DECADE: The Decade According to John Pierson, Part 1
by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE
[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]
John Pierson's 1996 book, "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of Independent Cinema," capped a major chapter in his life as a producer and rep for some of the most important films among more than a decade of indies: Bill Sherwood's "Parting Glances," Lizzie Borden's "Working Girls," Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Yurek Bogayevicz's "Anna," Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," Richard Linklater's "Slacker," Rose Troche's "Go Fish," Kevin Smith's "Clerks," Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," and more.
In 1997, Pierson launched "Split Screen," the Independent Film Channel magazine-format program that showcases stories by and about independent filmmakers. The show's impact was felt in theaters this year, as "The Blair Witch Project," which first received notoriety as a show segment, struck a major chord with moviegoers. Also, Chris Smith's "American Movie," which was a part of the show's first season, won the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance and hit theaters this fall.
Pierson joined us the conference room at the AIVF to consider the decade in independent film.
"The number one problem that we have at the end of the decade is the surfeit
indieWIRE: When we were talking with Bingham, he was talking about the whole
Hollywood-ization or the consolidation of the film business. . .
John Pierson: Let me immediately pipe up and say that I hope he pointed out,
or I will point out, that there are probably more companies that have
filled in the ranks, of every size from living room or garage size to
mid-level companies that are not studio affiliated than there have ever
iW: Well, this is the interesting point, because when we interviewed
John Sloss, he really felt that while yes, there's another consolidation
going on -- he felt that it's just another part of the cycle continuing
what happened in the early 80's. And he feels there haven't been enough
companies that have come up and filled the gaps.
Pierson: He's wrong. There have been. But whether you are talking about
movie theater screens or distribution companies or space in the papers,
or for that matter the consumers' attention, the number one problem that
we have at the end of the decade is the surfeit of product. And even
though the system has vastly expanded to accommodate way more, because
again, get ready for this, I went and counted what I would call
"independent" releases in New York City in 1999, and I was up around 175
through last week. This is counting foreign language which I didn't
count in the book ["Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes"]. I was doing an
American indie count in the book, and there is a point where you reach
about 30 theatrical releases a year for a span of four or five years and
then you begin to leap forward right around the time that the book was
concluding, you start to go to about 50 and beyond.
But again, because of all these middling to smaller size companies,
there's way more activity in New York at least. It doesn't necessarily
mean nationwide in every town and city, but in New York, there's way
more foreign language films being released this year than there have
been probably throughout the decade. The releases would be described
with a word like "very marginal," but it's happening. It was a very high
number, it was astonishing to me. So again, you do the math and you find
out once again that you've got 3 - 4 films competing on average every
Friday. Which from an audience standpoint is basically an impossibility.
Forget about the other 1,000+ unreleased films. Even the ones that are
getting some kind of release in New York City and are reviewed in the
New York Times -- at the very least, they've got that they can put in
the bank. But there's just no way theatrically that they're going to be able
to grab the public's attention.
iW: Where does that really leave us as we prepare for another Sundance?
Is it going to be another 175? Is it going to be 200 next year?
Pierson: Well, it could be, because whenever you're talking about
systems, you really have to break it down into the individual elements.
I'm old fashioned that way, and if you look at theatrical releasing in a
city like New York, which has always been a pacesetter -- and you look at
a theater like the Quad making itself so available for some
direct-with-filmmaker openings or willingness to work with all the small
companies (which maybe the Angelika won't do anymore) and when you look
at what happens with the Cinema Village now with the three screens, and
when you look at how the Village East is willing to do more overruns --
you suddenly have eight or nine screens right in a two block radius in
the Village and there will be that many more screens on a weekly basis
that are available to non-studio product.
So in the course of a year, that makes a big difference. Now is that a
viable business for the Quad to be in? Only the Quad knows that answer.
Is it a viable business for Cinema Village to have added the screens?
Well, obviously you have to talk to that guy over there. But it's really
enhanced the ability to open New York, even though that may not do you
that much good when it comes to opening Minneapolis. Again, to be very
site specific, the Landmark's got a theater [in Minneapolis] with
five screens and then they have one other free-standing screen, so they
have six in town. And then there was Al Milgrom at the Film Society who
could handle as much of the spillover as possible. Now the University
has finally closed Al down after 35 years. We profiled him on the
["Split Screen"] show last year, and he's a cranky, crotchety,
impossible to work for old guy, but his contribution to the film
community there was pretty much impossible to overpraise, and now he's
gone, so what happens?
[EDITORS NOTE: After publishing this article, indieWIRE was informed that Al Milgrom's
film society was not shut down. John Pierson apologized for this and the
correction was published here on indieWIRE.com.]
Well, they've got the Walker Arts Center and they've got other
institutions that can pick up more of the slack, and maybe Sundance
comes in and builds a theater there like they say they're going to, and
that may make a difference. But that's the only way that you can perhaps
take what's kind of a scattershot ability for a bunch of films, like [Tessa Blake's] "Five Wives, Three
Secretaries and Me" that opens at the Quad in New York. Will that play 50
other cities? No. Will it play 20 other cities? Probably in some form
they'll manage to play 20 other cities. Is that good enough to make the
film's investment back? Hell no. And is the licensing deal from Sundance
Channel or IFC or some home video deal with some smaller company,
whether it's a bigger smaller company like Winstar or smaller smaller
company like well, pick one out of a hat, you're not going to make any
kind of investment back unless it's a low-cost digital thing.
"Give me a list of five films, terrific, great films, that you think have
not gotten out there -- people are stymied when I ask this in audience
situations, or to individuals. It's easy for people to answer, name five
films that you think are shit that did get released. But that's not the
iW: I'm curious with the expanded amount of product out there, do you
think the percentage of quality films is the same, or is the number of
films outpacing the number of decent films?
Pierson: I think the number of films is far outpacing the number of high
quality ones. You just changed a word mid-sentence and I would be
careful about that. "Decent" is a very difficult word, like "Hey, that
was pretty good."
A friend of mine made an early soft-core porn film in 1967 and [a character]
says, "Hey, those photographs are OK" and the photographer character says,
"Hey, OK is not art." And you know
what, stupid line, but OK is not art, and decent is not good enough.
Of course you can have decent, with some kind of extreme content, that
attracts people and that's always been the case and it always will be
the case -- we'll see how "Annabel Chong" does when it opens. You can
have decent bad movies that have some other lure or allure. But in terms
of quality, I always use the IFFM in 1985, the year "Parting Glances"
was in. I think there were 43 features, and if you go back and look at
them, I would say that 35 of those films were really good. [laughs]
I walked in with Lory Smith's Sundance book, "Party in a Box," and the
one thing I'll enjoy as I read through this thing is just remembering
what years there was a real incredibly high percentage of really
notable, powerful, terrific, original films at Sundance. And even if you
can pluck films out from the last few years, the overall context I think
is a lot weaker. Now this year, since we're eventually going to lead to
this, you have all these veterans who are returning on an annual or a
two-year basis with a new film at the festival or in the marketplace.
This clearly clogs up the pipes as well. It makes it harder for some new
first-time voice to get out of the box. And every time it works out
OK for Neil LaBute or Darren Aronofsky, you can say, oh, the system
still works, but it is kind of like Arteriosclerosis, because it is
jamming up the arteries and eventually there will have to be some kind
of radical surgery or the artery will completely shut.
iW: One thing that we asked John Sloss about is the filtering
processes that are happening in the film business now, whether it's
festivals doing some of the weeding out...
Pierson: Doing almost all of the weeding out at this point. I don't know
of any company that's combing through unsolicited material on their own
and making their own minds up.
iW: Festivals are definitely the first wave of weeding, and then Sloss
or other producer's reps may do additional weeding, and he's on the
phone trying to get representation on one of the Sundance films, so he's
weeding out what's been weeded. By the time Sundance starts, you have a
handful of films that have been pre-determined to be the ones that are
Pierson: Yeah, but that gets diverted all the time. Last year was the
fourth out of five years that the New York Times declared to be the year
of the documentary. But going in, they were talking about "American
Pimp," and by mid-week they were talking about "American Movie." So
that's subject to correction based on the quality of the films
themselves. That's the good thing, you know. It's true, the hype machine
causes some nightmares like, again the whole farce this year with
"Happy, Texas." But there are generally still enough people who care
enough about what they think is the real deal, that there's still this
chance for correction. But if "The House of Yes" is sold on the first
day of the festival, that correction unfortunately only takes place when
the film comes out and bombs six months later instead of taking place
during the course of the week at Sundance. And that's because every one
feels like they have to move so fast.
iW: Well it's the issue of whether, because some of the filtering that takes
place by Sloss or someone else representing a movie, and bringing it into
the market at Sundance and getting a certain amount of attention for that
film or filmmaker, it makes it harder for someone who comes in with a
quality film, but maybe one that isn't as mainstream or doesn't have stars
to get that awareness. You have to have a publicist to go to Sundance now.
I hate having to say it that way, but it's essentially the case.
Pierson: I have a standard question I turn back on people when they
worry about the tree falling in the forest but nobody hears -- the great
film that's going undiscovered. I still see a lot of films, I don't know
how much you watch. Give me a list of five films, terrific, great films,
that you think have not gotten out there. And normally people are
stymied when I ask this in audience situations, or to individuals. It's
easy for people to answer, name five films that you think are shit that
did get released. But that's not the issue. And it can be a slow burn.
Chris Smith will be the first to tell you that there is no way that
"American Job" could have been a key acquisition and big-time theatrical
release. Because he saw on the Fuel Tour, he saw in Chicago a four-star
review in the Chicago Tribune, and still nobody goes. So with the
experience of this piecemeal release, there wasn't a way for that to be
a normal, ordinary let's say Sony Classics release. And in fact,
"American Movie," which has a huge ton of goodwill and press support
going for it, is still going to be a struggle. Sony is a cautious
company but they probably overpaid for that film -- but God bless them
for doing it. I hope it all works out five months from now and it's just
really gotten this word of mouth thing going. But it didn't open like
"Crumb;" it didn't even open like [Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein's] "On the Ropes."
iW: Actually, I think we can name a handful of quality films, whether it's
"American Job," [Arthur Borman's] "Shooting Lily," or [Julian Goldberger's] "Trans," or [Benson Lee's] "Miss Monday,"
or [Derek Cianfrance's] "Brother Tied."
Pierson: See, I think "Trans" is an impossible movie.
I think that "Shooting Lily," I know you guys like it, I'm mixed about
it. And "Miss Monday" I didn't go for. See, they're not on my list, and
[Scott Ziehl's] "Broken Vessels" isn't either. Even though I like the movie to a point,
it's got the world's worst last 15 minutes. What about Rob Nilsson
winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in '88 -- sorry last decade --
for "Heat and Sunlight" and then having to self-release. If that year,
30 films were released, he happened to be somewhere beyond the 30. And
this year, "Trans" winds up being beyond 175. Although I guarantee you,
at some point, won't "Trans" open the Quad like everything else?
iW: Actually, it is opening at the new Screening Room space.
Pierson: There you go. And I even forgot that screen. You've got to
count them one by one. This is just an arithmetic game. More screens,
more openings in New York. Something catches on in New York, it'll
The conversation continues on page 2...