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DECADE: John Sloss — Indie v. IndieWood & the Coming Dotcom-ization of Filmed Entertainment, P

DECADE: John Sloss -- Indie v. IndieWood & the Coming Dotcom-ization of Filmed Entertainment, P

DECADE: John Sloss -- Indie v. IndieWood & the
Coming Dotcom-ization of Filmed Entertainment, Part 1

by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE

[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]

It is the morning that the Sundance 2000 lineup is being made public when
Mark Rabinowitz and I drop by Sloss Law‘s Fifth Avenue office to talk with
John Sloss about the past decade in independent film. As we sit inside his
office, John is on the phone with a well-known indie player who is going to
Sundance 2000 with an anticipated new film. John is trying to get a
screening of the project and he seems interested in repping the film — “We
want to work with you,” he emphasizes. By the end of the conversation they
seem to have reached some sort of arrangement for showing the movie to the
Sloss team for potential representation.

The final Sundance lineup is only a few hours old at this point, but the
Sloss Special Projects team has already handicapped it, having already seen
a majority of the films. With a growing stable of emerging and established
indie filmmakers and a number of projects that the company reps to
distributors each year, Sloss Law has been ground zero for some of the 90’s
most important movies, since its formation in 1993. Clients include Todd
, Barbara Kopple, Richard Linklater, Errol Morris,
Victor Nuñez, Kimberly Peirce, Kevin Smith, Whit Stillman,
Christine Vachon‘s Killer Films, and Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Sloss has executive produced numerous John Sayles films, including “Passion Fish,” “Lone Star,” and “Men With Guns,” Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “The Newton Boys,” among others,
Nuñez’ “Ulee’s Gold,” Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco,” and Morris’ “Mr. Death.”

With a “Welcome to Silicon Alley” billboard sitting over his shoulder, out
the window across the street, Sloss seems comfortable commenting on the past
few years, weighing the alternating forces — studio versus non-studio —
while at the same time considering a few questions about the future of what
he calls, “filmed entertainment.” [Eugene Hernandez]

“The process has been much more, I would say generally,
systematized. Just thinking back ten years ago when Rick Linklater showed
Pierson “Slackers” — that wouldn’t happen today. Everyone along the line
seems much savvier, things have accelerated.”

indieWIRE: I was thinking about the changes in the way that films by first-time filmmakers are filtered today, compared to the way they were five or ten years ago. There’s a different filtering process before a film
gets to a theater. And I’m wondering in what ways that has helped, hurt,
changed, effected the first-time filmmaker.

John Sloss: The process has been much more, I would say generally,
systematized. Just thinking back ten years ago when Rick Linklater showed [John]
PiersonSlackers” and how can we look at the process there as compared to a situation today. That wouldn’t happen today. Everyone along the line
seems much savvier, things have accelerated.

The classic example is that ten years ago, people didn’t even go to
Sundance during the first half, and now people don’t even go there in the
second half. And I don’t want to make this a paean to John Pierson, but
when he brought “Go Fish” and announced that he was going to sell it in the
first weekend, and actually did, it was a sea change in the festival. Now
you can’t talk about selling first features without talking about Sundance,
because it’s still the primary focal point. I think the idea of having a
film — whether getting a rep then or getting a rep now, taking it out to
distributors in sequence or in a more casual way — has virtually gone by
boards. People understand the drama of orchestrating the way a film is
shown, and that’s put more emphasis on festivals than even ten years ago.
It just seems like everyone from the distributors to the sellers to the
filmmakers has gotten more savvy, has read how it’s done, gone through the
process, and so now they fall into more of a system and it’s less haphazard
than it was then.

iW: How does that effect the movies we end up seeing in theaters and the
work that represents current “American Independent Film?”

Sloss: I think it’s one of the least influential factors affecting the
films we are seeing. There have been changes in distribution, there have
been changes in audience taste, and there have been changes in all the
films that are made. All of that has a greater impact than the process of
how first-time films are brought to distributors’ attention. I’d like to be
Pollyanna-ish and say the Darwinian theater is still 90% responsible for
films, that the good ones find an audience, or find their way to
distributors, and that you can embroider around the edges with salesmanship
and with luck and with positioning, but for the most part, the films that
are deserving, rise to the front where they get the audience.

iW: Bingham Ray was talking with us about the consolidation and
Hollywood-ization that has taken place over the last ten years with these
distributors. How has that affected the situation?

Sloss: I say this all the time, and I’ll say it again, and I’m getting
older now so I can say it: things are much more cyclical than most people
realize. It’s a cycle and it’s an evolutionary set of cycles.

But it’s not like we keep repeating the same thing over and over again;
there is change.
But we had the early 80’s with all the studios getting into classics
divisions, spurred by any number of things — and the question is, is the
studio-ization of specialized film evolutionary, is it new or is it just
part of a cycle that’s been repeated before and will be repeated again? And
I don’t know the answer to that.

The way I explain it, and this is again an overgeneralization, is that
what’s happened now if I’m correct in assuming what Bingham‘s talking
about, is the studios have actually themselves moved away from smarter,
character-driven, intelligent movies toward event films. And they’re making
fewer films and they’re making more of what I would call filmed
entertainment, you know, product-placement merchandise tie-in movies that
cost a fortune, that they know can open and they know have tons of ancillary
value. And what’s happened for the most part is that rather than make those
films and the films that were traditionally made that were more interesting
to people like us, is that they either started or bought specialized
distributors and relegated those films, the singles and doubles, to those
previously independent distributors, and you know who they are: Fox started
Searchlight, Disney bought Miramax, those guys moved over to Sony, though
Sony is sort of an anomaly because it’s still very much an
acquisitions-driven company.

You look at all these companies, they are all reducing their acquisitions
numbers and they’re all amping up their production. And it’s what they’re
doing at the behest of their studio owners. So does that mean that studios
are taking over independent films? That’s not the way I would look at it. I
would say that they’ve always made smart films, they’re just now farming
them out to distributors that they bought.

“You look at all these companies, they are all reducing their acquisitions
numbers and they’re all amping up their production. So does that mean that
studios are taking over independent films? That’s not the way I would look
at it.”

iW: How does that change your relationship with a younger
filmmaker, as opposed to the way that 5 or 6 years ago you might have
developed a
relationship with a Linklater or a Kevin Smith and work with them as
their career matures? What are the challenges it creates for you when you
see a filmmaker or film that strikes you, whether it’s selling that film or
getting that director work, because of the studio making more independent
films or doing more production now and not acquiring films?

Sloss: I don’t think it’s appreciably changed what I do. There are people
who make films for different reasons. There are people who make a first
film that gets seen and they immediately just want to become a studio
filmmaker and make as much money as possible. There are people who make
films [where] their first film gets seen and yet they are tied to their
vision, and they want control, and yes, they will work in a studio, and if
they had a subject for a film that was large-scale enough, they may have to
work in a studio and they might have to accept the restraints that come
with bigger budgets. I don’t see it as an either/or.

A good example of that is Kim Peirce [“Boys Don’t Cry“]. Kim Peirce is a
person who has a great, fiercely determined point of view. I think she’s
going to want to make smaller films that she controls, and I think she’s
going to want to make studio films. And in a way, the studio system might
be even more accommodating with that now than it was a few years ago. They
are getting savvier and there is sort of a hunger among certain studio
people for filmmakers with a point of view. But in my business, if the
filmmaker makes a film and wants to go into studio work — I work with the
studios all day long, and I know all the studio people, a lot of my peers
are running studios — I don’t have any problem jockeying between that world
and the much tougher world, which is the world where you’re maintaining
your vision and you’re financing outside that system. I don’t see it as
being harder right now. You know, Rick did his second film after
“Slackers” — which was a $23,000 film — and it was for Universal Pictures,
and that was 10 or 8 years ago, and I don’t think that’s changed.

iW: With respect to the independent world, how has the way you go about
your business related to the independent world changed from ’93 to ’99?

Sloss: Well, I’ve grown in scope and stature and business. I started my
company in ’93, and it’s interesting because what I did — and what I’ve
always done in terms of doing whatever we can to get our clients’ films
made and maintain their control and vision — has now become much more of a
mainstream way that films are made. The studios during that period have
moved away from singular finance to co-production and partnering financing,
which creates control opportunities for filmmakers and for people like
myself who know all the end-users around the world who traditionally
finance films, and who more and more want to be put together in this global
finance configuration. So in a way, what we were sort of lurching through
and doing in 1993 has become this sort of status quo for how films are
financed now, which gave us a leg up and which puts us in the middle of
what’s happening.

And in that regard, I think more than aesthetically, it’s made for much less
of an ‘us versus them’ mentality, the studios and the non-studio financing
of films. I think the diversification of film financing and the
non-monolithic studio-ization has been one of the great developments of
recent years. To me, I count that as one of the positives in pro-creative
developments that have taken place, just as I think that gap financing and
insurance have been one of the more negative influences in the pro-creative
aspect of making movies. I think if you look at insurance and gap financing
in general, you see a lot of films that have been made for the wrong
reason. There are a lot of films that get made for the right reason. To me
Alex Winter‘s “Fever” is a perfect example because I think it may not have
gotten made without insurance financing, and that is a singular vision from
an accomplished filmmaker. But there are so many films that get made
because of cast, because it’s a pet project for someone who has a foreign
profile and you have this blight in the market and it has a negative effect
on people. It’s not like bad films just go away. It puts people out of
business and you end up with banks that have groups of films that weren’t
sold that they end up dumping and generally it hasn’t been a positive

iW: Looking forward, are you optimistic towards the potential for these
movies that one could say “should” be made, like the “Fever”‘s of the world?

Sloss: It’s optimistic in that I think the world is shrinking, and I think
there is a sort of efficiency of promotion and marketing throughout the
world. I think “Boys Don’t Cry” is going to be a hugely successful film
outside the United States, just from what I’ve seen in London, in Paris and
in Scandinavia. And I also think it’s still going to be hugely successful
here once the awards start being given out. And I think the world is
shrinking in that regard. And I think for the studios’ international
departments, as they bought these specialized distributors, they have
people domestically who know how to release these films because they’ve
absorbed these previously independent distributors, but the foreign people,
Fox or whomever, still didn’t have a clue. They release giant commercial
movies that have movie stars and campaigns of millions of dollars, and you
give them a specialized movie, and they don’t know what to do with it. And
that’s half the world, and a lot of us don’t realize that. So that was a
huge inefficiency in the consolidation of specialized distributors into
studios, that there wasn’t a corresponding situation in international
[distribution]. I think because a lot of the people we used to rely on to
go and pick up films that were the product of a singular, smart, unified
vision are now focused on producing movies and taking up the slack for what
studios used to do on the lower end. They’ve left an absolute void in the
distribution position as it is.

The conversation continues on page 2

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