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This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Call him a lawyer. Or call him a talent manager. Or a producer. Sometimes he’s all three at the same time. John Sloss, the don of New York’s indie filmmaking scene, is the rare multihyphenate who doesn’t act or direct. The Cinetic Media founder and Sloss Eckhouse LawCo partner has enabled some of the most influential movies of the past three decades, serving as a producer or executive producer on more than 60 films, including Boyhood, Boys Don’t Cry and Errol Morris‘ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. Cinetic and its staff of 40 is best known as a sales agency and a company that grabs headlines at Sundance, for better (Little Miss Sunshine, still the biggest sale in the festival’s history) or worse (the fascinating but unsellable 2013 pic Escape From Tomorrow, which was shot entirely at Disney theme parks without permission). But lately, the company has been making a push to expand its management division to handle its roster of clients that includes Richard Linklater, Justin Lin and Edward Burns. On the legal front, the University of Michigan Law School alum reps indie stalwarts Todd Haynes and Kevin Smith. The Michigan native and divorced father of two next will be in Cannes with Haynes’ much-buzzed-about lesbian drama Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Sloss, 59, invited THR to his office in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood to discuss a possible Boyhood sequel, the new distribution landscape and why there’s no longer an advantage to being a major studio.
You’re a lawyer and a manager. How does that work?
And a mogul. (Laughs.) The lawyer part works in a very straightforward way. I am a partner in a law firm that practices in a very traditional way, transactional entertainment law. But some clients like Justin Lin and Rick [Linklater] have us both as a lawyer and a manager.
But with some clients, you wear one hat?
Yeah, Todd Haynes is just a law client, and his manager and producer is Christine Vachon, who also is a law client of ours. I have to draw a line between the practice of law and other things because the canon of ethics requires it, but beyond that I see all these roles as services on a continuum. Under this roof, we also have a major marketing/publicity service company. We have a group that assembles financing. We have a big sales group. We have a big corporate consulting group. We have a quantitative analysis and modeling group. And we have this management group, which may be our most rapidly growing segment.
“Lanyard collection — no explanation needed,” Sloss says.
Why the focus on management?
Management is about aligning your interests with that of the client and taking a long-term view and helping shape their career. One of the things that people would say about me is, whether I call myself lawyer or manager or anything else, I’ve often been the most immersed representative in the lives of the people I represent. My feeling is that in New York there’s a need.
A few New York entertainment law firms have opened outposts in L.A. What are your thoughts on that trend?
It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t have a philosophical or conceptual problem with Los Angeles at all. And I could foresee a time in the future when we have a more permanent base there. My partner in Cinetic is Dana O’Keefe, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden. I feel strongly that in this modern virtual world, someone can perform their function from anywhere on the globe.
“Impulsive lift from backstage at the Golden Globes,” says Sloss. “Dorky, I know.”
What is the possibility of a Boyhood sequel?
It’s interesting because if you ask the people directly involved, they all say, “I wouldn’t count it out.” They had the time of their lives making it. The last year has been an amazing ride in terms of getting it out into the world. Right now everyone’s recovering from a little Boyhood fatigue. I would put it at unlikely, but I wouldn’t put it at impossible.
What do you think of the modern distribution landscape?
In the 30 years that I’ve been working, it has never been more dynamic. There are possibilities in every direction, from the type of storytelling to the type of financing to the ways in which those stories are delivered. All the original rules that held content creators captive to three networks [and a few distributors] have now been made obsolete. The creators are getting wind of that and are pushing the boundaries of everything. When you marry that with the growing ability to market directly to your community and your audience and to effectively do that in a viral way without spending $40 million to create awareness, then the possibilities are limitless.
Sloss‘ daughter, Loulou, now 10, whom he calls “supernatural.”
What is Cinetic doing that is novel?
When you look at [Banksy documentary] Exit Through the Gift Shop, which we were hired to sell and fell in love with and basically didn’t find a buyer who we felt appreciated the film as much as we did, we just decided we’ll create a company and distribute it ourselves. And we did and grossed more than $5 million [worldwide] and got nominated for an Academy Award. That’s certainly an example. Other management companies might be out there funding a script and say that’s very novel. We don’t do that because we aren’t capitalized, so we don’t develop our own stuff, but we take things from scratch, and we put the financing together for them.
Have you been approached by potential investors?
Yes. [But] we haven’t needed it. Our general philosophy is to align our interests with the creators, not to be a buyer from the creator. And this is something, when we formed FilmBuff as our digital distribution company, that was very important. When we were taking the rights to thousands of films to get them out into the digital marketplace, we created a template that wasn’t an acquisition agreement. It was an agency agreement where we were acting on behalf of the rights holders and the filmmakers. I’ve been offered the chance to run studio specialty divisions, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it because I’m sort of a natural seller, not a natural buyer. If you’re capitalized and you start to fund movies or acquire movies, then you start confusing the order of things. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever do it, but right now it’s not part of our agenda. When I joke about being a mogul, the conglomerate we foresee is a conglomerate of empowered creators who are controlling and owning their own content with us standing alongside them helping facilitate it. That to me is what a media conglomerate in the 21st century will look like.
A gift from a Napoleon Dynamite producer. “I had to lose the flip phone. Bummer.”
Justin Lin is working for Paramount on Star Trek 3. Is he an empowered creator?
The future isn’t just about people creating and owning your own stuff. It’s about people having the freedom to move in and out of the system. So, if Justin Lin wants to do Star Trek 3 or the Fast & Furious films, our job is to be a world-class representative in that regard. If he wants to create a joint venture with Bruno Wu to create films for the Chinese market, then it’s our job to structure that and bring it to fruition, and that’s what we did.
IFC held Boyhood back from VOD, which allowed it to get to $25 million at the domestic box office. Does that suggest that VOD is a fallback?
I would vehemently disagree with that. It will never be everybody’s first choice. The whole point of the future is to have the flexibility to actually craft the sequencing and windowing that best suits the piece of content.
Are there too many films in the indie marketplace?
That’s a complicated question, and it gets to the issue of the insistence of premiering on a large screen. We’re in a universe now where many people consider television more interesting than features. So the real question becomes where do people see films first more than whether there are too many features being made or too many features being released.
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