Moment of Truth: Banksy is Selling, But Are You Buying?
Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week, we hear from John Sloss, the veteran sales agent-turned-rookie distributor of Banksy's directing debut Exit Through the Gift Shop. It opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Leave it to mischievous street-art godhead Banksy to completely overturn cinema with his first foray into feature filmmaking, Exit Through the Gift Shop. More specifically, leave it to Banksy to permute the documentary genre with expert zeal, turning a film ostensibly about him into a film about its original director. It sounds both more and less complicated than it really is when you think about it -- a testament to the shadowy artist's dexterity with narrative and character. But what about his dexterity with facts?
Good question -- and one that will hang around for a while as Exit is viewed, digested, debated and disseminated in the weeks, months and probably years to come. (Read Movieline critic Stephanie Zacharek's review here.) Its curious spirit captivated even John Sloss, the Cinetic Media power broker better known for negotiating some of history's biggest indie-film deals than for nurturing darlings all the way to the art house. And yet that's the role Sloss finds himself in this weekend as Exit arrives in theaters: first-time distributor, a move as radical to Sloss as Banksy's mindbending mish-mash of vandalism, politics, guerilla cinematography, personal odyssey and art-world satire is to the iffy documentary market it enters tomorrow. But as Sloss told Movieline in a recent interview (neither Banksy nor his subject/pursuer Thierry Guetta, a k a "Mr. Brainwash," were made available to the press), he has his reasons -- up to and including his enigmatic star and an outside shot at a date with Oscar.
Let's just get this out of the way, John: Are you Banksy?
[Pause] This interview is over. You can quote me on that.
OK, so that's a "no." I should add that I enjoyed the hell out of this film, but I'm not convinced it belongs in a documentary column like this. Can you convince me?
You know, I've got to tell you: I don't want it promoted as a documentary, because I think that limits people's perceptions of its commerciality. But the Banksy people insist that it's true. And last night I was talking to [a friend] who runs an art gallery, and he's good friends with Thierry. And he says that every single second of the movie is true. That's what the Banksy people have been telling me that from the beginning.
How did it come to you?
I was driving from Deauville to this little town in Brittany for dinner with Rick Linklater and Christian McKay -- the guy who played Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles -- last September over Labor Day. And I just got this call from this guy named James Gay-Reese. He said, "I'm a producer in London; I've done my homework, and we've been told that you're the right guy to talk to. We have a film we want to show you." From there I just thought, "Yeah, OK, whatever." He didn't tell me it was Banksy on that call. He told me on the next call. I had actually heard of Banksy, and not everyone from my generation had. But they just called me. It was a cold call, basically.
So I saw the movie, and I was completely undone by it. I had no idea what was real and what wasn't. I was on the corner with [my staff] afterward going, "That was such a mindf*uck. I have no idea whether Banksy exists, whether Brainwash exists, whether it's a complete construct, whether Banksy is Brainwash..." I had no idea! And then I look across the street, and wild posted across the entire wall next to the Soho House in the Meatpacking District was the Madonna album cover by Mr. Brainwash. And I thought, "Oh my God, I guess this guy exists." And it just went from there.
Whether its a doc or narrative or some hybrid of the two, it feels like a kind of comic thriller in a documentary's clothing. Now that you're distributing, how do you market something like this?
We can't really do any conventional marketing that Banksy doesn't sign off on -- and he hasn't signed off on very much. We've marketed this, really, by screening the hell out of it. We're working with Marc Schiller, who is a genius of social-media promotion. [Schiller is also the founder of the NYC street-art mecca Wooster Collective. -- Ed.] So most of the money that we're going to spend, we're spending it through screening it or online networking.
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