A few years ago, John Sloss worried that the major talent agencies had figured out the formula for his secret sauce. The Cinetic Media founder established himself as the business consigliere for a certain kind of auteur, helping to find buyers and backers for Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and Lee Daniels’ “Precious.” Now companies like CAA and Endeavor were entering the fray, making life more difficult for the indie maverick.
“The agencies tried to put us out of business by monopolizing the sale of all the scripted projects,” Sloss says. “As soon as they’d put an actor in a movie, they’d say we’re not going to put them in this unless we can sell the film. We couldn’t compete with that.”
So Cinetic mixed up its business model. Sloss began putting together more nonfiction films and series such as the hit “Summer of Soul” and the upcoming Todd Haynes-directed “The Velvet Underground” while capitalizing on streaming services’ thirst for documentaries. At the same time, he diversified, expanding the company’s management business (clients include Linklater and David Gordon Green) and moving into consulting for the likes of Nat Geo and The New York Times.
Now, with fall festival season kicking off, Sloss and his team hope to profit from the streaming wars as services such as HBO Max and Paramount Plus challenge vets like Netflix. It’s a time, he believes, when the need to attract subscribers is resulting in a gold rush for creators and disrupting distribution strategies. “Summer of Soul,” for instance, scored a $12 million sale from Hulu and Searchlight after it debuted at Sundance.
“For the next five years or at least until the consolidation and competition ends, I think it’s going to be the healthiest time in my professional life,” says Sloss. “It’s incredible how frothy things are. Once you realize the Netflix content budget is $18 billion, you realize there are not enough blockbusters to take all that money. So you’ll need to replicate the full range of storytelling that existed in a previous generation. That’s good for someone like me.”
But there are still worrying signs. In the old days, top talent reaped the rewards for a big hit by putting lucrative backend payments into contracts that were tied to box office performance. Streaming scrambles that calculus, with Scarlett Johansson’s recent lawsuit against Disney over its decision to put “Black Widow” on demand a sign of the instability these moves are causing. Sloss would like to see talent get incentives that are tied to subscriber gains or viewership, but that means that companies like Netflix will have to offer up data they’ve been loath to share.
“They’ve been pressured to do that for a long time, but nothing adds to the pressure like more competition,” says Sloss. “Talent may suffer in the short term if we don’t get our act together and figure out how these platforms, which are benefiting from their work, can reward these creators.”