The Reeler


January 15, 2007

'Dance Fever

The Reeler at Sundance: Sales kingpin John Sloss prepares his 2007 slate for the Park City marketplace

Cinetic Media founder John Sloss among a handful of the titles he's shepherded to sale (Photo illustration: S.T. VanAirsdale)

John Sloss embodies the twin impulses of the Sundance Film Festival: He loves to nurture specialized films, and he thrives on the art of the deal. Alongside associates from his sales agency, Cinetic Media, the 50-year-old lawyer always seems to be at the center of the festival's most intense industry action, brokering deals for high-profile offerings like last year's $10.5 million darling, Little Miss Sunshine.

"We come at it from a love of movies," Sloss told The Reeler in a recent interview. "But it is a business." Indeed, billing itself as the largest sales agency for English language movies in North America, Cinetic processes hundreds of films it receives each year -- some titles tracked since their announcements, but many more unsolicited submissions. Sloss and his team push for their film's selection to Sundance, even trying to get the project to a particular programmer they believe will respond to it. They work for every possible advantage, from screening time to positioning the way that the film is described in the program and even in general conversation. Sloss then has a hand in each aspect of his clients' festival preparation as well, even helping select key art and hire publicists.

Killer Films president Christine Vachon, a longtime Sloss client who has worked with him to produce and sell projects like Boys Don't Cry and Todd Haynes's upcoming Bob Dylan pseudo-biopic I'm Not There said that, like herself, Sloss' hands-on approach is motivated by more than just a desire for a payday. "We're both very committed to the movies we support -- committed in a sense bigger than just making a living," she said.

Cinetic's Sundance labors begin long before the festival itself, stretching over months during which Sloss and the four senior executives in his sales division meet regularly to discuss the movies each has watched. "We make our decisions in a democratic way, based on how we respond to the films themselves and as a piece of business," Sloss said. The team strives to find a consensus, their criteria varying from project to project; in some cases they privilege commerce over art and in others vice versa. "If we all really love a film-- apart from its commercial potential-- we believe we're in a position to help it not slip through the cracks," said Dana O'Keefe, who joined the company at its inception in 2001. The slate of 16 films that Sloss is representing at this year's festival run the gamut from tonier projects like Brett Morgen's opening-night film Chicago 10 and the John Cusack-starrer Grace is Gone to more outsider fare like the Brazilian-culture documentary Manda Bala and the quirky comedy On the Road with Judas.

Once the team decides to represent a film, it meets with the filmmakers to ensure they share the same expectations about its prospects. They next determine the most appropriate marketplace to showcase the film. While Cinetic often guides its most promising films toward Sundance, that is not always the case. In 2005, for example, Sloss brought Mad Hot Ballroom to the neighboring Slamdance Film Festival, which runs concurrent with Sundance, to draw attention to what they thought was the most commercial documentary in Park City that year.

The Cinetic squad's most obsessive Sundance preparations begin immediately after its films are selected. (Two years ago, The New York Times cited "some competitors" who felt that Sloss' close friendship with Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore gives him an unfair edge over the competition; Sloss insists the programmers' decisions are made independently, without pressure, and that their selections are final.) Sloss decides how to position the film to distributors, making his pitch to those whom they think will be receptive. In other instances, however, as with Napoleon Dynamite in 2004, Cinetic used a more low-key tactic: Reasoning that the film couldn't withstand too much hype, Cinetic did not alert any distributors; they simply let it be discovered, particularly by younger, more junior acquisitions executives to whom the agents felt it would appeal (while the more senior executives were off at the much anticipated screening of The Motorcycle Diaries).

This flexibility is essential to Cinetic's success. "While Chicago 10 and The Ten have a higher profile, we see Manda Bala and On the Road with Judas as cases of filmmakers that we hope will be heralded as discoveries and word-of-mouth driven sales," said O'Keefe, who declined to discuss more specific strategies for this year's slate.

By the time Sloss and Co. depart for Sundance, they are a "well-oiled machine," said John Hart, head of Hart Sharp Entertainment, who has worked with Sloss on numerous projects, including Boys Don't Cry and PS. "Everyone gets on the plane together. His team knows what's screening when, what's likely to be bought, what isn't. It's like traveling on a campaign plane."

In Park City, the Cinetic team is ubiquitous, gauging reactions from potential buyers and trying to assemble deals. Fox Searchlight's senior VP of acquisitions, Tony Safford, wrote in an e-mail to The Reeler that the reason that Sloss is able to create such buzz for his movies has to do with a naturally occurring symbiosis: "The best films generally gravitate towards him and his association gives them an extra high profile."

Meanwhile, as Sloss seeks out potential buyers, he arms his clients with a bounty of information. Cine, a proprietary database, keeps a tally of which distributors have been to see the film and what their interest is, while Cinetic's researcher runs "comps," creating several revenue streams for each film so clients can properly evaluate possible deals. Though all Cinetic executives field offers, Sloss is always the negotiator. And his reputation is legendary -- even infamous.

"People know going into a deal with John that there's going to be some bloodshed," said Vachon, with more than a hint of admiration. Sloss added that his literal grasp of the worth of each of his projects is what gives him his edge. "We have a true sense of the value of the film within negotiations," he said. "Honestly, that's something distributors aren't used to."

Safford recalled last year's grueling negotiations for Little Miss Sunshine as a prime example of Sloss' dealmaking mastery. Having crunched the numbers -- and after the film had been greeted to an overwhelmingly positive reception at its initial screening -- Sloss knew he had a hit on his hands, so he used his leverage to get everything he could. "It took all night," Safford recalled. "It started in late evening and it ended when the sun came up," When it was over, Fox Searchlight had paid $10.5 million for the film's worldwide distribution rights -- a Sundance record. (It has since grossed nearly more than $86 million internationally.) Sloss insisted the rest of the deal is even better ("The devil is in the details," he said), but Safford said that he respects Sloss' hardball tactics. "If John can extract a price, he will, but we don't begrudge him that," he wrote. "It's his job to try to get it. No one's holding a gun to our head. ... Even while being aggressive, he knows the parameters of dealmaking: which points to push on; which are less significant; and which matter to his clients. In the overheated environment of Sundance, this is very important."

For his part, Sloss insists that his job is about more than simply data. "We're very dedicated to the idea that it's not just an auction," he said, adding that he often encourages filmmakers to take a deal that offers a better back-end or to sign with a distributor who will know how to market their film. Ultimately, he claimed his aggressive tactics "are fueled by a feeling of righteous indignation on behalf of the filmmakers." If an immediate sale does not emerge for a more difficult, less mainstream project, Sloss will stick with it until he finds the right deal. With the Duplass brothers' dark comedy The Puffy Chair, Sloss persisted for a year after the film's 2005 Sundance premiere until he finally brokered a complex distribution arrangement between Roadside Attractions and Netflix.

As Safford said, "If I were on the other side and I was selling a film, I'd want John representing me."

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