Los Angeles Times

Getting 'em Before They're Hot

By David Kronke - February 18th, 1996

Being in the right place at the right time has given John Pierson an impressive career in independent film and fodder for a behind-the-scenes book.

PARK CITY, Utah - Imagine stumbling into a tiny Jersey club in the early '70s and finding Bruce Springsteen on stage. Or watching Magic Johnson play basketball back when he was just Earvin Johnson. Or maybe even writing Al Unser his first speeding ticket.

John Pierson has had similar experiences, again and again. He laid eyes upon the burgeoning talents of many young American filmmakers long before any of the rest of us, and has been on hand for many of the key moments of the American independent film movement as a mentor and marketing rep for young filmmakers.

Pierson attributes his brilliant career to being in the right place at the right time - specifically, downtown New York in the early '80s.

"We were just all in the same orbit," he says during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, site of many of his triumphs (he scored the first two on-site distribution deals at Sundance). "Like Spike and Jim and Lizzie Borden ("Working Girls"), we were all going to repertory film theaters working catch-as-catch-can for Podunk distributors. I didn't want to be a filmmaker but had knowledge of it, I had exhibited and distributed movies and learned how to promote and publicize them. I had the knowledge, and just tripped into a way to use it.

"But why, five days after I sold 'Parting Glances,' did it turn out to be the first rough-print screening of 'She's Gotta Have It?'" he adds, then answers his own question. "Clearly, some things were just meant to be."

Pierson wrote the book to serve both as an account of the era and as a potential instructional manual for aspiring moviemakers. The good news: "Budgets have lowered, but the number of success stories has proliferated beyond anyone's wildest dreams."

Still, the route to becoming a fave of the festival circuit is never glamorous, and hardly assured: Hundreds of feature films are begun each year; "Most," Pierson says, "are complete write-offs."

More discouraging news: Pierson believes that the days of the press eating up the meager-moneyed-movie-does-good story (a la "Slacker," "El Mariachi" or "Clerks") is over-people are becoming less inclined to forgive a movie its shortcomings just because it cost less to make than a Toyota Camry. And - disciples of Tarantino take note - the trend in which new movies simply rehash old movies is nearing its conclusion.

Still, the payoffs are bigger than ever: Even a film that gets a so-so reception on the festival circuit can be parlayed into a deal at a major studio. This, Pierson insists, is not necessarily a good thing, and he has the anecdote to prove it, painstakingly and hilariously detailing his involvement in the critically assailed film "Amongst Friends," in the chapter "Amongst Jerks: Rob Weiss and the Dark Side of Overnight Success."

Weiss who was from: an uppermiddle-class family, was intentionally vague about his possible mean-streets past in interviews, and Pierson found him more concerned with getting future deals than with the quality of his first film.

"The rest of the world has not yet figured out Rob Weiss: He can still take meetings-well, until the publication date of the book, at least," Pierson says with a laugh. "I didn't scratch hard enough on him. I was betwixt and between a couple of things that fell through. If one or both had happened, it would have made me less lilkely to commit to [working on "Amongst Friends"].

"But the whole bad-boy persona wasn't overexposed-or even, really, exposed-at that point," he says, explaining why he felt Weiss was worth betting on. "I did make a crass calculation that [Weiss' persona] would be a good selling toot and I was struck by lightning for being so presumptuous. I won't make that mistake again."

Pierson doesn't spare anyone in his book: There are even shots taken at Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax-publisher of Pierson's book.

"Nobody else would have taken the stand that Harvey did - when his own lawyer was telling him, 'Hey, you have: to consider whether you want these points in the book,' and he said, 'They're in and that's the way it-has to be,'" Pierson says. "He's really. funny, he's really colorful,- he's larger that life at times, he loves movies-you have to love him "

One must realize, he adds, many of the anecdotes are from the early days of Miramax, when it was a barely struggling outfit and not the jewel of independent film distribution.

"It was the first time someone working in the normally collegial independent ranks had that kind of Golan-Globus feel to them," he says, recalling the hype-heavy schlockmeister team behind the late Cannon film company of the '80s. "The Weinsteins had to scramble and scrape harder than anyone else then."

Then, obliquely referring to the most celebrated incident at Sundance '96, in which Weinstein began screaming in the middle of a restaurant because he didn't get the rights to a film he had been pursuing, Pierson says drolly, "Imagine Harvey's reaction to this book if he hadn't been the one publishing it."

David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

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