Movies · TV

Split Screen Offers a Flashback to the ‘90s for Indie Cinema Fans

By  · Published on December 8th, 2016

John Pierson’s indispensable series finally gets a re-release.

John Pierson was a huge deal when I was a film student. So much that when I saw him and Richard Linklater on the street in 1996, it was Pierson who caught my eye. His then just-published book “Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes” was a kind of bible for me at the time, and I dreamed that one day he’d represent my breakout into the indie film scene, as he’d done previously with Linklater, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and others.

And I was immediately excited for Pierson’s show, Split Screen, which aired on IFC (back when they were still on brand with a focus on independent cinema as the Independent Film Channel) from 1997 through 2001. The series showcased indie filmmakers and actors, including those Pierson had helped professionally and others ranging from amateur talents to major stars behind and in front of the camera.

Now, after 20 years, I’m excited to finally watch it all over again. Unavailable since its initial run, Split Screen has found a new home on the Criterion Channel of the new streaming service FilmStruck, where it will eventually be available in its entirety. This Saturday will see the debut of six episodes, including the first handful from 1997 plus one of the later Projections tie-in installments from 2000. And another six episodes will arrive every week until they’re all there.

In the first batch is one of my favorite segments, from the episode titled “Sundance on the Hudson,” which is about the kinds of filmmakers Pierson describes as “occasionally outrageous off-Hollywood types.” These low-budget creators, attendees of John and Janet Pierson’s Cold Spring Film Workshop, share stories of how they found money to make their movies, one of them revealing he crashed his car in order to use insurance checks.

While appearances from the big names (and the small names of the time who became big, like Chris Smith and Marina Zenovich) are a big draw with Split Screen, it’s the more obscure slice of indie film life and regional field trips, such as one taken to meet the real people of “the real Fargo” and another to a town in Massachusetts where a mental hospital might be turned into a film studio (or water slide park), that I love.

Revisiting the show (or tuning in for the first time) now also has an added nostalgia level, of course. At the time, Pierson was merely looking at the scene and industry around him. Today, it’s a time capsule view of that special time of the 1990s indie film movement. Everything looks so much harder, and also so much easier in some ways, and it all seems much more off to the side still. Even if back then it felt like, especially noted in the Sundance segment, the indie world had already gotten too mainstream.

And everyone looks so young, including me. Yes, I’m burying the lede here, but I actually appear as “Film Student” in one of the very first episodes of Split Screen, one that will be available on FilmStruck this weekend. Why am I featured? I don’t really know, but it happened thanks to that time I recognized Pierson on the street as I was heading to work at a movie theater (NYC’s Angelika Film Center, seen in the background), and cameras started rolling as I just stood there conversing with the two men, hearing from yet another established filmmaker that film school is a waste of money, and getting the orthographic stylization of SubUrbia wrong.

The fact that I was put on camera suddenly and for no good reason (and the fact that they kept me in, despite my awkwardness and how much I look like a walking billboard for ska with my patch-covered Merc jacket) is part of the loose fun of the series, and that combined with the scruffy production value goes with the heart of pure independent cinema. Pierson’s production company was called Grainy Pictures, so you know he liked things unpolished, and Split Screen is certainly that. As a news magazine TV show, it’s like a visual equivalent of a ’90s ‘zine, and that’s a good thing.

With so much ’90s nostalgia going around in general, one thing that’s been lacking is proper in-depth acknowledgment of the rise of indie cinema. Not just recognition of those same big names that are still famous today but all of it. Highlights like those on a film co-op in Austin, a Vermont sheep farmer who is also a self-distributed filmmaker, and plenty of notable schlock and experimental filmmakers are all essential nooks and crannies of film history.

That’s why Split Screen, while perhaps not made with this in mind, is now an indispensable record of its time. And it also puts Pierson back in the limelight, where he belongs. He really was an icon in the ’80s and ’90s as an indie film guru, and I don’t think many know about him today (his wife, Janet, is the more well-known lately as head of the SXSW Film Festival). Even if all that comes out of FilmStruck’s re-release of the show is people knowing his name again, it’ll be worth it.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.