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The Life and Times of John Peirson Part I

The Life and Times of John Peirson Part I

Articles - Directing

Future parents of She’s
Gotta Have It
Baby: John and Janet Pierson at their
1983 wedding.

John Pierson has played a vital role in the recent
history of American independent film. Starting in distribution
and exhibition, he became the quintessential producer’s rep,
helping a series of exceptional filmmakers launch their careers.
He has now written a remarkable book — Spike, Mike, Slackers
and Dykes
(Miramax Books/Hyperion) — that chronicles his
involvement with Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It) Michael
Moore (Roger and Me), Rick Linklater (Slacker),
Rose Troche and Guin Turner (Go Fish), and others, including
Kevin Smith (Clerks), whose dialogues with Pierson are
intercut throughout. Like Pierson, the book is candid and opinionated.
It is also chock full of valuable information never before available,
and should quickly become an essential resource for anyone interested
in making and selling an independent feature.

My friendship with John began in the dead of winter
several years ago when we attended a Knicks game together. It has
continued through summer heat waves, when I have been co-ringmaster
at two of the Cold Spring Film Workshops organized for independents
by John and his wife and partner, Janet. I had the following conversation
with John last August, shortly after reading a draft of Spike,
Mike, Slackers and Dykes
, which is scheduled to be published
as this issue of MovieMaker goes to press.

Peter Broderick (MM): Let’s go back to
the beginning, John. Situate yourself in the ’70s, before you
got involved with representing films and filmmakers, so that
we have a better understanding of your background.

John Pierson (JP): Well, this is a really
great day for you to ask that question because I went to the Beacon
Theater in New York last night and saw Elvis Costello. I was just
tripping all through the concert, because that first Elvis Costello
and the Attractions album, My Aim Is True, came out in 1977,
which is when this all started for me. So I’m thinking, God, here’s
this guy 25 records later. He was this angry young man, and it
was the New Wave and it was punk and here we are in the mid-’90s
and look at all the things he’s gone through … I’m not putting
myself in the category of Elvis except in terms of the passage
of time — but in 1977 I had just gotten out of film school at
NYU. It was kind of the in-between era when all those later American
independent filmmakers had not quite arrived on the scene yet,
and the Marty Scorseses and Marty Brest’s of the world were long
gone. I answered an ad in the New York Times from a distribution
company and the next thing I know I’m working there by day, and
showing movies, both indie films and old Luis Buñuel films
which never opened in New York, by night. It was a wild and woolly
way of getting your feet wet, having a full immersion course in
no time flat. Spinning off that I programmed the Bleecker Street
Cinema, the famous rep house, for a year and a half at one point.
I programmed the Film Forum, too. In the course of doing all this
I had to learn how film publicity works. I had a wide, eclectic
background in all the kinds of areas that you need to know. I had
to learn it soup-to-nuts, the whole experience of dealing with
off-Hollywood Films.

MM: So then, following this full immersion
experience, when was it that you found yourself getting involved
with a film and a filmmaker for the first time?

JP: Bill Sherwood on Parting Glances in the
summer of 1985, but it very directly grew out of being around the
action the previous two years as Jim Jarmusch shot his first half-hour
short, which grew into the feature. Stranger than Paradise.
Jim was just one of the guys we knew around town. He came to rep
theaters just like everybody else did in ’83 -’84. We knew he was
making movies. And so being around all the developments and the
evolution of that film …Wim Wenders gave him leftover raw stock
black-and-white short ends from The State of Things. That
was a galvanizing moment because that film went from short to feature
and then went to Cannes. Jim and Sara Driver, his girlfriend-slash-producer-slash-partner,
had a screening of the full-length Stranger than Paradise in
New York. I know it sounds completely like revisionism, but when
the lights came up again at the end of 90 minutes it was sort of
like the world had changed.

MM: What was it that seemed so earthshaking
about that moment?

JP: What was basically so great about it was
the empowering feeling. Hey, I’m not a filmmaker, so I’m projecting
a little bit here, but it felt so great to have one of us, another
guy on the streets of New York, make what aesthetically felt like
a perfect film on its own terms. There’s been much discussion since
then of the budget determining the aesthetic — but this is a case
where having $100,000 and turning it into just really great art
was just mouthwatering and eye-opening. The idea of using nonprofessional
actors to play somewhat exaggerated but still highly believable
versions of their real-life selves became a trademark; it was how
a lot of people figured out they could cast their films. All those
things felt very empowering. Stranger Than Paradise used nonprofessional
elements, but it was just not sloppy. It was fully realized. Very
organic, very unified.

MM: So a new era was being launched
by that film. What other elements of it were influential in
terms of the films to come after it?

Guinevere Turner and V.S.
Brodie in Go Fish (1994).

JP: Its world sales in Cannes, its performance
in places like France and Japan, oddly enough, and its tremendously
successful release in North America where it remains (and I’m sure
Miramax hopes they change this on Dead Man, although the
signs are not necessarily good so far) Jim Jarmusch’s highest-grossing
movie. Movies are a business. To have it not be just critically
acclaimed and win the National Society of Film Critics’ "Best
Film of the Year," but to also have it perform so strongly
in the marketplace just put the icing on the cake.

MM: Did it change your concept of how you
wanted to be involved with independents?

JP: It changed me because this swirling inchoate
mass of filmmaking aspirants around me got changed. They got galvanized.
People like Spike Lee, and Bill Sherwood, and Lizzie Borden got
focused on just how far they might be able to go in this indie
filmmaking area. And as all of these people kind of orbited through
my life, it changed me. I knew how the Stranger deal went down.
My buddy and colleague Sam Kitt played an informal role in providing
some of the final structure to that deal.

I also realized Sam had somehow begun to carve out
some middle man type of position, and I didn’t consciously say "That’s
for me," but that’s exactly how things turned out. The talent
pool was around. I knew my way around the industry. My peer group
was these filmmakers, and I’d been to film school. But the peer
group I was maybe more aligned with were the people who’d been
coming up and taking key positions within the infrastructure. This
of course was all-important in getting the American independent
film movement up and running as more than occasional, one-shot
scattered successes. I’m not trying to suggest that Stranger Than
Paradise was the first and only one. Of course there’s John Sayles,
and there are people who even Jarmusch would cite — Susan Seidelman’s
success with Smithereens influenced him. Wayne Wang’s Chan Is
was another ultra low-budget film that obviously made
an impact. There was Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), and you
know I’m leaving out a couple of others. El Norte, in terms of
the more socially conscious, higher budgeted but from-the-heart
type of indie films.

MM: So what was your path from that fateful
screening of
Stranger to Parting Glances?

JP: One of the producers of Parting Glances,
Arthur Silverman, was somebody that I had gone to school with.
He had a motion picture exhibition company called "Road Movies." He
called me in, thinking they would need assistance in selling Parting
because he would be away from New York at the key moment
when the film was done. Because he would be many thousands of miles
and many time zones away from where he needed to be as the point
person, he asked me to take the reins. I said, "Why do you
think I could do this?" And he gave this brilliant answer
that a child might give: "Because you know these people." I
thought about it for 30 seconds and realized he was right.

MM: When you started on Parting Glances did
you still have a day job?

JP: I was working at Films Incorporated. We
were very active in theatrical repertory exhibition which was having
its late great flowering renaissance at that point, ’84, ’85. There
were still a lot of screens all over the country. You had to find
ways of packaging or promoting that were not unlike first-run movies.
You’d have a restored print of Once Upon a Time in the West or
a new print reissue of Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows and
have Jean Pierre Leaud come into town to publicize that in New
York. Or we’d assemble packages of Warner Brothers cartoons in
beautiful 35 prints. We did a major Kurasawa retrospective. These
were really fun things for me. More fun in a way than all the best
new features. Because it’s fun to be dealing with truly great films.

MM: Had the term "producer’s rep" come
into being at this point, or were you part of defining it?

JP: I think I was part of defining
it, but it’s an excellent question for further research. "Sales
agent" certainly had meaning in the foreign market long
before I came on the scene. The difference is that a sales agent
cuts a deal and enforces the contractual terms but isn’t necessarily
a collaborator in the ongoing creative process. To me, repping
implies an ongoing involvement in not only seeing that a film
gets all those things you’re looking for in an excellent deal,
the advance of course being one key thing-and not just enforcing
that deal like with a whip, but also collaborating on the effectiveness
of the movie’s release. It’s not easy.

Lurie, Eszter Balint and Richard Edson in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger
Than Paradise

MM: Well let’s talk about the producer’s
rep role. During the time that you did this, and now you’re not
doing this anymore in quite the same way–

JP: –I have a new answer to that. I’ve probably
contradicted myself like 52 times in the last 52 weeks, but the
new answer is this: if there is a film that I think is terrific,
and the only way to be involved with that film is through repping
it, then I’m not going to stand on principle or ceremony and say "Oh
sorry, I don’t do that anymore." Let’s face it, there aren’t
enough great films out there that each of us really takes a fancy
to. I would still rep a film that I got truly wildly excited about.
Does that make sense?

MM: That makes sense. But since you began
doing this, there have only been a handful of other people who
have done it. Isn’t that true?

JP: Well, in the mid-’80s, my competition,
though I never saw it that way, was Jeff Dowd. You know Jeff got
involved the same time that Parting Glances was happening for me.
He was repping Desert Hearts, another one of those Gay Wave
films that came out in the first quarter of ’86. He earned the
nickname "The Dude," I believe, for being involved with
Joel and Ethan Coen on Blood Simple. So he was hot. And
Jesse Beaton had helped Greg Nava and the producers of El Norte make
their deal. I’m not sure that anybody made it their life’s work.

MM: And where does Tom Sternberg fit in?

JP: Well, Tom — okay, you caught me, man.
I mean if Tom Sternberg wants to claim the crown of first real
producer’s rep, then he’s completely entitled to it. Of course,
his primary area of focus, and it makes sense given when he started
out, was European films for sale to North American distributors,
not so much the American independent stuff. But he has of course
done that also. And he doesn’t just wheel and deal and then turn
his back or hide his head and walk away. He’s in there. In terms
of me saying I never felt competitive, I will say that there was
a point when he was sitting in a screening of She’s Gotta Have
It, when it was in the San Francisco Film Festival. I was aware
of what Tom did and I did kind of sneak a look at him, number one
to catch his response, but number two because I remember that’s
one of the few times I was thinking, like Jeez, do I have to battle
with this guy or are we in the same sort of collegial state here
or what? Basically because Tom’s purview has been with the French
for so long, I almost feel like we’re two different sides of the
coin. I don’t think he even liked She’s Gotta Have It that
much, so that’s when I knew everything was fine.

MM: Okay, let’s go back before we go forward.
Give us a summary in terms of your experience with
Glances. How long were you involved with it and what was the

JP: Well it sold in the blink of an eye. My
involvement started in the summer; the film was not finished in
time for the key September festivals — Telluride, Toronto, New
York — the Labor Day-to-end-of-September trilogy. At that point
in ’85 people weren’t quite as calculating with their completion
schedules, and what they were steering toward. The Independent
Feature Film Market, which was a much smaller, gentler event during
the mid ’80s, followed on the heels of those three festivals. Parting
Glances was ready for the IFFM, which was then a viable selling
event. It was shown there, and very, very shortly thereafter sold
on a quote-unquote preemptive basis to Cinecom. So preemptive,
what does that mean? It means they made an offer, and they wanted
us to give them an answer as quickly as possible without shopping
the film around. Of course we stole a little time to shop it a
bit and found out we didn’t really have other interest. Then we
went back, kind of bald-faced, and suggested that we would absolutely
strongly consider their preemptive offer if they could make it
a bit sweeter. They did and the deal closed. I believe that was
the last week in October, 1985.

MM: Was that the experience that decided
you that repping films was something you wanted to do full-time?

JP: (Laughs) I’m still not sure. I knew that
I enjoyed the poker games that seemed to be required. I knew that
I’d been involved in other kinds of negotiations in my life and
had felt comfortable, so it probably pointed me down that road.
But the real absolute opportunity/test came within five days. Spike
Lee’s NYU rough-cut screening of She’s Gotta Have It fell
in the same week that the Cinecom Parting Glances deal closed.
When I saw She’s Gotta Have It, I had that kind of rare
experience when you see something that you just completely utterly
love and adore and think is The Next Thing, and want to be involved
with no matter how. I did not, by the way, have that kind of reaction
to Parting Glances. I thought that the Steve Buscemi performance,
which was his debut, was fantastic, but I was up and down on the
movie as a whole. I liked it but I didn’t have that over-the-top
response that I did with Spike.

MM: So you saw She’s Gotta Have It,
and then what happened?

JP: Fortunately, there are witnesses. I walked
down the street and said to my wife, Janet, parodying the line
about Bruce Springsteen, "I’ve seen the future of cinema and
its name is Spike Lee." I knew that I had a fee of $10,000
due me from the Parting Glances deal and I knew that money
was a windfall that I wasn’t expecting. This is October ’85, mind
you, so people were still into, like "You’ve got to get real
estate in New York, man. Get real estate. It’s just appreciating
every minute of every day." I was immediately thinking I’m
going to get that $10,000 and Spike needs money and this is a fantastic
opportunity here. Knowing that that money was coming made me feel
absolutely that it was the only right thing to do, the only smart
thing to do. Who knew it would be so life-changing to put that
money into She’s Gotta Have It?

MM: So that was a fateful investment.

JP: That was. I never made a better move.
Never been happier about it. Never had a greater, greater experience
in my life.

MM: And then how did it work out between
you and Spike in terms of you representing the film? What was
the sequence there?

JP: I said I’d like to put in some money.
I said I’ve just made this deal on Parting Glances and I
think I’m now better qualified to represent your interests in the
sale of your film. We had a discussion about the fact since I knew
I’d have an equity interest from the investment. I also tried to
bring along one of the Parting Glances producers with me. He set
conditions on Spike, he wanted to be an executive producer for
example, and wanted certain cuts made that he was adamant about.
Both those things really bothered Spike and he actually spurned
the money, which he desperately needed. I knew I was in with the
equity investment and assumed I would be making something with
that because I felt really good about the film, so I was extremely
flexible in making a step deal in terms of a representation fee.
I just wanted to make sure I was there for that film. I had it
in my mind that my fee was within the 5% range, but the step deal
on She’s Gotta Have It had a fee that dipped down a point with
each increasing hundred thousand dollars of revenue — a reverse
step deal.

MM: A disincentive for…

JP: Let’s do a little something technical
here for the MovieMaker readers. Let’s say there’s a certain
percentage up to a hundred thousand and then another percentage
beyond a hundred thousand. If you get a hundred and one thousand
you don’t drop down to the lower percentage for the whole amount.
The first percentage would apply up to a hundred and then the amount
between a hundred and two hundred would be at the next percentage,
and the same thing from two to three, etc. It isn’t literally a
disincentive. Of course, his lawyer thought that’s exactly what
I had structured. I thought, oh yeah, so in the event that we had
a four hundred thousand dollar deal, which is what we had on that
film with Island, she must have thought I was in there begging
them to make it a $399,999 deal. I mean, come on.

MM: Give us the quick story of She’s
Gotta Have It…the two or three key things that got it finished
and sold.

JP: Oh man, the money was still like squeezing
water out of a rock. I put some in, some other people who already
had some money in at the time of the NYU screening put some more
in. I helped Spike get a deferment from Irwin Young at DuArt. Spike
himself got a full deferment for his sound mix at Sound One. He’s
remained extremely loyal to that place ever since, which is great,
because other filmmakers are not, I repeat, are not going to be
able to make that deal for themselves, then or now. Other steps
along the way were really kind of painstaking. The film was shot
on Super 16, so basically that’s a case where you have to budget
for the 35 blow-up because Super 16 is only screenable in a double
system format. Super 16 had to go to blow-up or you weren’t going
to have anything to actually show. And the key events in terms
of watching, boosting, making the film, began right around Spike’s
29th birthday in the third week of March, 1986, when the programmers
of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes saw the film and within 20
minutes invited it.

MM: So the audience reaction was pretty

JP: The audience reaction was spectacularly
great and you could tell it from the start. There’s the point in
the film about 10 minutes in that anybody who’s seen it will know
where the dog lineup occurs. That’s when you really know if you’ve
got people in your back pocket and that was an over-the-top reaction
that night.

MM: The San Francisco Film Festival screening?
What month was that?

JP: March 29th, 1986. The deal with Island
was cut between then and Cannes. There was spirited competition
from all distributors, except for Cinecom, which had seen the film
first and passed on it, on the general theory that Nola Darling
in the person of the actress Tracy Camila Johns was quote unquote "not-sexy." Some
of the offers were low because the film was like a completely new
thing. It’s like nobody had thought about the black audience, certainly
the non-action, middle class, college-educated black audience in
quite some time. Nobody knew what the black audience was and nobody
knew if they would go to something that wasn’t generic or action-oriented.

MM: So what was the advance?

JP: Island bought the world for $400,000 plus
completion costs.

MM: How much did it actually cost to get
in the can?

JP: Spike’s been one of the most upstanding
citizens on this long-debated question of real budgets and understated
budgets, and budgets that don’t count everything that they should
count. $175,000 was the figure he came up with, the figure that
he stuck to. It’s very accurate. It even includes legal expenses
and my fee. That’s an all-in figure.

MM: And do you know, in terms of actually
getting it in the can…

JP: About $50,000. Actually I should say even
less, because there wasn’t that much cash around. With $28,000
in grants and other odds and ends and dribs and drabs, I would
say probably $40,000 is a more accurate figure. I mean it was only
a 12-day shoot, so maybe as little as $30,000 to literally get
it in the can. And then funds were being raised every single week

MM: Then after She’s Gotta Have It,
give me the sequence of the next few films you represented.

JP: Well, She’s Gotta Have It‘s sister
film from the Directors’ Fortnight, from May ’86, was Lizzie Borden’s Working
, and I signed on for that. I was helping them in Cannes
and then when She’s Gotta Have It was all taken care of
I signed on officially. I liked the film a lot, but I also got
much additional prompting from my wife, Janet, who just went completely
crazy about it. Sara Driver’s film Sleepwalk was the opening
night film in the International Semaine de la Critique, which is
a weird section over there that I’ve never quite been able to make
sense of, even though years later it worked out really well for Clerks.
And there was another film that wound up being released in ’87,
produced by Lynn O’Donnell, directed by Steven Okazaki. Lynn went
on to produce Crumb. Living on Tokyo Time also came to me
the summer of ’86, just prior to the opening of She’s Gotta
Have It

MM: And then what was after that?

JP: I lose track. Better pull out the bio.
I guess after that, like many people, I kind of hit a wall. There
were four films that were all released in ’87 which I became involved
with over the next year, and Anna was the film picked up
by Vestron in a spirited bidding war with Miramax. That film came
out late in ’87, so ’87 was a really, really, active year for me
with something seemingly opening every other month. And She’s
Gotta Have It
of course had lots and lots of aftermath because
it just played forever, and there was the home video release so
it was a great, great year. Had a baby, the She’s Gotta Have
baby, that year. So it was a rich and wonderful time. In
1988 I wound up in this prolonged relationship with Errol Morris
on The Thin Blue Line, where for the first time I didn’t
have a fully active repping role. I was sort of this phasing in
and phasing out kind of advisor who was then asked to police the
release of the film by Miramax. So that was an odd kind of experience,
kind of removed from me, although a truly, great, landmark film,
I think.

MM: And then when did you go past the wall?

JP: Well, thank God. Now I’ve got a family,
I’ve left my day job, I’m living film to film. On a certain level
all the 1987 films, except for Sleepwalk, which was a favorite
of Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch, all had excellent deals, and life
was sweet. Then 1988 was a trial and there was hardly any income
getting into the bank, and I was really starting to sweat it. I
had no idea what job I could have gone back to at that point anyway.
Around the turn of the year I saw a film I completely flipped for
because it was just so unusual. Sidewalk Stories, black-and-white,
shot 35, beautiful, no dialogue. The writer/director, Charles Lane,
also played the lead character, a Chaplinesque street person who
adopts a little lost girl, played by his real-life daughter. I
just completely fell in love with it. Island Pictures’ Chris Blackwell
seemed to like that film as much as I did, and made a pretty spectacular
worldwide deal. So on a personal level that kept the wolves from
the door for me.

MM: What was this spectacular deal?

JP: A $550,000 advance. The producers did
themselves harm by having a pretty crummy synthesized score that
had to be recomposed and rerecorded. In a silent film you have
tremendous opportunity to help people really go with it if the
music is really good, and it wasn’t. The producers’ take on that
deal was slightly eroded by the rerecording of the music, but how
often do you attract that kind of interest in a black-and-white
silent movie?

MM: So what was next after Sidewalk

JP: Well, here we go. That summer, Michael
Moore entered my life and left a phone message asking if I wanted
to check out this movie, Roger and Me. I’d heard about it
the previous year. It had played incomplete at the IFFM as a work
in progress, a section of the market which had just begun to catch
on then in ’88, and in the book the chapter on Roger and Me is
like 50 pages, so I hardly know how to summarize what went on except
here’s a film with a cash budget of $160,000 that Warner Bros.
wound up acquiring for $3 million. Jeez, how did that happen? Sometimes
I wonder myself.

MM: It’s hard to do the story justice here.
You have a very subtle way of delineating the various characters,
companies and forces in your life at that time.

JP: I think I had some sense that maybe there
was history in the making on that one, and I’m very fortunate to
have kept, kind of at Michael Moore’s prompting, some very good
journals. There really wasn’t an hour of any day when something
didn’t happen which affected the life-slash-value of that movie.
I’ve never quite seen anything like it. I know records are meant
to be broken, and I’m a big Baltimore Orioles fan and I savored
the moment when Cal Ripkin, Jr. passed Lou Gherig’s consecutive
game streak, a record that nobody thought would be broken. But
there’s a series of fortuitous and serendipitous and calculated
circumstances that came to bear to take Roger and Me from
being like ‘Gosh this is a really good documentary’ into the stratosphere
of a Time-Warner megadeal. (They might not have quite realized
what a handful Michael Moore turned out to be, but, hey, none of
us did.) And in the independent film context, of course, one cannot
possibly overrate the impact of sex, lies and videotape that January
at Sundance and then its coronation with the Palm d’Or four months
later at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Nobody even thought it
should’ve been in the main competition except Harvey Weinstien
and a French distributor. So there were enormous accolades for
this film from nowhere and of course sex lies and videotape is
not a She’s Gotta Have It kind of film or one of these $25,000
films we’re familiar with now. It had a certain polish. But again,
it just really caught the essence of the time. It made everybody
think, gosh, this is like the next thing we need — we need more
Steven Soderberghs. And in that same Cannes Film Festival you have Sidewalk
, and you have Spike, who just totally nailed it on Do
the Right Thing
, his third feature. Do the Right Thing,
in addition to being a fantastic, masterful piece of filmmaking,
also illustrated the viability of thinking that these young independent
filmmakers could sustain careers. Do the Right Thing is
released that summer and once again it helps to not just be dealing
with what you think is really good art but something that winds
up being commercially successful.

MM: Right, the story as you accounted in
the book is such an incredible roller coaster. And I think that
it’s probably a unique chapter in the history of American independent

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