Could ‘Boyhood’ Have Happened if Filming Had Begun Today?
The breakout hit's producer John Sloss answers that and more.
A great deal has been made about the unorthodox process Richard Linklater and his cast went through in shooting Boyhood over the course of 12 summers, but what about Linklater’s longtime lawyer and producer John Sloss? Dating back to the early 1990s with films like Linklater’s Slacker, Sloss has helped more than 100 of the biggest indies with everything from securing financing to negotiating their distribution deals. Yet when Linklater came to him in 2001, Sloss had never put anything together like Boyhood. No one had.
“I knew there were pitfalls,” Sloss tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I knew it was going to be a challenge to find someone to fund something that was so fraught with legal risks and also didn’t promise to generate a return for at least 12 years.”
On the legal front, Sloss knew there was little he could do to about obtaining the normal assurances that are standard in the entertainment business. For starters, there’s a seven-year rule that prohibits personal services contracts for longer than seven years — a provision the Modern Family castmembers tried to use in having their contracts voided during their 2012 contract re-negotiations.
“There's nothing you really can do,” reflects Sloss. “You sign everyone six ways to Sunday, but when they turn 18 or after seven years, they can just do what they want. So what you have to do in a very pragmatic way is get yourself in business with people you think you can trust and will show up.”
For that, Sloss had to rely on the judgment of his longtime client Linklater, whom Sloss says cast the parents as smartly as he did the lead (Ellar Coltrane) for Boyhood. “Rick [Linklater] is just a very solid person,” explains Sloss. “He has great judgment and he is not self-destructive; he’s attracted to other solid people and he’s coming from — I know this sounds slightly goofy — he’s coming from a pure place and I think that really comes across and elicits the same from others.” Even so, movie financiers demand a certain amount of legal security that Sloss could not provide with Boyhood. More problematic, though, is that in an industry where five years is a long run for a studio boss, Boyhood wouldn’t make a dime for at least 12 years.
Sloss’ first move was to bring the project to IFC, where he and Linklater had experience working on a series of unorthodox projects. Back in 2000, Sloss got IFC to back his groundbreaking InDigEnt, one of the earliest attempts to make low-budget digital video indies, and that attracted top talent like Linklater (Tape) by sharing 50 percent of first-dollar revenues with the filmmaking team. Then in 2001, IFC backed Linklater’s existential Waking Life, a feature that was shot using live actors, but then was entirely rotoscoped to create a dream-like animated look.
Sloss was thrilled when IFC boss Jonathan Sehring wanted to back the film, but the famously tough dealmaker knew he’d need to negotiate an agreement that would keep IFC financially motivated to stay in the Boyhood business for the full 12 years.
“We negotiated a deal with IFC that was basically series of 12 renewable options,” explains Sloss. “They were not obligated for 12 years from the beginning, but if they didn’t [renew], we had the right to find another financier and enable them to recoup in front of IFC, which left a tremendous motivation to continue funding. That was a little bit of foresight on our part.”
When asked if it would have been harder or easier to set up financing for Boyhood in 2014 compared to 2002, Sloss didn’t hesitate to answer that it would be far easier today. “I think with the digital alternatives now,” explains Sloss, “there would have been ways to monetize this that weren’t even conceivable in 2002.” That doesn’t mean Sloss would recommend to any of his other clients that they try to make their own Boyhood: “I would say, I’m not sure lightning strikes in the same place twice.”
“There was just a tremendous amount of luck involved. That Jonathan Sehring is still [at IFC], that Ellar showed up every year, that Ethan [Hawke] and Patricia [Arquette] made time each year and that [co-star] Lorelei [Linklater] remained Rick’s daughter,” Sloss says with a laugh. “Some of it was planned, some of it was luck. I think that we are still above ground is a little bit of luck.”
Based on the near-universal praise and box-office returns, it was a risk worth taking. And although Sloss won’t engage in Oscar talk (“it’s way too early”), the indie power broker is proud to report that his “time-back guarantee” — Sloss promised to do two hours and 43 minutes of customary chores for anyone who didn’t enjoy Boyhood — has been a success.
“I actually got a lot of responses from people saying, ‘I was looking forward to calling you out, but unfortunately I’m not going to be able to in good conscience,’ ” Sloss says. “A couple people have called to ask me to come cut their lawn, but I’m still trying to make the time.”