(Documentary. Potential Feature or Short Doc-Series)
“It’s Morning In America!” and Ronald Reagan is sworn in for a second term. Mikhail Gorbechev becomes leader of the Soviet Union and has yet to take down that wall. “We Are The World” is recorded in response to an epic famine in Ethiopia. Christa McAuliffe is chosen to ride in the space shuttle Challenger… And Homophobia and the AIDS epidemic are in full swing. In NYC, Jewish and Christian religious protestors crash a gay pride parade with signs that read “Smile If You Have AIDS” and “Smash Gay Rights Now.”
In music, Rock Me Amadeus, Take on Me, Like a Virgin, The Heat is On, I Wanna Know What Love Is and The Power of Love top the charts. At the movies, Americans watch Back To The Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, The Sure Thing and The Care Bears Movie…
And it is against this backdrop that John Pierson’s story takes flight: a cinephile-geek-fanboy who becomes a major influencer in bringing underrepresented voices to the mainstream market as an accidental sales rep, essentially improvising and inventing an occupation that previously had barely existed.
And it all started in 1985 with Parting Glances – the first theatrical feature to deal with the threat of AIDS and feature homosexual characters as recognizable and ordinary, as well as then-unknown Steve Buscemi’s first leading role. Pierson would discover his passion for bringing diverse voices and perspectives to the big screen, ultimately becoming an essential player in breaking down the cultural walls that kept mainstream theatrical releases white, male-centric and heteronormative. His passion became to represent the underrepresented.
Pierson went on to invest in and bring then fledgling filmmaker Spike Lee’s first feature She’s Gotta Have It to market – a film which served a not just under-represented audience, but a completely ignored one – Black America. Pierson championed and sold Working Girls by feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden, a film written and directed by a woman and featuring strong female leads making powerful choices about their own sexuality… The list goes on. Film after film, filmmaker after filmmaker, Pierson was ahead cultural mainstream and used his resources to open up the cultural conversation to marginalized voices.
The series provides an extraordinary opportunity to look behind-the-scenes at the rise of the mid-80’s to 90’s independent film world that gave birth to both visionaries and tyrants and that changed the world of cinema as we know it. From the explosive growth of the Sundance Film Festival, to the birth and eventual corporate absorption of the mini-major’s (October Films, Miramax, etc.) the film will provide a first hand account of how money, ego and power both catapulted filmmakers to fame and fortune, while also exploring the damage left in their wake.
Like The Defiant Ones, the series will include interviews with the people who made these films, sold these films, fought over these films, believed in them and bought them, to tell the stories of how these iconic films came to life and found their audience. We intend to broaden beyond the slate of films that John Pierson brought to sale, getting his perspective (as well as others) on this extraordinary era in independent film.
These were some of the first voices to break through the mainstream – a mainstream which is much more diverse today because of these filmmakers, creatives, advocates and the fight to get their voices heard.
The series will shine a light on the social and political context of the particular moment. What was the political and national dialogue on and experience of Black America in 1986 when She’s Gotta Have It was released and lit a cultural fire? That same year, what was the national dialogue surrounding women and reproductive rights? What about sexual harassment? This is the year the Supreme Court finally decided women could seek legal damages for harassment in the workplace. Think on that. And what is the context of unfettered capitalism and the legacy of Reagonomics that shattered and abandoned middle America and to which Michael Moore gave voice to in Roger and Me?
John Pierson was both witness and architect of one of the most tumultuous and exciting eras in film history. It was an era of pirates and dreamers, and the fertile origin story in the careers of some of todays most beloved filmmakers and story tellers.
Many of these directors are artists who are relevant to this day, helping redefine mainstream Hollywood. Last year Spike Lee won his first Academy Award for writing the screenplay for BlackKklansman. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood’s received multiple Oscar nominations. Michael Moore is a brand unto himself. These are filmmakers who continue to tell stories happening outside of the mainstream, that push boundaries and open up possibilities for new voices, new stories, and the opportunity to see yourself on the screen.
And as Hollywood attempts to grapple today, more than ever, with a long history of race and gender bias, what better time to tell Pierson’s story — a story of diversifying and expanding the cinematic experience to open it to new voices.