Slacker: Looking Back

On Film / Essays — Sep 14, 2004

The following piece by Sony Pictures Classics cofounder and copresident Michael Barker, who picked up Slacker for Orion Classics in 1991, originally appeared in the program for the 2001 Austin Film Society event Slacker: A Ten-Year Reunion.

What I’ve found in the many years that I’ve been in the film business is that you often find the best films under the oddest of circumstances. The independent film maven John Pierson invited me to speak at a film workshop offered in Rockport, Maine, one summer. When I arrived to meet him at the end of one of his sessions, he was in deep discussion with a group of future filmmakers about a film they had just watched on videotape. There was great discussion about the nature of the film: whether the feature length sustained the movie’s odd structure and its huge cast of characters, whether people really talked like this or was this dense dialogue entirely the creation of the director’s fantasies, and, of course, whether anyone would ever go see this picture in a movie theater.

Seeing my interest more than piqued, John showed me the film that night. I had never seen anything like it. The endlessly surprising number of incredibly brainy people, all in their twenties, in appearance looking perfectly normal, eloquently espousing various states of existential aimlessness. These people were alter­nately funny, sexy (in a laid-back, smooth sort of way), and strange. The setting was Austin, Texas (around the vicinity of the University of Texas, where I happened to have gone to school), and everything looked familiar, conventional. But the structure of the film was something else again: a string of stories à la Arthur Schnitzler’s La ronde and an ironic surprise-a-minute twist reminis­cent of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty. Who is this guy Richard Linklater, at once as American as apple pie and possessing the depths of a European surrealist?

Well, I returned to New York and showed the film to my partners, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom. They were also taken with the film, but the question remained: What does a movie like this mean in the marketplace?

Then things seemed to happen very quickly.

Tom told us his brother actually talked like these characters and suggested we ask him what he thought of the idea for this movie. We called him up and literally thought we were talking to one of the characters in the film. “Slackers, man, oh yeah, there are millions of them. They’re everywhere. I’d go see that movie several times.”

Unbeknownst to us, Slacker had been playing a few times a week in 16 mm at a small theater in Austin. I received a call from my brother-in-law in Austin: “Have you heard of this movie Slacker?” he said. “I have a friend that goes to see it at the Dobie Theatre every week!”

Newsweek had a cover story on the Slacker Generation and a local New York newspaper mentioned that Webster’s Dictionary was considering including slacker as an entry in its next edition.

So we bought the movie, and we thought we had a little bit of lightning in a bottle. But then reality hit us like a brick wall. Slacker was turned down by the Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals. Rick actually called to ask us if we still wanted the movie. We said yes, of course, because we were already steeped in wildly creative marketing ideas (Madonna’s Pap smear as a promotion item being my favorite).

Finally, Sundance accepted the movie. It played four times throughout the festival. Cara White, our great publicist on the film, called from the first screening and had us in a panic because there were very few people in the audience. But the second screening proved to be half full; the third screening was full. At the fourth screening, people were fighting to get in and we knew we really had something.

As with many films that eventually become part of our culture (Blue Velvet and Wings of Desire come to mind), Slacker‘s importance and reputation over the years far outstrip the original box-office gross, and it has become a film for the ages. Tom and Marcie and I always give each other a knowing smile when that producer walks in and pitches us with the next Slacker as if it was always a sure thing. We smile because we remember the experience fondly and we are again made aware that Richard Linklater’s talent was a good bet from the very beginning.