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December 1, 1999 2:00 AM
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DECADE: The Decade According to John Pierson, Part 2

DECADE: The Decade According to John Pierson, Part 2

by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE



indieWIRE's conversation with John Pierson continues...


iW: I guess the question is, what can be done to foster -- or is it a
pointless challenge -- to try and make a place for some of these films?


Pierson: Again, here is what I think the big problem of the 90's is,
which is also the big success of the 90's and again, Miramax takes all
the credit for starting this although many have effectively copied them.
Marketing is king. And we're not talking about getting a good review in
the New York Times and the Village Voice. Marketing, full scale, full
court press marketing has really effectively made the key films, the
standout films, the indie-industry leader, profit-making films as
dominant a force in independent film as "Titanic" is to studio film. And
that's detrimental.


This is what people don't want to believe. They want
to believe the audience is expanding, and you've heard me say this
before but I feel stronger about it than ever. The audience for the
great mass of independent films is not expanding. The audience for the
breakout hit is always expanding. And you can't even factor "Blair
Witch" in there, because it had nothing to do with the normal
independent film audience anyway. Ninety percent of that audience was,
"other."


But is it a tribute to Miramax that they can get $50 million worth of
people to see "Life is Beautiful?" Yeah, it's a tribute to them. But
does it make the film better, does it make the film historically
significant -- aside from the Oscars which of course put it on the
permanent history map -- is it likely to go down as being a more
significant film than "The Good Earth," or some other Oscar winner from
50 years ago that no one would ever want to see? Hell no. But did they
play that game just brilliantly and have others copy them to the point
where Fox Searchlight has people believing that Hilary Swank is a lock
for a Best Actress nomination this year. That's nuts -- not that I'm
saying it's undeserved. But this whole idea that everyone in the press
is now writing that this is a fait accompli seems to me insane.


iW: But is that really a new thing?


Pierson: It's not a new thing anymore. But if you trace it from '94
forward, I mean, Miramax started working harder on this in '92, and then
harder still in '93 and then they nail it in '94 and it's been onward
and upward ever since. I don't know whether to call "Shakespeare in
Love
" taking the cake, or "The English Patient." You can't even say what
their ultimate triumph has been.







"Marketing is king. And we're not talking about getting a good review in
the New York Times and the Village Voice. Marketing, full scale, full
court press marketing has really effectively made the key films, the
standout films, the indie-industry leader, profit-making films as
dominant a force in independent film as 'Titanic' is to studio film."





iW: Everybody is talking about the next question, but I think we can
only legitimately ask one person from our group of decade interviewees, and
it's "Blair Witch."
Being someone who is much closer to it and who has been monitoring it
very, very closely, what do you think is the impact for better or worse,
of this film?

Pierson: Well, all the wrong lessons for independent filmmakers, just
the obvious superficial ones of, "Man, I'm going to get a cool website
going and build up the myth of my film even if it doesn't have any myth
behind it." Even if the myth is, hey I maxed out my credit cards. And of
course, using video technologies, whether they happen to be digital or
Hi8. I always say it's too bad for Peter Broderick [Next Wave Films]
that "Blair Witch" wasn't digital because he can't put it on his lecture
demo reel [laughs]. But anyway, those are the bad results. The result
is that Artisan goes from being one of these mid-level companies that I
wanted to sing the praises of, instantly into the stratosphere, so that's
one thing that's bad. It doesn't make the major studios change their
policies because they all already had their divisions set up. And that
all resulted from "Pulp Fiction."


"Pulp Fiction," historically in '94, is the key event that wakes up the
rest of the studio industry to what they consider to be at least the
promising talent of independent film. I don't know what else they're looking
for. But "Blair Witch"
can't do anything any more on that front except show how you can propel
a non-studio-affiliated smaller company into the stratosphere overnight.
And so I would think that puts pressure on some of the other mid-level
companies to find their "Blair Witch," just like all of the major studio
divisions that already existed. You know, Ira Deutchman kind of lost his
job at Fine Line, in a certain way, over "Pulp Fiction," because it was
like, what are you doing with this "Naked" and "Once Were Warriors" that
grossed $2 million. Look at what these guys did. And for divisions that
already existed then, it was this extra pressure of "Get our 'Pulp
Fiction'" which wound up being Ruth Vitale's "Shine" [at Fine Line
Features]. Or the other
guys started their divisions up, so that really put the -- I don't even
call it the fear of God because it wasn't like they were afraid of
anything -- I guess co-optation isn't the wrong word. The studios just
felt, hey, we can co-opt this. What else does it mean? Again, for
independent film in general, it just seems to me that it doesn't mean a
lot.


One thing that strikes me so much about it is what everybody should
learn from "Blair Witch." It
attracted, through whatever combination of old and new media, an
audience that has never gone to independent film, namely a young
audience. And it took the press forever to figure that out, and I'm not
sure they still have. Because at first it was like, oh, it's 18 - 24, and
then it was oh, it's 20-somethings. But you know, you've heard me say
this before but I swear I went and looked, and I know it's true, that
was such a high school and just beyond high school phenomenon. And these
people didn't go to "Pulp Fiction" and they saw "Clerks" on tape, OK?
But they went to the theater and they owned that movie, they owned it.
And in fact, I think it's performing great on DVD and video, but it
would be performing better if people still felt a few months later that
they needed to own it, but you know what, they just really needed to own
it in the month of August. [laughs] That was a blitzkrieg, that was the
definition of meteoric.

iW: Does anyone really believe that, "Wow," they suddenly tapped into and
created this whole new viable audience?


Pierson: Some people probably think that they want to get that audience
again. Filmmakers are saying it all the time now. When you have
somebody that has been frustrated with two films, like Alexander Payne
making a deal with Artisan and alluding to the fact that they're not
going to let what happened to "Election" happen. Well, how on earth
would they stop what happened to
"Election" from happening? "Election" was actually handled pretty well,
it just. . .


iW: It's a good movie, but it just didn't do well.


Pierson: Yeah. What's the "Election" mythology website going to have on
it?







"They want to believe the audience is expanding, and you've heard me say
this
before but I feel stronger about it than ever. The audience for the
great mass of independent films is not expanding."





iW: So many people our age who are mainstream, who aren't in the
business, look at "Election" and look at "Go" and look at "Rushmore" and
say, "That's a teen movie," and they don't go, and the teens say, "That's a
grownup movie," I'm not interested in that, and then it disappears.


Pierson: I have the same problem. My daughter Georgia is 12 now, and I
watched "Go" first and said, nah, too much sex and drugs, no way, mainly
drugs. But the other two ["Election" and "Rushmore"], I wanted her to like
them so much, and she
tolerated them. But there's no sense of delight. It was like, goddamn,
you should like "Rushmore," man, you should really find that kid funny.


iW: If you pick up your crystal ball and look ahead, what's going to
happen in the next turn of the decade, what are the key challenges that
need to be addressed in order for us to move forward successfully? Or
are there really ever any unique issues?


Pierson: To me the really unique issue is that filmmakers and other
people that are part of the infrastructure have to really adjust their
thinking about theatrical releasing being the be-all and end-all. And
again, it's nutty because it's like Edgar Bronfman Jr. saying movies
should have different ticket prices based on their budgets and whether
they're good or not, or whatever his theory was when he presented that
to the board and got laughed out of the room. But to me it seems there
should be more gradations, different ways and forms of releasing stuff,
touring packages.


Whatever it's going to take and whatever gatekeeper or curator it's
going to take to have highlighted programs on the net that really work
for people, highlighting different forms of video or DVD direct
releasing -- in the end you probably, psychologically, can never break
people down and get them off this thinking, you know, about how their
theatrical opening in New York and LA is what redeems them, is what
legitimizes them, what gives them credibility. So I guess there's no
reason to think that in light of all the theaters that have been
springing up like mushrooms in New York to deal with this over the last
two years here, why wouldn't that continue? There will be 30 choices on
any given weekend. That's not the problem. The problem is why any one
person who lives in New York would chose one of those films. Outside the
top 5. This is the Ira Deutchman theory from the 80's and 90's. You've
got to get a film on the top-5 choice list at any given moment for it to
have a chance. Man, if there's 30, and I know they're not just playing
for one week, they're playing over time, and so eventually you can catch
up, but if there's 30 choices in any one weekend, how do you get into
the top 5?


iW: John, if the 90's were a chapter in your next book, or the beginning
of your next book, can you think of a title or a label to reference this
decade?


Pierson: Yeah, it's the decade when every actor decided that he or she
had to direct a movie. And I'm not saying that's all good, or all bad.
Even my man Ed Norton succumbed.

TAGS: Interviews
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