Pierson, Bingham, and Maslin Talk “Passion,” Miramax, and Indies in the ’90s
by Eugene Hernandez
Mel Gibson, Peter Biskind, and Harvey Weinstein. Gather a group to talk about the state of independent film these days and those three names will no doubt be mentioned early in the session. Such was the case Monday night in Pleasantville, NY, where a discussion about whether “The Passion of the Christ” is an independent film kicked off a chat about indie film in the ’90s. The panel featured former United Artists head Bingham Ray, former producers rep John Pierson, and the moderator, former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. Dubbed “The Indie ’90s: How Down, How Dirty?,” the discussion drew a broad mix of attendees, including industry professionals, independent film fans, and even a number of teenaged kids armed with a few provocative questions.
Early on in the evening author and former producers rep John Pierson asked the large crowd at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville if any of them had actually seen “Jesus is Bleeding,” as he called it. (He was referring to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”). A few hands were raised, meeting his expectation that the movie is not drawing the usual art-house crowd. He then re-asserted that the film, as he said in indieWIRE last week, is without a doubt independent. Pierson noted the movie is self-financed, reaching an underserved audience and reflects a personal vision. While Bingham Ray concurred, he added that he doesn’t expect the film’s driving force to secure much studio work in the future, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Gibson embark on a series of religious-themed movies.
Asked by Maslin whether each of them were quoted correctly in Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures,” the book that has had film industry types buzzing for two months (and which was on sale in the lobby alongside Pierson’s own “Spike Mike Reloaded”), Pierson said that for his part the book was accurate. But, he added, “The problem is, I could never change Biskind’s position about the way he feels about the majority of the films. There is no love for many of the films.” Continuing he added, “(It is) a somewhat disingenuous book, to be blunt about it.”
Pierson read from the work a few times over the course of the evening, citing noteworthy sections and quotes from others in the film business.
“I don’t mean to be glib about it,” Bingham Ray offered, when asked the same question by Maslin, “But I haven’t read it.” Quoted widely in Biskind’s book, sometimes with critical things to say about his then corporate parents at MGM, the former UA president left the company shortly after the release of the book leading many to speculate that “Down and Dirty Pictures” led to his departure. Continuing with his brief answer to Maslin, Ray smiled, “I have a lot of time now, so maybe I will [read it].”
The “Miramaxization” of the specialty film business is a topic that frequently leads to a conversation about the bottleneck of films fighting to maintain screen space at the art houses. On Monday, Maslin asked Ray and Pierson if the good things about independent film in the ’90s were actually ruined by Miramax.
“I think what happened was that Miramax ramped everything up in terms of cost,” Ray explained, citing the increased focus on buying TV ads to sell foreign-language films. Yet the trio also discussed whether the audiences were to blame for embracing “sentimentalist, populist art films” like “Cinema Paradiso,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” or “Life is Beautiful.” That comment drew a few gasps from folks in the audience at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
“They found some films that people didn’t have much faith in,” Ray added, noting that in order to compete he had to, against his better judgement, buy TV advertising for “No Man’s Land” while at United Artists. Ray instead praised distributors like Tom Bernard and Michael Barker at Sony Pictures Classics, whom he reiterated, have consistently released foreign-language films in the same frugal fashion for years.
Asked by an audience member to name some of the newer distributors out there today that are doing what the “old” Miramax did. Ray was critical of the Indiewood companies. Today, “they just try to reach the (same) lowest common denominator that their parent reaches.” The riskiest film out there from a specialty division is “The Dreamers,” Bingham Ray offered, adding that the Fox Searchlight film is struggling at the box office (it has earned about $2 million after more than a month in release).
Pierson and Ray singled out Newmarket and Magnolia Pictures as recent success stories, with Pierson adding, “The new Miramax is really Fox Searchlight.”
“For anyone to consider Miramax an underdog, independent company,” Ray concluded to laughs from the crowd, “I’d like to show you a bridge in Brooklyn…”
“Birth of a Salesman”
Looking back at the late ’80s and early ’90s, Pierson noted that what distinguishes the rise of independent film during that period was the increased focus on the filmmaker as the selling point, or marketing hook, for a particular movie. In one of a number of clips presented throughout the evening, Pierson used the original 1986 trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It” to illustrate the point. It’s a film that Pierson knows all too well as it was one that he shepherded to a deal, kicking off Spike Lee‘s career in the ’80s.
In the trailer, Lee is seen selling tube socks on 14th Street in Manhattan. Introducing himself to moviegoers, and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the film’s distributor (Island Pictures), Lee introduces clips from the grainy, black-and-white film.
“That was a key moment when the force behind a film steps front and center,” Pierson noted Monday adding that that would become a trademark of American independent films. (A sharp attendee would later note, and Pierson agreed, that such a move was consistent with Alfred Hitchcock‘s own use of himself as a key aspect in marketing his movies).
Bingham Ray noted that the very “mindset” of the first-time filmmaker changed in the ’90s. “There are different ambitions now with most filmmakers than there were then,” he said. Pierson stepped in to guide directors with their strategies for festivals and in their reaching out to distributors, Ray explained. Then, he noted, “They started to work differently.”
The Doc Is In
Bingham Ray worked closely with another filmmaker brought to wider attention by Pierson in the ’90s, doc director Michael Moore. Ray, who related that he acquired “Bowling for Columbine” in Cannes for $3 million, said he knew the moment that he saw the movie that it would work theatrically, adding that he felt bolstered by Moore’s success with his writings.
“It really shocked me that a lot of [other distributors] didn’t know about the book (“Stupid White Men”), Michael was becoming a brand name, if he wasn’t already an icon.” Ray said he thought at the time, while watching the film at the press screening in Cannes, “There’s no way I can lose.”
“It spoke to me,” laughed Ray, thinking back to Cannes ’02. The film, which would go on to win an Oscar, led a wave of docs to theatrical success over the following months Ray noted, including “Spellbound,” “Winged Migration,” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”
“Every year was supposed to be the year of the doc, until I left the country and then it happened,” joked Pierson, who at the time was running a movie theater in Fiji with his wife and business partner Janet and their two children.
Pierson and Ray will next survey the state of independent film in Austin. They are scheduled to join Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Newmarket’s Bob Berney, Cinetic‘s Micah Green, and Film Movement‘s Larry Meistrich in a discussion on Saturday morning at SXSW.