Gannett Suburban Newspapers

Cold Spring film rep takes a 10-year movie tour

By Marshall Fine - January 28th, 1996

By now, John Pierson is used to puns about "independents' day" and being a man of "independent" means.

Now, as one of the most significant figures on the American independent film scene, Pierson a Cold Spring resident, gets to tell his own story.

And he's doing it in a book rather than a film.

"Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes: A Guided Tour Through a Decade of American Cinema" (Miramax/Hyperion, $19.95) examines American independent films of the past 10 years from a front-row seat: Pierson's.

As a producer's representative, Pierson has been involved with several of the most significant independent films in that period, including the title's references: Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Michael Moore's "Roger and Me," Richard Linklater's "Slacker" and the lesbian romantic comedy "Go Fish."

Pierson wrote the book, which received a rave review in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, because he felt the period from 1984 to 1994 - beginning with Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and ending with "Pulp Fiction" - provided a clear starting and stopping point for his story.

While he still champions low-budget independent films, Pierson sees the scope and possibilities of the scene as having been drastically altered by the massive success of "Pulp Fiction."

"It just felt like the end of something," says Pierson, 41, sitting in the office of his company, Grainy Pictures, near the Cold Spring train station.

"The quantity of low-budget films has made exponential leaps each year - from 10 to 50 to 500 a year. And 'Pulp Fiction' was the culmination of the ability of off Hollywood to take a movie and run it to the max.

"The book was conceived before 'Pulp Fiction' came along to provide an ending point. It did feel like a bookend. But any end point is the start of what's next," he says.

In his book, Pierson describes his adventures as a producer's rep for independent films. He says he's the person who helps the filmmaker negotiate a distribution deal for his movie with a distributor.

While there have always been independent filmmakers, Pierson sees Jarmusch's 1984 film as the one that launched a thousand low budgets.

"Filmmakers go straight to that one," Pierson says. "Not for the aesthetics but for the attainability. They looked at his film - shot in black and white for what appeared to be not much money - and thought, 'I can do that.' "

If Jarmusch started the trickle, 1989 was the year of the flood the year that cheap independent films, such as "sex, lies, & videotape," "Roger and Me" and "Heathers," proved they could return big profits on small investments.

"1989 was some kind of turning point," Pierson says. "There was this leap forward in acknowledgment and visibility of independent film. And that began the recruiting of independent filmmakers to Hollywood."

As a film's advocate, Pierson's strength is twofold: He possesses an insider's knowledge of the labyrinthine business workings of the independent film world, and he has an eye for incomplete footage that can be shaped into a coherent film of commercial potential.

"I can't read a script," he says. "But I take pride in being able to watch any raw footage and not get lost in all the concerns about production values to see the meat.

"With movies like 'She's Gotta Have It' and 'Slacker,' there's just no way you could take those scripts and actually put up money on the basis of the script alone, and get them finished. More and more people are stepping into that in-between position I helped create. But I defy anybody to have taken those screenplays and said, 'Now here's an investment.' "

But he's disturbed by what he sees as a move toward the mainstream by too many independent films, a calculation designed to catch Hollywood's attention. It's a far cry from the adventurous chancy films he likes best.

"Something like 'The Brothers McMullen' was way more middle-ofthe-road than the ones I like best," Pierson says.

"There's been a big rise in no name, low-budget romantic comedy. Of course, we're dealing with a world where people don't have to see a movie to decide there's a buzz around it."

These days, Pierson rarely works as a producer's rep. His company, Grainy Pictures, provides completion funds for independent features as an equity investment; it will rep those films, as well as take a presenter's credit.

"But if I fall in love with something that doesn't need money, 1 do it anyway, but I don't know what to charge so I do it pro' bono," he says. "But I've got to make sure I really, really like the film."

Most people having moved to Pierson's level would have become producers on their own. But Pierson remains committed to features by first-time independent filmmakers.

"I like first features," he says. "They're the most fun. In fact, it's too much fun to call it a mission, but that's what it is."

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