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MLaw Grad Finds Calling in Independent Films

By John Masson
April 3, 2013

There are times when it pays to be a film sales agent who is also a lawyer.

And one of those times, said 1981 Michigan Law grad John Sloss, was prior to this year's Sundance Film Festival, when the movie "Escape from Tomorrow" came along.

"It's basically a horror film about being in Disney World that was shot ... inside Disney World," said Sloss, an entrepreneurial lawyer who, over the years, has founded Cinetic MediaFilmbuff, and his own entertainment law firm, Sloss Law.

The Disney companies, of course, are infamously zealous about maintaining their self-proclaimed status as The Happiest Place on Earth™. So a movie about a man who finds out he's been laid off on the last day of a Disney vacation that then deteriorates into a sort of hallucinogenic nightmare was bound to cause the suits in Mickey's World a little heartburn.

Especially when the entire film was shot surreptitiously, using video-capable DSLR cameras, inside the very belly of the beast. One critic called it "the bravest, strangest, most exciting and most thrilling movie" at Sundance this year.

"The programmers at Sundance said 'You should see this movie—and you should represent it, because you're a lawyer, and they're going to need a lawyer,' " Sloss told a group of Michigan Law students during a recent talk presented by the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law (ZEAL) Program and the Entertainment, Media, and Arts Law Students Association. "I thought it could be fair use, but didn't know for sure."

It wasn't the first trip around the dance floor with a controversial film for Sloss, who so far has earned executive producer credits on 65 films and who has distributed many more. One of those films was "Exit Through the Gift Shop", about famous—some say infamous—English graffiti artist Banksy.

By the time Sundance was finished, "Escape From Tomorrow" had already garnered attention in national media outlets like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker—thanks in large measure to strategic invitations Sloss issued to some of the journalists he knows.

"So there were these articles that said, 'come see this film at Sundance, because it will never see the light of day' " after that, Sloss said.

One of Sloss' friends, Columbia Law professor and Creative Commons guru Tim Wu, saw things differently after screening the film at the festival. In Wu's eyes, the movie clearly fell under fair use guidelines. " 'I can't tell you Disney won't sue you, but I can tell you Disney won't win,' " was how Wu put it, Sloss said.

Which got Sloss thinking about distributing "Escape From Tomorrow" himself.

But that's only one example of ways his Michigan Law degree helped him advance his career.

"What I learned in law school—and in my first two years as a lawyer—was invaluable," Sloss said. "I was an English major in undergrad, completely non-compulsive, if that's even a word, and undisciplined. What law school taught me was to be disciplined as a thinker and to be organized."

Sloss also learned at Michigan Law that there are a couple of kinds of lawyer—and he knew which kind he wanted to be.

"The practice of law itself can be sort of anti-business, or it can be pro-business," Sloss said. "It's important to protect people and to understand that details are important, but it's also important to try to find a place where the deal can get done."

And that's what he's been doing in the complex world of independent film. Sure, there have been overtures from Hollywood's more commercial filmmakers. But so far, Sloss hasn't found it too hard to resist.

"My heart is with independent film," he said simply. "In the balance between art and commerce, I tip toward art. And those guys clearly tip toward commerce. But I've been able to make a good living, and I'm happy with the decision."

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