Welcome to the Sundance Film Festival: an event so exclusive, so fantastic, it often seems like a mirage beamed into existence by Google News and replayed episodes of Entourage. Most of us have wondered what it’s like to scoot from screenings to parties to meetings tailed by Harvey Weinstein-esque money men. It’s a strange and moving world behind the wardrobe, one that’s inaccessible to most. That’s why we teamed up with Eric B. Fleischman.
At 26, Fleischman is the youngest producer to premiere two feature films at the festival in a single year: Carnage Park and Sleight. He’s the guy in the back of the theater, jaw clenched, waiting to see if the money he’s invested will send him toward Matt Damon or back to Mom’s couch. Fleischman is simultaneously responsible for selling the damn things — fielding meetings and phone calls with Hollywood’s biggest studios, arguing seven-figure deals and final-cut contracts.
We spent four days trailing Fleischman in Park City: sleeping in his house, attending every meeting, crashing the premiere of Sleight and witnessing the magic moment when… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Read on for a play-by-play account of life inside the Park City scrum.
THE SUNDANCE APPLICATION
Most films take years to finish, but that’s not how Fleischman rolls. Diablo Entertainment, the bootstrap studio he founded in 2014 with Sean Tabibian, operates under a different model: Spend as little money as possible. Film as little as possible. But deliver super-luxe, high quality product.
The first meetings around Sleight, a supernatural thriller, took place in February 2015. Writers JD Dillard and Alex Theurer wrote the script in five weeks. In further record-breaking efforts, the entire thing was shot in 17 days. Tired?
While the stars — Dule Hill (Psych, The West Wing) and Jacob Latimore (The Maze Runner) — moved on to other projects, Fleischman hunkered in an editing suite with the film’s director (Dillard) and editor (Joel Griffen).
What they needed was an unfinished cut — untouched color, raw sound that conveyed the film’s overall spirit. (FYI: most submissions are submitted on Sundance’s September deadline in this unrefined matter via a Dropbox-like platform called WithoutABox.) As a producer, Fleischman’s job was to give whatever support and finances were necessary to get accepted. Because they had to get into Sundance to sell the film.
And guess what? They got in.
THE RED CARPET
Sleight premiered in the afternoon of Saturday, January 23.
“People think film premieres are these incredibly glamorous things,” Fleischman explains. “But if you’re related to the film in any capacity, they’re just nerve-wracking — the moment that makes or breaks a project you’ve been working on for the past year. Tell me what’s glamorous about that.”
Cast and crew gather at Fleischman’s rented house around 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes before showtime. Soothing shots of Jack Daniel’s are imbibed. An O.penVAPE pen makes its way through the room. Latimore, 19, microwaves a Hot Pocket.
And then it’s time. Time for a fleet of Acura-sponsored Ubers to propel us through the snow (it is Utah in January, after all) and toward the Library Center Theater. It’s very important, Fleischman explains, that everyone arrive together.
“We want to avoid Weak Gazelle Syndrome,” he says. “That moment when a person, often an actor, gets caught alone on the red carpet, only to be guzzled by hordes of hungry reporters from Variety or The Hollywood Reporter.”
From what we can gather, this is when people say stupid shit. A la Stacey Dash.
And so we walk the carpet together, noting the media’s obvious preference for on-camera talent as they bait Fleischman — and the writers, editors and cinematographers — out of the way and photograph Hill.
“I can only focus on two things right now,” Fleischman sighs. “One: make sure everyone is calm and happy. Two: pretend to be calm and happy knowing my career is about to be decided. Honestly? I just want the film to start.”
It’s on to the green room and then a cluster of team-reserved seats in the back of the theater. Hill scoots ahead to sit with friends while Fleischman and Latimore settle nervously beside each other. (This is only Latimore’s second starring role so he, too, has much on the line.) Glances are exchanged as lights go out.
“Last night, I had this dream,” Fleischman whispers to those around him. “Where I was in the theater, and they started playing the movie — except it was the opening scenes of Spring Breakers. So I start screaming, ‘No! No! It’s the wrong movie! It’s the wrong fucking movie!’ But I couldn’t get out of my chair, and Spring Breakers just kept playing.”
Sitting with the lead actor and producer during a film’s premiere is an interesting experience: Clear anticipation on their faces alerts you to upcoming humor or shock. They’re busier watching you, the audience, than the film they’ve labored so long to make.
It’s a tense 90 minutes. Then lights are up, and it’s time for a quick Q&A.
“You might think I’m headed for the nearest club,” Fleischman says. “That I’m going out, getting drunk and celebrating. But our job as filmmakers is to disappear the second the premiere is over… to eliminate the chance we say anything vacuous that impacts the film’s sale.”
So, it’s for this reason that, after the highest-energy moment of his life, Fleischman ends up eating gluten-free curry in the windowless room of a Thai restaurant. Next? We get drunk in the nondescript living room of a rental house, wiling the night away with the crew like ghosts. We’re asleep by one.
This is where things get hairy. After Sleight’s premiere, six Blu-ray DVDs make their silent way across Park City into the hands of Hollywood’s biggest distributors. We’re talking Lionsgate, Paramount and Netflix. People who can get your film into theaters.
“You hope the head of acquisitions makes it to your premiere but, in reality, these people are seeing 10, 12 movies a day,” Fleischman explains. “They don’t even sleep. So you send your movie and hope they watch it… hope it catches them in the first few scenes. And if they don’t, you’re fucked.”
Fortunately for Fleischman, Sleight got rave reviews from just about every outlet. Offers start coming in the next morning. They arrive as a series of conversation-interrupting phone calls — the incessant ringing of Fleischman’s phone as his team at CAA frantically dials. “Seven figures, straight to video on demand (VOD)”; “Less money, but a guaranteed theatrical release…” This is the shit that gives people heart attacks.
To tell the story of Sleight’s acquisition, we must briefly rewind to 2012, when Fleischman was freshly graduated USC meat. He accepted an assistant job at Blumhouse Productions, working on films like The Purge. He read coverage, ran errands. Spent weekends making a passion project on the side. And then, suddenly, he was dismissed. (An ex-boss recently explained that Fleischman was, and I quote, “too ambitious.”)
“To sell Sleight to Blumhouse — to the studio that let me go — would be a weird homecoming,” Fleischman explains. “Simultaneously gratifying and strange.”
After several calls and emails in the two days after Sleight’s premiere, this is how it went down:
“I was at the liquor store, buying booze for the premiere of my second film, Carnage Park, when my phone rang,” Fleischman remembers. “It was 9:30 on Tuesday night, just 48 hours after Blum first expressed interest in the film. My team at CAA explained Blum had put a 30-minute clock on our offer. Basically, we had until 10 p.m. to decide whether we sold the film to him, or the deal was off the table.”
This a pretty standard negotiation tactic that indicates that, no, Ari Gold was not always exaggerating. The shrill sound of tires, and we’re back at the house in an upstairs bedroom. A pre-premiere party rages beneath us. Tabibian, Dillard and Theurer are here, too. CAA’s on speaker.
With 25 calls in 10 minutes, they negotiate everything: an in-theater, theatrical release; edits that can and can’t be made; a mid-7-figure price tag that allows Fleischman to recoup his investment and more.
“It came down to this: you want to be on a winning team… and Blum doesn’t fail,” Fleischman explains. “He’s a franchise builder. He acquires very little, and his last Sundance acquisition, Whiplash, was nominated for an Oscar. But honestly, you want to sell your film to someone who’s as excited about it as you are — who won’t give you the whole song and dance, then release the thing directly to Comcast on demand. And I know Blum is that guy.”
At 9:59, Fleischman calls Blum to say the movie’s his. “Fuck yeah,” Blum responds. And now we wait.
Photography by Zenith Richards Sleight will be released across the country Summer 2016.