The Philadelphia Inquirer

Independents can depend on this 'movie brat'

By Carrie Rickey - Inquirer Movie Critic - March 27th, 1996

You may not recognize John Pierson's name, but you've heard of some projects he's had a hand in.

She's Gotta Have It, Roger & Me, Slacker and The Thin Blue Line all bear his fingerprints, though he didn't direct them. He didn't produce them, either. In fact, no job title quite describes what Pierson does, though "midwife to American independents" probably comes closest.

The midwife is a gangly guy in his 40s who resembles a hipster scarecrow. A selfdescribed "movie brat," he wrote Spike Lee a $10,000 check to complete She's Gotta, helped Michael Moore close a $3 million deal to distribute Roger, assisted Richard Linklater in making slacker a household word, and promoted the sale of Errol Morris' Blue Line, a documentary murder mystery that solves the murder.

You can read Pierson's highly subjective and naughtily entertaining account of his screenland adventures in Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, the last reference being to Rose Troche and Guin Turner, the filmmakers behind the lesbian comedy of manners Go Fish. Subtitled "A Guided Tour Across a Decade of Independent Cinema," Spike takes readers on a joyride through the period bracketed by Stranger Than Paradise (1985) and Pulp Fiction (1995), when off-Hollywood movies won mainstream audiences.

You can see Pierson in person Saturday, when he makes a guest appearance at the "Talk Cinema" film series. The monthly filmklatsch will meet at the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theater, where Pierson will host the audience-participation game "You Be the Movie Executive."

"The whole idea is that we take four films from the Sundance Film Festival and show people a reel of each without letting them know what they're seeing," Pierson said from his home in upstate New York.

Except for the absence of chirping cellular phones-which are to Sundance what birdsong is to spring - this should simulate the experience of theater-hopping at the festival. WiU the audience of mock moguls recognize the next sex, lies, and videotape? Shun the next Amongst Friends? Guess the commercial potential of the next Clerks?

Armed with paper money, game participants will bid against each other- for distribution rights to the films. Lots of fun. No risk.

Gambling on a movie's commercial future, with real money, has been Pierson's trade since 1985, when the former arthouse programmer was asked to help sell Parting Glances, a compelling picture about gay friends, one of whom has AIDS. For closing the distribution deal, Pierson made $10,000. The transaction gave him confidence in his taste, not to mention a taste for dealmaking.

He plowed his windfall into a black-and-white 16mm comedy by Shelton Lee called She's Gotta Have It. Pierson did more than help defray the S23,000 deficit on the $114,000 film. He launched a new career as "producer's representative" by assisting the director better known as Spike. His duties included negotiating with a lab to blow up the film to the more commercially viable 35mm, and plotting the sales strategy that won the movie more than $6 million at the box office.

It took more than being a Spike Lee believer to earn Pierson the handle of "indie film guru." It took many things, among them a receptiveness to the new, an innate iconoclasm and the good fortune of choosing a life partner in wife Janet Perlberg, another former film programmer, who encouraged him to trust his instincts.

Even Pierson's critics - and there are many who sniff that Spike, Mike ... overstates its author's contributions - concede that he doesn't jump on bandwagons, he builds them.

As he did for Working Girls, Lizzie Borden's new of Manhattan prostitutes as alienated laborers. And as Pierson did for Slacker, which defined the postgraduation/pre-job malaise. And as the indie guru did for Clerks, Kevin Smith's hilariously profane day in the life of a convenience-store employee.

How to account for his impressive ratio of success to failure? (An example of the latter is Rob Weiss' Amongst Friends, correctly dismissed by its critics as "GoodFellas 90210"). The key is to identify those indie spirits motivated by genuine personal expression rather than by the desire to be rich and famous.

"Making a garage movie isn't that different from starting a garage band," Pierson said, "only more expensive. Unfortunately, a lot of films aren't being made for art's sake anymore."

Though no one knows better than Pierson that "the lower a film's budget, the higher its profit potential," he scoffed when he heard that El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez's bullet-riddled debut, cost only $7,000 and made $2 million.

"Let no moron jump to the conclusion that it made that profit," Pierson sneered. While the cost to Rodriguez was $7000, the distributor "probably spent another $150,000 to $200,000 to make it releasable."

Then there's Pulp Fiction, which was made for $8 million and grossed 12 times that, further blurring the distinction between Hollywood and off-Hollywood. Can a movie with John Travolta and Bruce Willis be an independent, or is an indie a movie that doesn't play the multiplex?

Pierson likes Pulp Fiction, the movie, while being distrustful of Pulp Fiction, the phenom. In his lexicon, identification as an independent empowers new filmmakers; Pulp Fiction, because of the way it raised the stakes, had" almost the opposite effect."

In writing this, Pierson is tweaking, if not biting, the hand that feeds him. His production company is on retainer to Miramax, which distributed Pulp Fiction, and his book is published by Hyperion; an imprint of Miramax's corporate boss, Walt Disney.

Has the Miramax-ization of indie cinema, the effort to push indies into the mainstream, shifted the independent filmmaker's goal from art for art's sake to art for profit's sake?

"I feel torn . . . about this," Pierson admired. "Miramax markets the hell out of crossover films, and that's a plus. But to think that the success of these crossovers has a trickle-down effect on other independent films is false."

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