Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Richard Linklater Frontrunner To Direct 'The Rosie Project' Starring Jennifer Lawrence Richard Linklater Frontrunner To Direct 'The Rosie Project' Starring Jennifer Lawrence The 10 Best And 5 Worst Tom Cruise Performances The 10 Best And 5 Worst Tom Cruise Performances Just For Laughs: 'The Big Lebowski' Live Read With Michael Fassbender & Jennifer Lawrence Just For Laughs: 'The Big Lebowski' Live Read With Michael Fassbender & Jennifer Lawrence Union Rep Says Safety Was A Concern On 'The Revenant' Shoot Union Rep Says Safety Was A Concern On 'The Revenant' Shoot All The Songs In 'Paper Towns' Including Bon Iver, Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Bob Dylan, And More All The Songs In 'Paper Towns' Including Bon Iver, Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Bob Dylan, And More "A Living Hell": 'The Revenant' Is Reportedly $35 Million Over Budget, A Producer Exited The Movie, And More "A Living Hell": 'The Revenant' Is Reportedly $35 Million Over Budget, A Producer Exited The Movie, And More 'Top Of The Lake' Season 2 Starts Shooting This Year, Elisabeth Moss Returns 'Top Of The Lake' Season 2 Starts Shooting This Year, Elisabeth Moss Returns Watch: Trailer For Bret Easton Ellis’ Penned Teen Horror ‘The Curse of Downers Grove’ With Bella Heathcote Watch: Trailer For Bret Easton Ellis’ Penned Teen Horror ‘The Curse of Downers Grove’ With Bella Heathcote Watch: Video Essay Counts Down The 10 Most Beautiful Movies Of All Time Watch: Video Essay Counts Down The 10 Most Beautiful Movies Of All Time Watch: Bond Is Back In New Trailer For 'Spectre' With Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, And More Watch: Bond Is Back In New Trailer For 'Spectre' With Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, And More Alejandro González Iñárritu Still Has To Shoot The Finale Of 'The Revenant' Alejandro González Iñárritu Still Has To Shoot The Finale Of 'The Revenant' The 20 Best Films Of 2015 So Far The 20 Best Films Of 2015 So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season Stephen King Says Wendy In Kubrick's 'The Shining' Is "One Of The Most Misogynistic Characters Ever Put On Film" Stephen King Says Wendy In Kubrick's 'The Shining' Is "One Of The Most Misogynistic Characters Ever Put On Film" All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More "It Was A Clusterfuck From Day One": 5 Things About Neill Blomkamp's Failed 'Halo' Movie "It Was A Clusterfuck From Day One": 5 Things About Neill Blomkamp's Failed 'Halo' Movie Martin Scorsese Names His 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time Martin Scorsese Names His 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time

Legacies: Steven Soderbergh's Revolutionary 'Sex Lies And Videotape' 25 Years Later

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist January 23, 2014 at 7:07PM

“I’m a little concerned by what ‘sex, lies’ might have wrought here,’ said Steven Soderbergh at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, proving even at 27 to be, aside from a promising filmmaker, an unusually thoughtful and prescient commentator on the wider industry. This was scarcely a year after his debut feature had unassumingly premiered at the festival and irrevocably changed the face of the movie world, and already then the sleepy, retrospectively genteel-feeling festival of yore had unmistakably begun its rapid evolution into the titan it is today; a quick glance at our coverage of this year’s Sundance alone can tell you just how far it’s come, in terms of media profile, business activity, not to mention sheer volume of films.
4
sex lies and videotape

“What will you do when the money runs out?” -- Ann (Andie MacDowell)

“It won't.” -- Graham

With deafening (for an indie, for the time) buzz, and marketing materials now laden with laurels and genuflecting pullquotes, the film is released in U.S. cinemas and makes $24m. By today’s standards that’s piddling, but for 1989 it was huge (and actually represents a return on investment proportionately higher than the same year’s megahit “Batman”). That it married critical, arthouse adoration with financial success not only instantly catapulted Miramax and its brilliant, brash selling strategies to the top of the indie film food chain, but it convinced everyone else that there was gold in them thar Utah hills. Within a decade, every major would have either acquired or created a specialty division, to mine these opportunities. And Sundance, which just the year before had been in danger of becoming “this utopian thing in the mountains without making any impact” according to one of its own execs, was firmly on the map. In 1990, its film slate expanded by 25% on 1989’s, and in a decade it had doubled.

The Legacy

“Nothing is what I thought it was” --Ann

And this, of course is the real rub. If “sex lies and videotape,” with only a small dash of hyperbole, can be said to have given birth to the modern independent film scene, then it also birthed the unspoken “lie” of the modern independent film. And we’re not just talking about the fact that the idea of independence in filmmaking is a funny concept, a misnomer, really, for a business that requires some degree of interdependent team work the second a filmmaker attempts anything more ambitious than a home video of “Little Charlie Tearing Up A Newspaper” (a masterpiece, incidentally). “sex lies and videotape” defined the potential of an independent film the moment it made a significant amount of money for its investors, and it is the nature of success, that as a business, as a film festival or as a filmmaker you grow and expand. Your budgets become bigger, expectations heavier and if your horizons broaden, you are simply not as free to roam them as you once were. So at what point have you expanded so much that you lose touch with what characterized your independence in the first place? A tipping point has to be reached.

sex lies and videotape Cynthia

Take Sundance for example--now a huge media event that attracts as many A-list Hollywood stars as struggling first-timers, its harsher critics accuse it of failing to keep faith with its original independent principles (becoming ironically the very thing that had made its patron, Robert Redford, reluctant to get involved with any festival all the way back in the '80s). It’s a huge, frenetic marketplace now, with major studios, either directly or more often in the sheep’s clothing of their wholly-owned “independent” subsidiaries, vying for the next big thing. Or rather for the next small thing that they can snap up at a relatively low price, Miramax the hell out of and make into a big thing. 

Not only does this mean that most of whatever money may eventually be made flows inevitably into the same four or five coffers, it also means, in the flattening, hammered-out, corporate way of things, that the same worn criteria are broadly applied to determine where that hit might lie. This is one of the reasons that the term “Sundance Movie” has taken on such a distinctly pejorative connotation. Without suggesting for a second that there aren’t tremendously exciting films showcased there, the blanket perception is that there’s now a cynical edge to the festival, a formula based on the prior marketable form of a film’s constituent elements, that runs counter to what we’d like to believe are the genuine independent characteristics of auteurism, passion, experimentalism, self-expression. Sundance, its detractors claim, has sold out.

“I'm not a liar. A liar is the second lowest form of human being.” -- Graham

Similarly the chinks in Miramax’s crusading armor started to show in the late '90s, when, despite having been acquired by Disney in 1993, their marketing strategies often still relied on the now-sexy descriptor of "independent" for the films they produced. As media studies author Alisa Perren puts it in her excellent paper on the subject “a term [“independent”] that was introduced by the press during the late '80s as a descriptive label to explain structural and aesthetic changes afoot in the New Hollywood, morphed in the next decade into a publicity tool for Miramax and its many imitators...by the mid '90s the label no longer had any definitional value.” She further suggests that the beginning of the end of this phenomenon, at least in terms of press acceptance of the term at face value, was with the attempt by Miramax to market “Shakespeare in Love” as an indie film, which apparently was a bridge too far. This tension contributed to an increasingly fractious relationship with parent Disney, until the Weinsteins left Miramax in 2005 to form mini-major The Weinstein Company and that particular era came to an end. What it left behind was the idea of independent film as a viable, marketable “product”--a financial blessing and an aesthetic curse.

Soderbergh Portrait

And what of the filmmakers? If Soderbergh’s film set the template for indie film success, then surely Soderbergh himself is some sort of template for the ideal indie filmmaker? Well, you know we’re fans, and the eclectic polyglot approach that Soderbergh took to the majority of his career (never really buying into the Hollywood machine on anything more than a one-for-them-one-for-me basis) does indeed feel like one of relative integrity, with a more prolific catalogue, that contains a higher proportion of seemingly uncompromised personal passion projects, than almost any director we can name. But how ironic is it that, while hardly his fault, all the way back in 1989 his own debut’s success paved the way for the very bifurcation of the industry that would, 25 years later, see him hanging up his hat in disgust with Hollywood? To recap the quandary that he and various other directors have articulated recently: today in Hollywood there’s a perception that are only two viable models that offer the kind of return on investment worth dealing with: the tiny indie made for $5m or less that doesn’t represent a huge risk, or the $150m+ tentpole that offers a staggering potential reward. In between those amounts, which is where the successful indie filmmaker is likely to want to live, the opportunities for financing are dwindling.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Steven Soderbergh, Sundance Film Festival, Miramax, sex, lies and videotape, James Spader, Andie MacDowell


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates