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

Features
by Jessica Kiang
January 23, 2014 7:07 PM
4 Comments
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“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.

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.

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.

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4 Comments

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  • hank | January 23, 2014 7:29 PMReply

    great article. i re-watched this film a couple years ago and was blown away all over again.

  • nate | January 23, 2014 6:05 PMReply

    What a great article! This is the type of piece that sets you guys above the others.

  • TheoC | January 23, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    This is a fantastic longer read for a Thursday evening, thank you.

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