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She’s Gotta Have It. Roger & Me. Clerks. Slacker. You may not know John Pierson’s name, but you know some of the movies he’s brought to light. The producer’s rep is famous for working with directors like Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater on their first films, kickstarting the careers of directors who would become defining personalities in the indie movie scene of the ’90s. Pierson wrote his account of a decade of independent moviemaking in Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes and currently teaches producing at the University of Texas at Austin. He also moderates the University’s RTF Master Class, which brings renowned moviemakers like Gus Van Sant, Morgan Spurlock and Harven Weinstein to share their knowledge with UT students.
I had a chance to chat with Pierson about his history as an indie producer, the current state of independent film and his thoughts on those who claim that indies of the ’90s never turned a profit.
Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out that you wanted to work in movies?
John Pierson (JP): I went to Yale briefly. In 1972, there were 14 film societies on campus; I couldn’t believe that you could spend all your time just watching movies. This was the early days, when USC, UCLA and NYU were really the only options for film school. But when someone told me you could go to college and study film I thought, “Are you kidding me?” I didn’t jump right in, but a year and a half later I found myself at NYU.
MM: Did you ever want to be a writer/director, or was your eye always on becoming a producer and helping independent films get seen?
JP: While I was in film school as a cinema studies major (who also took production courses), I thought about [being a writer/director], but I never really [wanted to do it]. In the ‘80s and ‘90s everyone wanted to be a writer/director, but film students in the mid-‘70s had a broader view of what was out there. People wanted to distribute good films or run festivals or become publicists and be more involved in the infrastructure of the business.
MM: What did you do after school?
JP: A week after I graduated I answered an ad in The New York Times about a distribution job with the company that [distributed] Wim Wenders’ early films. That company also had a theater, the Jean Renoir Cinema. It was a great learning experience. The distribution company was being run from somebody’s apartment on no money, they had some really good films that they could get for next to nothing and they had this theater. They showed some really cool stuff there, so I was a distributor by day and an exhibitor by night. It was the best possible way to learn everything, from soup to nuts, right at the start.
MM: What’s the first movie you worked on?
JP: The first film I repped was Parting Glances in 1985, and my investment in [Spike Lee’s] She’s Gotta Have It came right after. Spike Lee also went to NYU, and he had a job at First Run Features. At the time, I was programming the Bleecker Street Cinema, and First Run Features was in our building, so I worked side-by-side with them. There were a few smaller films after that, and then I made the deals on Roger & Me, Slacker and Clerks.
MM: You have an amazing track record for recognizing talent or working on projects–usually by first-time directors–that get huge. To what do you attribute your success?
JP: I found some things that were original and different to the point that people wanted to see them. I think that every time you’re a part of something that succeeds, people want to come to you. After She’s Gotta Have It, Michael Moore supposedly said “Get me Spike’s rep, get me his lawyer, I want to get all his people on Roger & Me!” When people hear about you and the projects you’ve been involved with, that really helps. And my very public position was that I specifically wanted to work with first-time filmmakers. You could just find one director and say “This is who I want to stick with.” But I liked working with a succession of first timers because it was a comfortable match.
MM: How do you feel about the independent scene today? Do you think it’s easier or harder to have a successful first film now?
JP: I think it actually used to be easier, since there were fewer films and you could make something nobody had really seen before. Since there were fewer competing films, the chance to succeed was statistically better. It gets harder with every passing year, since there are so many more films, and many of them cover the same ground.
MM: What’s the biggest misconception that young moviemakers have about how the business works?
JP: I think there are two, and they’re kind of opposites. The first is the belief that anything that gets released theatrically is a big deal. It’s not. And the second is the delusion that when budgets are super-low, there has to be a way for any film to recoup by monetizing its digital rights. And anyhow, I thought the whole idea was to get to the next level, to the point where you’re not just paying to make another film for yourself, but somebody gives you money to make movies. Of course, I’m not insisting you have to “go Hollywood,” but you should always try to make something that will give some third party out there a reason to want to be in business with you.
MM: Talk about the Master Class you teach at UT. Is there anyone you’d like to interview but haven’t gotten to yet?
JP: The whole idea [of the Master Class] is to have a program, centered around a visiting filmmaker, that works as a class, career counseling service and entertaining radio show at the same time. In six years we’ve had 60+ guests, including Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, Chris Smith, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Stone, David Simon and Steve Buscemi. We’d love to have Clint Eastwood, but he’s the hardest-working 80-year-old there is, and it’s difficult to catch him on a break. The classes air on KUT in Austin. The first interview from Spring 2011, with Art Linson [producer of Fight Club, Into the Wild, The Untouchables and more] will air at midnight on August 21st. Upcoming interviews are with [Sony Pictures Classics co-president and co-founder] Michael Barker, [writer/director] Jay Duplass and [SXSW Film Festival producer] Janet Pierson.
MM: Do you think that film school is worth it?
JP: I think it’s the same as it ever was. If it’s a good, affordable program, then it’s a good idea to go for the networking opportunities. If you really want to be involved with film, then you should open your mind to the full range of career possibilities. If you’re completely, 100% passionate about making your own films, and if you already have a certain amount of self-taught experience, then [whether film school is worth it is] a big point of debate. But now that everything–including film equipment itself–is so affordable, if you follow the old advice of “Take the money and just buy your own equipment,” you could probably still have some money left over for film school. I think it’s still worth it to be within a community of like-minded people as passionate as you are with whom you can collaborate. Since I teach producing, I’m always urging students to choose to wear that hat.
MM: Do you have anything else to say to young moviemakers?
JP: I hate that these modern-day new-paradigmers like Jon Reiss revise history and claim that independent films never made any money. I understand where they’re coming from, but they’re misrepresenting the past in order to make their points about “seizing control of the system with your own hands.” Many of the movies that we think of as indie flagship movies did make profits for the producers along with the distributors. The DIY attitude is great, but I can catalogue so many movies–many of which I have first-hand knowledge of–that were extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It is still making money 25 years later. As for Kevin Smith saying at the Red State premiere that Clerks didn’t make a profit for ten years… it made a profit the minute he signed the deal memo at Sundance in 1994. It made his career–and then it took ten years to make further producer overage because of the amount of money Miramax spent on his career from that point.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.