The man who makes the deals at Sundance; Lawyer John Sloss may not look the part, but he's indispensable to fund-starved independent filmmakers.


PARK CITY, Utah -- He has a boyish face and a skinny, 6-foot-4 frame, and when he walks down Main Street here at the Sundance Film Festival, a knapsack on his shoulder and an orange T-shirt peeking out from under a woolly gray sweater, he looks less like a deal-maker than a sophomore in the middle of final exams.

But the single, sibilant syllable of this lawyer's last name has power in the independent film community. It can open doors. Which is why the cleverest party-crashers here have been dropping it lately to gain entry to the festival's wild bashes. No matter what film is being celebrated, they figure, he is probably involved.

John Sloss, 42, may look like a gangly college kid, but to his filmmaker clients -- and particularly at Sundance -- he is The Man. If you're an indie filmmaker and want to remain one, many say, you need Sloss in your life. "King Sloss" is what writer-director Whit Stillman ("The Last Days of Disco" and "Barcelona") fondly calls his lawyer. And to see Sloss in action here is to understand why.

One minute he's huddling with distributors pointing out the merits of a documentary he's selling about the rise and fall of an execution expert. The next, he's lunching with a potential film investor (Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS) or getting noogies on a snowy street from Ben Affleck, the rising star who has worked with writer-director Kevin Smith, a Sloss client.

Here Sloss is eating lobster with client Rick Linklater, the director of "Dazed and Confused," who is a festival juror this year. There he is talking with Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s lead singer and the co-producer of another film Sloss is selling, "American Movie," a documentary about a struggling Milwaukee filmmaker.

And throughout the day, Sloss can't go five minutes without talking on his cellular phone, cajoling, finessing, cracking wise. It's all part of what he calls "trying to work my magic."

"My job description is: doing everything I can to get films made and protecting filmmakers. I'd like to think that I'm seen to a certain extent as the gatekeeper of the next generation," he said with typical self-reverence.

Then, teetering on the brink of unbridled egotism (a familiar precipice for him), Sloss caught himself. Sort of.

"You happen to be covering my favorite subject: the legend of Sloss," he said charmingly to a reporter. "Let's perpetuate that."

He has reason to be pleased with himself. Last year at Sundance, Sloss negotiated the festival's biggest sale: Brad Anderson's "Next Stop, Wonderland," which Miramax acquired for about $6 million, including a three- picture deal for Anderson. Sloss also sold "Slam," the tale of spoken-word artists in the ghetto, to Trimark for $2.5 million, a hefty sum for an urban drama about the power of poetry.

Sloss' clients, who also include directors Victor Nunez ("Ulee's Gold") and Todd Haynes ("Velvet Goldmine") and writer Paul Rudnick ("In & Out"), say that just as important as the dollars he secures for them are the ways he finds to contractually protect their creative freedom.

"He really is on the filmmaker's side in the right way," said Stillman, a client since his first film, the 1990 "Metropolitan." "It's not just about trying to jack up prices, but about making sure the [filmmakers'] experience is as good as it can be."

At Sundance this year, Sloss is involved with a dozen films that range from the established (he's selling the new film by Errol Morris, who made the acclaimed "Thin Blue") to the unfinished. Earlier this week, for example, Sloss sold a feature film to Fox Searchlight based on just 20 minutes of footage. A true story about a Nebraska teen-age girl who posed as a boy, then was found out, raped and murdered, the film -- tentatively titled "Take It Like a Man" -- just completed shooting and has yet to be edited.

Sources say Fox paid the first-time filmmakers between $4 million and $6 million, at least 5 percent of which will go to Sloss.

On films like that one, Sloss is a producer's rep, or sales agent, seeking to close a deal with a distributor. On others, he handles the contracts if another salesman makes a deal. If necessary, he will fend for his director clients in any discussions they have here about future work. And he's always on the lookout for money, having arranged financing for scores of his clients' films.

That said, Sloss does not work alone. Here at Sundance, his associates Micah Green and Joy Newhouse help expand the Sloss presence, attending parties that he must miss, chatting with nervous filmmakers before screenings and generally trying to build the Sloss empire.

Actor-writer-director Ed Burns left Sloss recently, reportedly because he felt that to become a big studio player, he needed a lawyer with more of a Hollywood presence. Sloss admits that he was stung.

"I'm as sophisticated as any lawyer in Hollywood, and I mean any lawyer," he said, adding that he has considered opening a Los Angeles office -- his office is in Manhattan -- if he could only find the right partner.

Clients, like director Ted Demme ("Monument Avenue" and the coming "Life" starring Eddie Murphy), say that Sloss has just the right mix of indie sensibility and mainstream smarts.

"I've made a commitment to go back and forth between small films and big films," said Demme, who hired Sloss to help make his production company, Spanky Pictures, a reality. "I can't just have an indie guy repping me because he has to be able to speak the language of Universal. And some Hollywood lawyers can't move in the indie world. John can speak both languages."

Sloss grew up in Michigan in a "middle-class family living beyond their means." He discovered film at the University of Michigan, where he ran the film society and paid his college expenses by working as a projectionist and theater usher.

After his first job at a huge Wall Street law firm, he became a partner at a boutique entertainment firm. And then, at a pickup game in a high school gym, he met writer-director John Sayles shooting hoops. Eventually, Sloss became the lawyer for the director and his producing partner. His practice grew from there.

"I owe my practice to them. I'm a young-looking guy and what they gave me was complete credibility," he said. Asked to explain why he and Sayles ended their 11-year lawyer-client relationship in 1997, Sloss said amiably: "We went through a lot of intense stuff together. Sometimes you just need a break."

Six years ago, Sloss opened his own firm, and in its offices his unusual personality -- part relentless, part goofy -- finds perfect expression. People who have been there talk about two picture frames on the wall. One holds a portrait of Sloss, adorned with a generic plastic label: "Our founder." The other says "Employee of the Month." It is empty.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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