Streaming: A Brief History of American Independent Film: ‘Split Screen’ on FilmStruck


Mr. Pierson’s passion for his brand of cinema is a palpable thread throughout. It’s infectious, and the segments produced by other film folk that Mr. Pierson picked up along the way testifies to that; their work has the same informed, fervent quality.

“I had to cobble the first 10 episodes on my own, for the most part, with my wife, Janet, helping,” he said. (Janet Pierson is now the chief programmer of the film section of South by Southwest, the annual festival in Austin, Tex.)

“Most of the ideas were things I myself was wildly enthusiastic about,” he continued. “But there was a pool of larger people coming to me with their ideas, and the point of the whole show was to spread that enthusiasm around — I’ve sometimes described myself as the Johnny Appleseed of this world. So when people who were capable came to me with ideas they loved, but I might not have had the same personal attachment to, I was beholden to give them opportunities to create segments around stuff they loved.”

After years of pursuing the Criterion Collection about putting together a DVD or Blu-ray package of the show, Mr. Pierson eventually had to accept that TV content was, with one or two exceptions, not something that Criterion did. That changed when Criterion teamed up with Turner on the FilmStruck site. “The show fits really well with what the site does; it’s a very happy home for it,” he said.

Once the determination was made, Mr. Pierson was slightly surprised that the site insisted on putting up all 66 episodes over a period of time.

While the show is, by definition, of a certain age, it’s not as dated as it might have seemed, in part because Mr. Pierson rarely did segments based entirely on time-specific pegs. And almost all the individual films and filmmakers he focused on turned out to have staying power. (In this sense, the series is a good companion to “Cinéastes de Notre Temps,” the French TV documentary series that ran from 1964 to 2009; right now three episodes of that show are on FilmStruck’s Criterion site.)

When I spoke to Mr. Pierson on the phone from his home, where he says he’s keeping busy cooking for his wife while she prepares the slate for the next SXSW, I asked his veteran’s view of what streaming is doing for indie movies today. He expressed some skepticism. “As someone who began as a sales agent, I’m an empiricist. So I find it frustrating to have no idea of how many people are watching anything across the streaming spectrum. Back in the day, if someone said, ‘Hey my film’s doing great,’ you could verify if they were delusional or right. Now, who knows?”

Streaming services don’t gauge their success according to ratings, or box office numbers, because they don’t need to. But Mr. Pierson sees in this business model not just great potential for exposure, but great potential for anonymity. “What’s notable to me, too, is that you once could gauge things to the degree by which they got traction in the general cultural conversation,” he said. “When you could have any newspaper in America riffing in headlines on ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ or ‘Slacker,’ and ‘Do the Right Thing,’ you could feel how those filmmakers are penetrating the culture. You can tell that it had gotten outside the indie community echo chamber. In the current landscape, I find myself in the dark, but thinking maybe the cultural impact has been lessened.”

My own feeling is it’s too soon to tell, and that’s one thing I’ll be exploring in future columns.

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