Meet Sundance's (Arguably) Most Powerful Person
On a Friday evening back in 2006, The (Arguably) Most Powerful Person at the Sundance Film Festival trudged through 3 feet of snow, just so he could sit in a Ruby Tuesday not answering his phone.
"I just sat there, staring at my phone ringing off the hook, taking part in the bottomless salad bar," said The (Arguably) Most Powerful Person at the Sundance Film Festival, who goes by the name of John Sloss.
The phone rang on that night of Jan. 20 because the movie Sloss was representing had just had its first screening at Park City's Eccles Theatre. It was called "Little Miss Sunshine," and Sloss knew it was a hit.
"It was playing like they'd pumped nitrous into the theater," Sloss said. "I was down by the exit near the stage at Eccles, and I said [to my assistant], 'We gotta get out of here or it's going to get ugly.' "
Sloss and an assistant left the theater through the wrong door. They ended up walking across Park City High School's snow-covered football field. They got to the parking lot, climbed over a fence (on which the assistant cut his hand) and drove to the Ruby Tuesday at Kimball Junction.
"I had the cast and the producers all go to the Riverhorse to drink in the adulation, while we sort of disappeared and figured out what the best strategy was," Sloss said.
By the next day, Sloss had brokered a deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, reported at the time to be worth $10.5Â million then the largest distribution deal for a Sundance movie. "Little Miss Sunshine" went on to earn nearly $60 million at the U.S. box office as well as winning two Oscars, for Alan Arkin's supporting performance and for Michael Arndt's original screenplay.
Beyond the deals: Taste • Sloss is The (Arguably) Most Powerful Man at the Sundance Film Festival not just because he made the largest deal in festival history.
He can lay claim to that title because he and his company, Cinetic Media, have represented some of the most prominent titles ever to play the festival: Hits like "Napoleon Dynamite," Oscar nominees like "Precious" and "The Kids Are All Right," and buzzed-about films like "Super Size Me" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop."
And he earns the title because Sloss and Cinetic don't just make deals, but manage a film through the entire festival process and beyond. "We don't make movies, but we do everything else to help the people who make and distribute movies do it better," Sloss said.
Sloss' reputation is well-known at Sundance. "Everyone knows he's got great taste, and he's got passion," said Trevor Groth, programming director of the Sundance Film Festival. "But they hate that they're going to have to buy a film from him. â¦ He's a cutthroat businessman. He doesn't pull any punches with distributors."
Producers who work with him admire his drive.
"John is very protective of the films he brings in, and very strategic," said Geralyn Dreyfous, the Utah film producer and co-founder of Impact Partners, which attracts investors for socially conscious documentaries. "He pushes for things aggressively, and I think the filmmakers appreciate having someone to do that for them."
'Wildly undercapitalized media conglomerate' • Sloss' movie love began at the University of Michigan in the '70s, when pre-Netflix film societies brought non-mainstream movies to campus and Sloss got involved in organizing such a society. "In college, I went to a film a night for four years," he said. "Law was never a love. Law was a skilled trade."
Sloss founded a New York law firm, Sloss Eckhouse LawCo, which represents movie producers, actors, directors and others in the industry. He later founded Cinetic Media, which has expanded from being a sales rep for independent films to what Sloss jokingly calls "a wildly undercapitalized media conglomerate for the 21st century."
When Cinetic represents a movie, the involvement can take many forms. Cinetic can "shine a light on" a film to get festival programmers to notice it, Sloss said, adding: "Obviously it's a meritocracy, but around the edges we can be helpful."
Once a film gets into Sundance, Sloss said, "we talk about what section it should be in, when it should premiere, what it's premiering against. â¦ That kind of strategic stuff is just as important as what happens on the ground at the festival."
Something as seemingly inconsequential as screening time, Dreyfous said, can make or break a film.
"If your film is programmed [to premiere] on Monday, on Martin Luther King Day, when all the buyers are all leaving town, it's not good," Dreyfous said.
Sloss & Co. also teach filmmakers "how to contextualize the movie," Sloss said developing the ways filmmakers talk about the movie to the media, audiences and potential buyers.
"We help edit the press notes, we try to influence to the extent we can the catalog text, and help things as banal as setting up the party for the film," Sloss said. "It's not just buyers. It's also about the press. It's about the 50 to 75 people at Sundance who really inform how films are prioritized, and who actually takes the leap and buys them. Not all of those people are buyers."
Beyond the deals: Hard work • Among the films Cinetic is representing at Sundance this year are: "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater's continuation of the on-again, off-again romance between an American (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Julie Delpy); "Prince Avalanche," a two-man comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch; and two hot-button documentaries "Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer," about the imprisoned Russian artist/activists, and "After Tiller," which profiles the only four doctors who perform late-term abortions in the United States. (Dreyfous' Impact Partners helped finance "After Tiller.")
In recent years, a host of new distributon platforms video-on-demand, iTunes, Netflix, and so on make traditional dealmaking tricky. "Rather than going and trying singularly looking to shift risk and hand a film over to a distributor, it's more complex now," he said. "It turns a chess match into a sort of three-dimensional chess."
Cinetic has created companies designed to "disintermediate," Sloss' fancy word for "cut out the middleman." Sloss and Bart Walker founded Producers Distribution Alliance (PDA) in 2010, launching the endeavor with the Sundance surprise "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the guerrilla-art documentary by the British street artist Banksy. Cinetic also spun off FilmBuff, a sales-representation company for digital media.
It's his imaginative approach to films, and not just his dealmaking skills, that makes Sloss The (Arguably) Most Powerful Person at the Sundance Film Festival.
"He earns it, by diligent hard work and passion," said John Cooper, the festival's director. "The independent filmmakers need people who are willing to get creative and do the hard work."
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival begins Thursday night in Park City and runs through Jan. 27 in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and at Sundance Resort.