JOHN PIERSON begins his sly, knowledgeable, deeply entertaining SPIKE, MIKE, SLACKERS & DYKES: A GUIDED TOUR ACROSS A DECADE OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA (Miramax/Hyperion, $22.95), a recent history of the American art-movie business, with a riff on those old ”Do you know me?” American Express commercials. Chances are you don’t, but no matter: Pierson, who, reasonably enough, prefers the label ”guru” to ”bagman,” knows everybody. As a producer’s representative, his specialty is seeking out talent, helping filmmakers get enough money to keep working, and then brokering a deal with a distributor. His successes include Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. His failures are just as interesting, and his inventory of the nuts, bolts, and screwings of the indie-film biz is worth any half-dozen books by young directors whose depth of vision is exceeded only by their breadth of ego.
As Pierson makes dramatically clear, the road traveled by a low-budget success story, whether it’s El Mariachi or Slacker, is paved not only by talent but by deal memos, drumbeating, showmanship, media manipulation, and tough negotiations, and populated by distributors who want to get rich and directors who want to get famous. Anyone who thinks that this is what independent films are supposed to be independent of will find the author’s portrait of his rivalrous, hardball industry a revelation; the more low-budget films have influenced Hollywood moviemaking, the more similarly cutthroat the two businesses appear.
Pierson uses this memoir to do some very insiderish score settling, and when confronted by pretension, greed, or grandiosity, he’s unsparing. He disembowels Amongst Friends director and erstwhile flavor of the month Rob Weiss, who was dumb enough to boast that his knowledge of filmmaking went ”all the way back to the early seventies.” Pierson even tweaks his publishers, Miramax’s Weinstein brothers, referring to them as ”two very insistent rug merchants.” But as he tracks the indie-film movement from a primeval gumbo of revival-house programmers, festival buffs, film-school grads, and storefront distributors through the boom-and-bust ’80s and into the Pulp Fiction-fueled ’90s, a passion for movies is never far from the heart of his account. Pierson and most of his colleagues genuinely seem to love good filmmaking. Love, however, is rarely enough to get a movie into a theater. If you want to know the rest of what it takes, you couldn’t do much better than to hop aboard this 10-year wild ride. A