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The Life and Times of John Peirson Part II

The Life and Times of John Peirson Part II

Articles - Directing


Pierson at a February signing
in Seattle.

MM: Give us your view of taking a film
to festivals. In most cases is that the essential first step?

JP: Well, if you’ve been able to make it through
that last phase of mixing your sound, you know, those heavy costs
that come at the end of post production, and you have a print,
then you have the Real Mcoy. The temptation which you might’ve
felt if you didn’t have the wherewithal to get through those last
stages of post, to screen double system for the distributors or
whoever, is gone. It would behoove you to wait for the suitable
festival and hope you get in. And, if you have a finished film
you can try to screen early in order to get invited early so that
you can then make your plans to use that event as the point of
sale, then you’re in even better shape.

MM: John Pierson’s A-list of festivals
for American independents?

JP: Clearly Sundance has become a dominant
event. I don’t think any of us really like monopolies, so I don’t
want Sundance to always for every film on every occasion be the
first and only answer. But, the gap between how you can benefit
from Sundance verses other festivals has widened with each passing
year. Crumb did play in Toronto and New York before Sundance,
so the distributor could do Sundance with the further purpose of
preparing for the release of the film. Generally speaking I believe
it’s good to go into Sundance unexposed because I think the excitement
level of the brand new film is that much keener. What if The
Brothers McMullen
had been in Toronto before Sundance? That
would that have made everything different for Ed Burns.

MM: What about Toronto and Telluride?

JP: I think Toronto is such a strong festival.
I’m not going to slander Telluride, but, to me it’s no longer a
selling event. I don’t think a film’s been sold at or out of Telluride
since 1988. They can always say we showed Roger and Me first in
the same way the Independent Feature Film Market can always say
we showed One False Move first. But let’s analyze both statements.
IFFM showed One False Move, six people came, nothing happened
until the film opened. Does it have any relevance at all that it
played at the Market? No, absolutely none. Roger and Me at
Telluride, people loved it. It had six sold-out shows. It went
berserk. But, did it sell there? No. What was its perceived value
to distributors at the conclusion of that event? If somebody’d
said ‘You have to sell this film right now, today, before Toronto,’
no way Roger and Me sells for more than a hundred thousand
dollars on the basis of Telluride. Why is that? Elitist atmosphere;
people discount the reactions up there.

MM: Where do San Francisco and Seattle
fit in the mix of important festivals?

JP: Seattle is a great way to set up your
regional opening. I think that a lot of distributors have been
very savvy about that. I know that Sony Pictures Classics has been
devoted to supporting that festival for years and years to good
end. San Francisco worked great for me in the mid ’80s. Then they
changed the date, and it’s very close to Cannes now. I think they
do very well on a local basis, but it’s almost impossible to attract
national recognition or to get the distributors to fly in to see
something that you are selling there. We had a terrible time with My
Life’s In Turnaround
out there which was one of the opening
night films. It played great locally but did not really enhance
the value of the film whatsoever to the distributors or to the
national press.

MM: In North America, any other key festivals
aside the ones we already mentioned?

JP: What are we leaving out? It’s too soon
to tell, but I believe that the L.A. Independent Film Festival
could grow into something significant. Theoretically an L.A. independent
film festival in mid April is a sound idea. Peter, you know cause
you did the research. What domestic festivals didn’t Clerks play
in? That was for the purpose of beating the drum in New Orleans;
in Charleston, South Carolina; in Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Aspen
and Vancouver. You could just go on and on. You wouldn’t do that
just to try to sell a film to the distributor. The distributor
would do that to try to set it up the film for the paying public
later on.

MM: So, using festivals to get a distributor
is very different from using festivals once you have a distributor.

JP: Vastly different.

MM: Now, overseas is Cannes the most important
and Berlin and others aren’t as significant?

JP: Cannes remains the top of the heap by
a considerable margin. I haven’t used Berlin to sell anything,
so I can’t claim great expert mastery of all the tricks of the
trade in Berlin. There are times when Berlin can be used brilliantly,
the most notable being The Wedding Banquet three years ago. The
buyers from all over the world were certainly there.

MM: What is your general advice to filmmakers
about whether foreign and domestic distribution deals should
be separated?

JP: It depends on the deal. Foreign value
is very difficult to put any price tag on.

You would think that if Clerks had this ability
to translate, travel all around the world you would think Slacker must
have done the same thing. Well hey, Slacker was a complete foreign
washout. John Sayles movies have always had a hard time overseas.
Black films have always had a hard time overseas. But if somebody
really is putting a higher value on your film and they are going
to take a shot at it and they generally have been good with smaller
scale independent products, then, hey, why not?

Marianne Leone in Errol Morris’s The
Thin Blue Line
(1988).

MM: Give us an overview of today’s
typical distribution deal.

JP: The biggest problem is we live in a world
where the standard is to take the distribution fee starting with
the first dollar of gross film rental. It is the first and foremost
thing to guard against and resist whenever possible, which is something
that unfortunately I have to acknowledge Miramax pioneered, which
is a little embarrassing because I’m part of their extended family
now. Miramax will usually ask for 35 percent. That’s a little high,
you know. If you’ve got leverage you really, really work hard to
get them to 30. The likelihood of getting below 30 is not very
good. The one thing to put up a much bigger fight about in my opinion
is the idea that the distributor gets a fee up front and then also
has a participation, oh God, a 50-50 participation is usually the
starting point — in the back end net. In the mid-’80s you often
had a seven or 10-year distribution term and a 50-50 split with
distribution costs off the top on theatrical release. Distribution
costs are actual print, promotion and advertising expenses which
include the creative costs of creating a trailer and a one-sheet.
It can be all direct, out-of-pocket costs. That provided really
good incentive for the distributor to spend an appropriate amount
to release the film without going berserk. Today on a standard
fee deal there is a certain point where a distributor is spending
money on a film as it becomes theoretically profitable. Your distributor
is spending money to make himself a higher fee. And that in the
long run, if it’s not being spent wisely and intelligently, that’s
costing the producer money. This is so complicated because in many
cases filmmakers, for career reasons and for ego reasons, love
to see heavy spending for their films. I don’t think Atom Egoyan
was complaining when Miramax went out on 440 screens with Exotica this
year and bought TV advertising, etc. He may have been mortified
over seeing his film sold as a sex film. But, he’s got a studio
deal now so I don’t think he was too mortified. At a certain point
if a distributor is spending and spending and building up his fees,
it may be taking long term money out of the producer’s pocket.

MM: When did distributors start getting
a percentage distribution fee plus a split of the back end?

JP: I would say that’s kind of an early ’90s
development. Miramax has come on pretty hot and heavy with it in
the last couple of years. They also pioneered the surcharge on
advertising.

MM: And how does that work?

JP: Their idea is that they do all this work
in house, therefore in addition to the direct cost that they’ve
created and or placed, that they should get another 10 percent
for their trouble. That’s another thing to guard against, always
keeping in mind beggars can’t be choosers. Anybody who gets a distribution
offer – their first response should be gratitude. Their next response
should be fuck you.

MM: In the ’80s the distribution term was
seven to 10 years

JP: Now it’s like 25 and up.

MM: How are costs handled when the distributor
is getting a percentage fee?

Dana Wheeler Nicholson and Eric
Schaeffer in My Life’s In Turnaround.

JP: Distributors get their fees first.
Then if there is enough to cover their costs, they take that. If
there is not enough to take their costs, then you enter the ancillary
phase in a deficit position. Home video can provide the distributor
with a tidy profit.

MM: So distributors get their distribution
fee off the top, then they pay their costs, and then whatever
is left over is the producer’s share?

JP: If an advance was paid in the first place,
the producer’s share is applied against the recoupment of that
advance. You don’t earn any overage until the film earns back what
they paid you up front plus interest.

MM: So the newest wrinkle is a combination
of those two where there is a distribution fee that comes off
the top, the distributor gets their expenses and then they want
to split the back end with the filmmaker.

JP: Right. As a producer, sometimes you have
to make a choice. You can think I want to net out money on this
film, or you can think I want a big splash. You’re not always in
full control of the situation but you generally know that it’s
more often the case that you will get the bigger splash via a company
like Miramax, and that you will be far more likely to make out
conservatively and shrewdly on the back end of the theatrical part
of your deal anyway if you’re with a company more along the lines
of Sony Pictures Classics. Goldwyn’s spending habits generally
run a bit to the richer side. Their worldwide distribution costs
on Go Fish crossed the million dollar mark.

Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling
with Jamie Overstreet in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986).

MM: Let’s talk about home video because
you’ve had a lot of experience with that.

JP: Yeah, a lot of rotten experience.

MM: Hoop Dreams is obviously an amazing
case.

JP: Clerks is, too.

MM: What did Clerks ship?

JP: 60 thousand units on a rough-looking,
black and white movie that grossed 3 million or 3.1 million. That’s
an awfully good number.

MM: What about Slacker?

JP: We use the figure 5,017 units in the rental
market But now it’s a sell-through and I have no idea how many
more that’s kicked in. Thanks to the great wisdom of Orion Home
Video, the sell-through effort didn’t coincide with any particular
event, such as the release of Dazed and Confused or Before
Sunrise
, either one of which any moron would know would have
been a big kick.

MM: Roger and Me on home video?

JP: I think they say 85,000 units. Michael
calls it a 25 million dollar worldwide gross but I don’t know where
that figure comes from.

MM: She’s Gotta Have It?

JP: 30-32,000 units and a big, big disappointment.
CBS Fox badly released She’s Gotta Have It. The problem
was not knowing what to make of it. It’s an enormous frustration. She’s
Gotta Have It
it was still renting and renting. It had significant
rentals six months after the home video release. That indicates
one thing and one thing only: there were not enough copies out
there. Now, why didn’t stores reorder more copies? If they are
not shoved down their throats in the first place, stores don’t
have any problem filling the demand for months and months. Hey,
it’s fine with them — they save the 50 bucks another copy would
cost. But, in terms of untapped potential revenue it’s very frustrating
from the producer’s point of view.

MM: Is there an average range for American
independent films on home video?

JP: It’s all over the map. My Life’s in
Turnaround
is likely to turn around 3,000 units. Hoop
Dreams
, 130,000 units. Sometimes there’s a logic. Sometimes
there’s no rhyme or reason. Since many black films have underperformed
how come HBO Home Video manages to ship 40,000-plus copies of Straight
Out of Brooklyn
? How does HBO Home Video ship 35, 000 units
of The Thin Blue Line? Excellent hard work.

MM: What about television? How much has
Bravo, The Independent Film Channel and The Sundance Channel
been paying and what’s your sense of what Sundance channel has
been paying for American independents?

JP: Bravo prices, except where people have
twisted their arms, are your basic $10,000 to $20,000 prices. These
are not knock-your-socks-off figures.

MM: You don’t see anything changing with
the coming of competition?

JP: No, because although it’s not collusion,
it’s just your basic cheapness. The idea seems to be to keep prices
low. The prices for "unexposed" films that haven’t gotten
on cable television by other means. I means are embarrassingly
low. I mean they’re probably going to have a slot where filmmakers
pay The Independent Film Channel to show their work.

MM: So, instead of rent-a-distributor it
will be rent-a-cable channel.

JP: Exactly. I wish it were funny, but it’s
so disheartening, you know? The Independent Film Channel is running
around the country trying to find festivals and other film events
to sponsor. And, I’m sure Sundance will be doing that as well.
Call me an old radical, but I wish that they were spending some
of that sponsorship money on filmmakers.

MM: Right. Let’s shift to financing for
a minute. When I was first writing about no-budget production,
you mentioned the disappearance of home video money from the
equation. For
sex lies and videotape and a lot of other
movies home video money was the key if not the whole budget.

JP: Right. Those $1-5 million type films.

MM: Now that that money is pretty much
gone, what are the possibilities for the first-time filmmaker
trying to make his or her first feature?

JP: Well, on the low end you helped to focus
and spearhead this, Peter. On the under 30,000 dollar end. Apparently
with each passing decade the ability to access lines of credit
through credit cards right after you come out of college certainly
expanded exponentially. Jay Westby wrote a fantastic article for
MovieMaker called "Budget Lite Moviemaking" in which
he characterized this whole generation as the Credit Card Kids.
That seems to be the under $30,000 answer. So, is that a new form
of financing? Well, yes. Is there any secret to it? Apparently,
no. I wish I could have gotten a credit card in 1975. Maybe my
whole life would be different. It’s really had a huge impact. If
there are 400-500 low-budget films a year, clearly hundreds of
those are now falling into this ultra-low category. I don’t know
how people do 1 or 2 million dollar films anymore.

MM: There are certainly not very many companies
that are willing to finance first time filmmakers at that level
anymore.

JP: That’s definitely true.

MM: At your workshop when I asked the audience
how many people had, were, or were about to make a feature for
under $150,000, two thirds raised their hands.

JP: Right.

MM: What is your sense of how the audience
for independent movies has changed?

JP: I feel completely miserable about the
incredibily difficult time that Safe is having. I think that a
lot of the breakthrough films in this day and age are partly drawing
on this aging boomer audience. There seems to be a desire to walk
into something feeling like you’re going to have satisfaction guaranteed.
It’s not my sense of how people approached non-Hollywood filmgoing
through most of the ’80s.

MM: How hopeful are you about the state
of distribution or specialized movies?

JP: In every year since 1988 and I think 1995
is pretty much on a par, between 27 and 31 American independent
movies have been released theatrically. The number that the system
can accommodate seems to be pretty consistent and I think that’s
reasonably good. I’m not sure how many really good films beyond
30 a year there are. The fact that there are four or five hundred
out there as opposed to the 50 or 60 that were out there 10 years
ago is a problem for the average filmmaker. The number of films
produced has expanded exponentially as the number of releases has
stayed the same. The 25-year-old filmmaker may be concerned that
a permanent government which is getting older all the time is running
these independent companies and making these key festival selections.
But there’s only one solution. If you say, ‘Man, these old farts
are running our world,’ you just have to run your own world. You
run your own world by starting the New York Underground Film Festival
like Todd Phillips and his guys did. Or, although I don’t think
that they’ve done it perfectly, you decide you’re going to start
Slamdance and spit right in the face of Sundance. That’s the answer
if you believe your audience is out there and it’s a different
one from that being served by the gate keepers. Julie Dash accused
me of being one: white male gate keepers run this world. Those
white male gate keepers didn’t go for Daughters of the Dust,
and she found another solution. Working in tandem with a small
distributor, Kino, and 2.4 million dollars later she proved her
point. Also Sankofa by Haile Gerima — He proved his point and
did it his own damn way. Great. More people have to do that.

MM: If the number of films being
made increases and the number of slots in terms of distribution
stays the same then the percentage will continue to go down of
films that are actually released among the films that are produced.

JP: The percentage does go down. But there
are new ways to break in. For the Brian Singers of the world, Public
Access
, his first feature, which shared the Sundance Grand
Jury Prize was released, yet through Gramercy he manages to release
the excellent, entertaining The Usual Suspects. Matthew Harrison,
same thing The Rhythm Thief‘s not in release, but he’s got
a 3.5 million dollar deal to make another feature. This never happened
in the ’80s, never. Now you can leapfrog right over the old tried
and true formula of making the first feature, getting the theatrical
distribution, doing well in the marketplace, having somebody notice
you and stepping up in the ladder to go on to the second feature.
Hey, Brian Singer just skipped steps one two and three.

MM: Should the Independent Feature Market
be part of a strategy to get a film sold?

JP: Well, I’ll do the sad story here — if
you’re not invited to festivals or for some reason feel that you
won’t be invited to festivals and you need to do something with
your film so that it gets in front of some audience, even if that’s
a handful of filmmakers, then the Independent Film Market is the
answer to your problems. Let’s call it the Last Chance Texaco.
The last resort. I have Papal dispensation from the executive director
of the IFP to call it a dump or a dumping ground, either way. That’s
kind of what by and large it ends up being. Doesn’t mean that you
can’t just jump right up out of there and climb to the top of the
garbage heap and be Kevin Smith. Worked for Kevin. He had a design
of going to the IFP and he may have only had 12 people at the Sunday
morning screening but one of them was Bob Hawk. That lead to you
and that lead to me and that lead to everything.

MM: Give me a description of your relationship
to Miramax now. How are you part of the family?

JP: Pretty consistently over the last decade
I’ve been getting a films in progress coming in my mail or Fed-exed.
Why do people send things to me Fed-ex, by the way, if they have
no money? Just please use the regular mail, it works. And, if you
send it to me Fed-exed, either I’m not going to look at it within
five minutes of receiving them anyways. Save yourself 10 bucks.
Put it into the film. But, I get a film every day, some days two.
Miramax is hoping that three or four times a year, which is a good
year, I will come across something which I want to provide the
completion financing for. That could be on the basis of dailies,
on the basis of as little as 10 minutes of sample scenes from the
movie or on the basis of the world’s longest three and three quarter
hour rough assembly with 12 takes of the same scene. It takes a
little more effort to stay energetic about it these days just because
the volume has stepped up. There’s not as much diversity as one
would hope for. A lot of people seem to be making the same choices.

MM: Is the idea that you will put finishing
funds in films that you know Miramax will ultimately acquire?

JP: They’re entitled in their relationship
with me to a first look. This doesn’t mean that there is a prearranged
deal that we just sign immediately. If I have something I want
to do and they decide they want to see it sooner rather than later
we sit down, they look at it, and they go ‘yeah we loved it, let’s
do it and then they have to try to negotiate a deal with the producers
of the film. One that is acceptable to me as well. I’m in the complete
middle position where I’m representing everybody’s interests.

MM: After your book comes out and your
book tour is finished, might we see you on some —

JP: I hope you see me guest hosting on the
Sundance Channel At least once a week making trouble by going on
the air and saying this channel just doesn’t pay filmmakers enough
money for their films. I don’t know what’s wrong with this Robert
Redford guy. MM

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