The New York Observer

He's 'Obsessed'! He's 'Out There'!
Film Guru John Pierson Mouths Off

By Matthew Flamm - November 27th, 1995

As John Pierson explains on the first page of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, his guided tour through a decade of American cinema, it has been the peculiar nature of his special claim to fame that he is virtually unknown: Though the 41 year-old Mr. Pierson has helped midwife a range of recent American films, even the most diligent readers of end credits have never heard of him. But let's hear him say it: "I did, write Spike Lee a check for $10,000 to finish She's Gotta Have It, close a $3 million deal with a major studio for Michael Moore's documentary Roger & Me, help make Slacker a household word, unleash Quick Stop clerks and fishy lesbians on screens all over the world, and take 15 films to the almighty Sundance Film Festival. But I doubt you know my name."

A respected, if not universally beloved figure in the independent film world, Mr. Pierson, in the role of a producer's representative, has been be hind such films as Parting Glances, Working Girls, Clerks and Go Fish, orchestrating their sales to distributors and in some cases providing the financing necessary to complete the film. How far behind he was-that is, how far the films' careers would have progressed without him-is impossible to say. What seems less open to question is that Mr. Pierson's days of anonymity are numbered.

With a marketing strategy worthy of one of his own carefully manipulated deals, the first-time author will launch his career memoir at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 22, where he'll be preaching to, and in some cases, dressing down, the converted. By that time, his publisher, Miramax Books (an imprint of Hyperion, which is owned by Disney, which owns Miramax), will be featuring a 40 second promotional spot for Spike, Mike on the video release of Miramax's Smoke the Wayne Wang, Paul Auster art-house hit. And leading up to publication, word of the book is already making it - in certain quarters of the gossipy independent film world at least-a hotly anticipated item.

"I try to be balanced," Mr. Pierson said recently over flank steak at the Dockside Harbor restaurant in Cold Spring the bucolic Hudson River town from which he and his wife, Janet, run their year-old Grainy Pictures film company. A tall, bony man with some of the mannerisms and the shoulder length hair of a superannuated adolescent, he was at pains to portray Spike Mike as above the sniping that has long been characteristic of independent distributors and filmmakers, many of whom are based in New York.

"It's not in the purpose of the book to create a scandal," Mr. Pierson said. "I think everybody who has plugged away in this field has a love of movies that links them. I even tried hard to say something nice about Rob Weiss." (The boyfriend of Shannen Doherty and director of Amongst Friends the 1993 suburban gangster movie - which Mr. Pierson sold to Fine Line Features-is honored with a highly amusing chapter of his own: "Amongst Jerks: Rob Weiss and the Dark Side of Overnight Success.")

The larger question of the book may be what overall view of independent filmmaking Spike, Mike puts forth. Mr. Pierson's roots in the independent film world run deep: His jobs prior to his becoming a producer's rep included programming the old Bleecker Street Cinema and the Film Forum (where he held his wedding). He also watches, he said, more works in-progress than anyone else in the country-at least 250 low-budget films a year. But though his book promises a guided tour of independent cinema, its focus remains almost exclusively on the handful of deals he has made.

"Pierson was central to a lot of important and trend-setting deals but he was not the only one out there," noted one Hollywood studio executive who had obtained an advance copy of the book. "There were others at least as or more important, and they are given only cursory mention." Or as another insider observed, "Guys who don't serve his needs are not in the book."

No one disputes, however, that Mr Pierson has a keen eye for talent. In addition to investing $10,000 in Mr. Lee's debut film when She's Gotta Have It was still unfinished, he became the producer's rep on Richard Linklater's Slacker at a time when that film, which earned $1.2 million at the box office was being turned down by most festivals. "If John hadn't been there," insisted Mr. Linklater, 'I'd be selling it today as a video in the back of Film Threat magazine."

'In our case, he saw something completely rough, something where the average person would say,'What is this crap?' and he saw that it would be a successful movie," attested Guin Turner co-producer and star of the black-and-white, lesbian themed Go Fish. Mr. Pierson, on the basis of 15 minutes of rough footage, invested $53,000 from the Islet division of Island Pictures - the completion financing company he was running at the time-and sold the movie to the Samuel Goldwyn Company

Details of the book aside, merely the notion of Mr. Pierson producing an industry account in partnership with Miramax has raised eyebrows. One reader of the advance proofs insisted that the author had his hands tied, at least psychologically, and could have written a far funnier book had he better detailed the antics of Miramax's famously Type A chairmen, Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Others who hadn't seen the book were simply worried that Miramax, which has been the superpower in the independent film world for much of the last decade, would receive special treatment.

"It spares no one, including us," responded Harvey Weinstein in a phone interview. "John is an equal opportunity killer."


Indeed, Mr. Pierson insisted that his publishers - with whom he also has a salaried, first-look arrangement on any independent film projects that come his way-had no editorial say whatsoever in the book. According to the author, Mr. Weinstein only objected to one passage in the manuscript a description of some accounting legerdemain regarding Lizzie Borden's Miramax-released 1987 film, Working Girls. The passage stayed in.

"John is a total maverick!" shouted Mr. Weinstein, explaining that he signed Grainy Pictures to a housekeeping deal precisely because Mr. Pierson is "independent" in every sense of the word. "He has the ability to be really edgy. The kind of properties he likes are just so out there."

Mr. Pierson's edginess has earned him a certain notoriety in the film industry. He once paid a disputed $200 business debt to publicist Steve Siefert with a shoe box full of nickels and dimes. Other times when he has felt wronged, however, he has not always been so humorous.

One visitor to the Sundance Festival in 1994 recalled seeing Mr. Pierson publicly accuse the makers of the documentary Martha and Ethel of being liars after Sony Pictures Classics announced that it had acquired their film at the festival. Mr. Pierson had been preparing his own announcement of the sale of Go Fish - which would have been the first film ever sold at Sundance - and felt that Sony Classics had fudged the truth about the date of its acquisition and stolen his thunder.

"He went crazy," recalled one industry executive, who echoed others in suggesting that Mr. Pierson's difficult personality has kept him out of the big leagues of the film-repping business "He becomes so obsessive, he loses sight of the real world."

Over all, however, that obsessiveness has been of help. Ever since he was described in Spike Lee's Gotta Have It, Mr. Lee's book about making She's Gotta Have It, merely the mention of Mr. Pierson's name at independent film conferences brings applause. His obsessiveness and fastidious filekeeping - has also paid off in the writing of his book. In the chapter entitled "Michael & Roger & Me," for instance, Mr. Pierson details every inch of his high stakes negotiations over Roper & Me - peppering the account with wiseass descriptions of some wellknown Hollywood suits: "You could see [Warner publicity head Rob Friedman's] reflection in his impeccably manicured nails. This was more intimidating than [Warner distribution head Barry Reardon's] monogram. In fact it was scarier than the words 'love and hate' tattooed on Robert Mitchum's knuckles in Night of the Hunter. "

Readers can also get a producer's rep's-eye view of what it was like to work with the outspoken Mr. Moore. Mr. Pierson - whom one former associate characterized as having "an obsessive compulsion about being right" - takes the filmmaker to task for, among other things, overstating the worldwide revenues on Roger & Me.

Mr. Moore claims $25 million in worldwide gross revenues, "which is not quite based in any calculated reality that I know," Mr. Pierson writes, putting the probable number at half that. Though it might be hard to find anyone else who cares, the discrepancy is nothing to sniff at, insisted the detail - minded author. "The book is about being responsible for money " he argued. "The one constant refrain is to try to set the financial aide of things straighter than it's ever been. I'd be doing a tremendous disservice in applying a differen trule of thumb to Roger & Me than everything else."

A No-Budget Film Saga

Though the grown-ups in the independent film world may soon be poring over the book's index, Mr. Pierson has aimed Spike, Mike primarily at young people. He hopes, for one thing, that the 400-odd struggling writers and directors who submit to New York's annual Independent Feature Film Market represent the tip of a book-buying iceberg. "If people who make films aren't the audience, I'm sunk," he said. With this audience in mind, he chastises those filmmakers (in particular, Mr. Weiss, but also Straight Out of Brooklyn director Matty Rich) whom he believes had more talent for hyping their low budgets than for writing or directing, and praises those who really did get by on a shoestring.

Mr. Pierson decided to write his book because he felt a corner had been turned with the blockbuster success of Pulp Fiction: The art film had broken out of the art houses. And yet, he explained, the success of Clerks proved that in spite of the changes, the no budget film was still viable. Spike, Mike - which intersperses its chapters with a continuous conversation with Clerks director Kevin Smith - celebrates the survival of "that film made from nothing, just wits."

That may also be why Mr. Pierson obsesses over financial matters. "Everybody involved in the independent film world feels schizophrenic about promoting success stories and relegating the failures to the foggy background," he explained "Now that everybody at the age of 22 has a credit card, they can somehow raise $30,000 and they know they can make a film with that. It's frightening."

Even so, Mr. Pierson doesn't mind continuing to play a role. This year, hell be flogging yet another nobudget film at Sundance, American Job, directed by 23-year-old Chris Smith. "Every time I start to watch a movie - I start every one with enthusiasm. I watch every one thinking, - this could be Clerks." That's the only way not to go nuts."

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