Screen Dreams

There's no business like the indie business, according to the man behind many of the last decade's surprise hit films.

By Liesl Schillinger

IT is difficult lately to tell whether Hollywood is trying harder to imitate the independent films or the indies are trying harder to imitate Hollywood. Perhaps no one is more tormented by this than John Pierson, a producer's representative who has given more American independent directors their start in the last 10 years than any. Other person or agency in the industry, but whose own roots lie in the esoteric world of art films and repertory houses. Idealistic, grudge-holding, visionary and defensive, Mr. Pierson is someone few outside the film industry are aware of. Yet without him Americans would not have heard so soon from Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater and a host of other directors whose unconventional visions brought the lives of blacks, the unemployed, homosexuals, hoop dreamers and other marginalized Americans to the silver screen.

In "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema," Mr. Pierson races the reader at breakneck speed through mazes of alleyways and up the vertiginous escalators that have led both him and independent films from obscurity to the big time. The book "is not a how to, it's a how come," Mr. Pierson says, and taking himself at his own word, he proceeds to relate every imaginable business detail of the past 10 years, from first meetings to deal making and deal breaking, from contracts and expense sheets to distribution. Somehow the glut of information doesn't slow the book down. The deals, enlivened by the author's brig, never lose their human complexion, even when, using the book as a kind of scrapbook, Mr. Pierson sticks in the actual documents that were the residue of the agreements —like all tour pages of Michael Moore's rightsand-distribution contract for "Roger and Me," or Kevin Smith's hand-scrawled list of the credit card cash advances he used to pay for his film "Clerks."

Mr. Pierson, who has lived, breathed and hunted film for most of his adult life, covers his territory with urgency and conviction, and his singlemindedness Is ravishing. When he mentions the Sundance Film Festival of 1991, which occurred simultaneously with the gulf war, he comments blithely "With so many films to watch and debate, it was difficult to worry about the Middle East." When he tells of years-old grievances and betrayals, you can hear him pounding his desk. When he alludes, in asides; to the misfortunes of his enemies, you can't miss the vengeful cackle in his tone (at Cannes, meeting the Samuel Goldwyn Company's Larry Jackson, who bid insultingly low on "She's Gotta Have It," losing the film and millions for Goldwyn Mr. Pierson crows, "I mentioned that i could hardly keep track of the zeroes"). But when he tells of the successes of the directors he has nurtured and loved, you can see him smile.

No matter how many millions he's made, Mr. Pierson, now 41, still sides with the underdogs and not with management, still craves to see and understand with a-youthful eye. It is telling that his book is broken up by one on-one interviews between Mr. Pierson and his 24-year-old protege, Kevin Smith - in which Mr. Pierson asks the questions. In one interlude, Mr. Smith says Mr. Pierson is Just a glorified video clerk, like the stars of Mr. Smith's film. "You take something you find that you're really into like 'Clerks' and take it to the people. So In essence you re a very selective, very finicky video clerks." Mr. Pierson is delighted with this impertinence, although he can't help pointing out that he has a college degree.

The pride Mr. Pierson takes in his directors is like the admiration of a parent for a child, or even, disarmingly, like a little brother's respect for an older sibling. Spike Lee Is "my hero," Mr. Pierson says at one point, and when he adds, "My life changed when his life changed," it's clear he's not Just talking about cash flow.

Always fast, always personal, Mr. Pierson plows through the years director by director film by film, child by child (he gets married along the way), dropping in news here and there of the immolations and rebirths of assorted indie studios and Hollywood executives. He's not afraid to acknowledge his own mistakes. In one chapter, titled "Amongst Jerks," Mr. Pierson rails against the director Rob Weiss, whose acquaintance and whose film, "Amongst Friends," he wishes he had never made.

Mr. Pierson is too resilient to let one bad experience keep him down, however, and sure enough, he bounded from Mr. Weiss to the much happier finds of Mr. Smith and the duo of Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner, whose wry, observant lesbian film "Go Fish" came out in 1994. They "made me feel young again," he writes. "Their good fortune was my redemption." Taking advantage of this surge of youthful vigor, Mr. Pierson wraps up the book and the indie film decade with a surprise slam dunk called "Hoop Dreams."

Ironically, Mr. Pierson worries that the increased tame and stature he has helped bring independent films may be their undoing. Ever since Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film, "Sex, Lies and Videotape," showed that indies could not only take Sundance but could take in millions at the box office, Hollywood has courted new film makers heartily. Indeed, ever since "The Crying Game," "The Piano" and "Pulp Fiction" grossed tens of millions of dollars, Hollywood seems intent on crushing the luscious new directorial jailbait with its overeager embrace. Mr. Pierson fears that in the face of such temptation, "the desire to make a film any film," will replace "the need to express a vision," and he asks it heightened expectations for indies are creating "more opportunities or problems for traditional, smaller debut features." It is, as he writes, a "million-dollar question." Mr. Pierson can hardly be expected to solve it. As he admits early on: "I don't necessarily have all the answers." Nonetheless, it is reassuring to reflect that if this last decade is any sign, he can be counted on to spot the people who will.

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