When Michael Moore was negotiating for the distribution rights to "Roger and Me," John Pierson squeezed $3 million out of Warner Bros.

Unlike most cinema aficionados of his generation, who went into production, Pierson focused on exhibition and financing.

"I knew that money was what they needed most," says Pierson. "I wanted to help the films I liked in any way I could."

Pierson was in town last week, on the eve-of the Oscar nominations, promoting his nonfiction, independent-minded book, "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes," at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at Boston University. And it's no wonder that the fifth .floor was overflowing with wideeyed film students. The standingroom only crowd came to experience the wisdom of the man Variety referred to as "the guru of independent film."

"Know what you're doing" were the first words of advice from Pierson's lips as he stood at the podium. "And I don't mean that in a technical sense."

What Pierson meant is that each student, each filmmaker-to-be, should learn how to navigate the treacherous bayous of independent film.

"Each year there are about 700 films submitted to the Sundance Film Festival," says Pierson, referring to Robert Redford's prestigious launching pad for independent movies. "Two hundred of them were made at the ultra-lowbudget range, and 75 percent of them won't recoup their costs."

His book, in fact, is a blueprint for low-budget, off-Hollywood production. He warns against unrealistic expectations - both financial and artistic - and suggests that filmmakers count on originality rather than copy some cinematic trend.

"You must know how the money works," he says. " 'Waterworld' will more likely recoup its cost than some film made for $100,000 that opens in a dozen theaters." Why? Because of "the ancillary rights and foreign rights and pre-sold markets and international video rights and broadcast rights and dozens of other avenues for revenue available to big budget films."

Later in the evening, over drinks at the Boston Brew House, Pierson is joined by local film buyer George Mansour, whom the author refers to as "the savviest specialized film buyer anywhere," and Boston Film/Video Foundation president Garen Daly, an independent exhibitor who runs the Dedham Community Theater.

"It's a funny business," says Daly, as the trio trade amusing stories about their affection for film and their appreciation for the chicanery that sometimes occurs.

"Sid was the greatest," says Pierson, referring to Sid Geffen, the late owner of the late Bleecker Street Cinema. "But he had some unusual accounting methods. He charged $4 but it was split in half: $2 admission and $2 one-day membership fee to join the Bleecker Street Cinema Club. He'd report the $2 back to the distributor and pocket the other $2."

They all laugh.

Pierson has survived in a world of conglomerates and homogenized movies by holding on to his independence. You could call him a broker: He watches fragments of unfinished films and listens to pitches, and if he likes what he sees and hears, he connects filmmakers with distributors. Pierson seems most comfortable in this complicated and crucial place where art meets money.

It gets more complicated all the time, thanks to the inroads made by home video and the consolidation of distributors under wider umbrellas the way Miramax, formerly a purely independent operation, has been gathered into the Disney empire. Pierson has done a lot of work with Miramax (in fact, it's the publisher of his book), so he's perfectly aware of how the world keeps changing. Nonetheless, he is optimistic about the future of independent film.

"I think there will always be room for 30 to 40 independent films a year to be released theatrically," he says. "The reduction in foreign language films has left a wider opening for American independents.

"But as I said earlier, the independents have to have an individual idea of what to do. Don't do it by the numbers or some prefab idea. That's not the way to go."

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