GoodFella in Indieland

This is maybe where the struggle comes in, and it can be especially hard with comedy. I would call Clerks a comedy, and Go Fish on a certain level, and American Job--although that's a painful, deadpan comedy. You just need to try to get things started on the right foot, in the right festival setting. And sometimes it works out great, as with Clerks or She's Gotta Have It. Sometimes you wind up with a low-grossing My Life's In Turnaround. And sometimes you wind up with something that you can't get anyone to bite on at all; for me, that was the Keith McNally film End of the Night.

CP: Part of what you're saying is that genre is as important in the indie milieu as it is in Hollywood: a way to distinguish the film and make it known to people as a type. Hence the shoot-'em-up buddy movie and now, it seems to me, the medium-budget women's picture.

JP: Or call it niche, yeah. That's key. Go Fish is a really interesting case to use on a number of levels. It's a lesbian romantic comedy, basically, but it's a movie whose stylistic predecessors feel like some portion of Slacker crossed with some portion of She's Gotta Have It. And yet it's for a lesbian audience and it has some really daring, experimental film techniques and it has a sex scene and it's shot in black and white and it is, we proudly say, grainy. So you've got a bunch of different forces and you don't know if they'll cancel each other out. And then you go through the whole thing and you wind up grossing $2.5 million and feeling great about that, and then you realize there's other problems here: For instance, most critics dealt with this film by saying, "Oh, it's a cute movie, it's this cute lesbian romantic comedy." They didn't cite its direction or writing or any of the other wonderful qualities that it had; they just kind of ghettoized it.

CP: Is Sundance still an important gatekeeper for indie films?

JP: I think Sundance works on a film-by-film basis. I'm very big on a lot of the films this year, so I won't complain. I think a lot of the movies here this year will comprise the majority of significant American indie releases over the next year. And yes, a number of the people who made them will also have the opportunity to go on and make other films. But that to me is secondary. I'm always looking at the work at hand, the first film. That's just the nature of my business. As far as Spike and Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith and Steve James of Hoop Dreams, those are four of my favorite people in the world; I'll be their friend forever. But I'm not an ongoing business part of their life--I'll leave that to others.

CP: You sound like Broadway Danny Rose: "They get famous and then they leave me." But seriously, why put the emphasis on the first-timer?

JP: I went to film school and I didn't become a filmmaker, so it's like this surrogate experience of being a first-time filmmaker over and over again.

CP: You also give filmmakers a leg up at the point when they need it most.

JP: Sure. But you could argue that there should be somebody to counsel the second-timer as well. There's countless examples of first-timers who fell on their faces with the second film, either from making bad choices or whatever.

CP: Maybe someone will create that position for themselves. Have you noticed whether there's another hot-shot producer's rep, a Next John Pierson, waiting in the wings?

JP: There are people who represent films, there have always been. I wasn't the first. But I don't know if anybody does it like I do it. Not to sound completely arrogant, but I don't think anybody has as relaxed a professional life as I do. When I rep a film without investing in it, I don't charge a fee anymore. I try to make sure that I'm paid fairly when I make an investment, because money is money is money. But I'm in a privileged position, because I've had backing--first from Island World and now from Miramax. I can afford to indulge myself on the movies I care about. Someone said to me recently, "All these years you haven't made the money you could have by involving yourself as an executive producer or whatever--but I guess you got back what you wanted by writing about them all in the book." And I think that's true. I do feel like I've just lived through this very interesting period, keeping my eyes open, seeing how it works. CP

John Pierson will read from and sign copies of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes at Hungry Mind in St. Paul Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m.

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