SFIFF: Steven Soderbergh Says Art Of Cinema Is Under Attack From The Studios, Decries Profit Driven Decision Making

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by Sean Gillane
April 29, 2013 11:03 AM
14 Comments
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Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
Soderbergh was clearly ready to dig into the executive run studio system, but was still wary when approaching specific names or projects. After explaining the frustration that comes with a structure based on profit estimates instead of creativity, he joked, “I could tell you a really good story about how I got pushed off a movie because of the way the numbers ran but if I did I’d probably get shot in the street and, uh, I really like my cats.” Whether he meant, "Moneyball" at Sony or "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." at Warner Bros., the director didn't elaborate.

In his mind, the evolution of cinema in studio movies has halted because, “The executive ecosystem is distorted because executives don’t get punished for making bombs the way filmmakers do.” Storytelling prescribed by profit estimates also deter contemporary cinema from blossoming in a meaningful way, as films are forced to appeal to the widest possible audience, leading to, “Things like cultural specificity, narrative complexity, and god forgive ambiguity, those become real obstacles to film here and abroad…I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one.”

At this point in his career, Soderbergh may condemn the executive structure, but he allowed for an acceptance of movies as an industry, saying, “Economically it’s a pretty straight-forward business and, hell, it’s the third biggest export that we have. It’s one of the few things that we do that the world actually likes. I’ve stopped being embarrassed about being in the film business, I really have. I’m not spending my days trying to make a weapon that kills people more efficiently.”

Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Things may be status quo with studio films, but on the independent side the situation is becoming more desperate. Soderbergh stated that, while there are fewer studio films being released now annually than ten years ago, they take a larger share of the money made, even though the number of independent films released has doubled in that same time. He explained, “When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience felt like trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball, with another thrown baseball.”

Financial projections are the basis for decisions about which films get made, or don’t, and as much as Soderbergh clearly comprehends the mechanics of the system, he’s bewildered by its survival. Based on his own experience, he identifies a flawed structure that not only prevents original films from being produced, but doesn’t even serve itself in the ways it is supposed to in the first place. Soderbergh also lamented the homogenization of posters, trailers and marketing materials because of the tyranny of testing -- an inexact science which is never consistent. The director cited “Magic Mike” as an example where the opening weekend box office was projected to be $19 million but ended up being $38 million. On the other hand, his February thriller, “Side Effects,” which under-performeed at the box-office and yet tested well, had strong exit poll numbers and had great reviews. “Magic Mike” of course did test poorly, but went on to gross $167 million worldwide and has already spawned a sequel. The verdict? Nobody knows anything. “How do we figure out went wrong? The answer is we don’t because everybody has already moved on to the next movie they have to release,” he said.

Soderbergh talked at length about the unbalanced economics of filmmaking, relating that the $5 million dollar-costing Liberace film, “Behind The Candelabra” would have to make $70 million by studio standards for it to even begin to become profitable. And since the film was, as he recalled the studio describing it as "special," it was an easy no go decision for them. Using a baseball metaphor, the filmmaker said more often than not the studio system was only interested in home run movies. “They don’t look at the singles and doubles as being worth the money or the man hours.” Soderbergh dropped the problematic math: a $10 million dollar studio movie, that spends $60 million to market it, needs to make $140 million to break even. Very few $10 million dollar movies gross that much. Whereas a $100 million movie, with a $60 million budget, many of them do cross that $320 million line.

Soderbergh said what mystified him about the franchise blockbuster world was the excessive carpet-bombing of marketing to ensure a movie opens big so the perception is the movie is huge. “Is there anyone in the galaxy that doesn’t know that ‘Iron Man 3’ is opening on Friday?,” he asked. “No, they spend more. The attitude it, ‘It’s a sequel and it’s the third one and we gotta make sure people really want to go.”

Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Fortunately, for all the talk about cinema being doomed, Soderbergh allowed some hope into the conversation, suggesting, “As long as you have filmmakers out there who have that specific point of view, then cinema is never going to disappear completely. Because it’s not about money. It’s about good ideas followed up by a well-developed aesthetic.”

Soderbergh developed his idea of an ideal studio structure to reintroduce his version of cinema into larger studio films: “In my view, in this business which is totally talent driven, it’s about horses, not races. I think if I were running a studio I would just gather the best filmmakers I can find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters. So I would call Shane Carruth [“Upstream Color”] or Barry Jenkins [“Medicine For Melancholy”] or Amy Seimetz [“Sun Don’t Shine”] and bring them in and go, ‘What do you want to do? What are the things that you’re interested in doing? What do we have here that you might be interested in doing?’ And if there was some sort of intersection, you’d go, ‘OK look, I’m going to give you three movies over five years, give you this much money in production costs, I’m going to dedicate this much money to marketing. You can spend it however you want. All on one or the other or the other two. But, go make something.’ That only works if you are good at identifying talent, real talent. The kind of talent that sustains.”

The idea of Soderbergh as a studio executive sounds like a fantastic evolution from his directorial career, even if unrealistic. The trio of directors he mentioned creates an inspired short list; he is clearly paying attention to what is going on at all levels of contemporary cinema. The thought of financially backing these uniquely successful creatives, and ones that have built their films on micro-budgets, with the intention of forwarding the state of cinema as a whole seems obvious. Unfortunately, the current studio system is not built on taking any uncalculated risks.

At the peak of his frustrations, Soderbergh recalled the common sensation of projects “slipping away” while sitting in meetings with executives, ranting, “I just want to jump up on the table and scream, ‘Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good; is to make something ambitious? Something beautiful? Something memorable?’ But I didn’t.”

If we are losing Steven Soderbergh the director, hopefully we are gaining a loud and active champion of quality cinema. If only he could give us the incriminating details of those closed-door executive meetings without potentially orphaning his cats.

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 9th. Photographs by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

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14 Comments

  • Jarod Rebuck | May 8, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    VIDEODROME

  • Scott Tatman | May 5, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Hollywood is and has always been about greed. I love movies as much as anyone, though taste are subjective. But any of us pay (now $14 in NYC) the prices charged to see movies, especially the ridiculous $20 fee for some IMax and/or 3D movies are just as guilty as the studios. Some of these guys make far too much for what they do and certainly get much more praise for their efforts. Getting paid a living wage to produce your art for a living is a wonderful thing but I can't see the justification for $20 million for actor or director x just as I can't see the justification for $200 million dollar budgets. Real indie movies used to mean $10 or 20000 or some such business. Now an "indie" studio (owned by a major studio) has a $30-40 million dollar budget. Can you imagine a young filmmaker with no ties to hollywood whatsoever raising anywhere near that for a movie? What's worse is you now have stars taking over kickstarted and rocket hub to raise millions for projects, completely pushing out unknowns simply trying to raise a couple of thousand.

    I guess the bottom line is that it's pointless talk about Hollywood being greedy in this day and age since it's been going on for years and fans are still willing to go to the theatre, pay the ever increasing prices (even for gimmicks such as 3D) for often mediocre (in my opinion) films. Plus, Hollywood is filled with family franchised actors, directors and so forth who simply go in the door because of who they know. If you named 10 random actors you'd probably find 8 of them with ties to either famous hollywood families or powerful, wealthy players within the entertainment industry (like Rooney Mara for example).

    It ceased to be true art and passion projects a long time ago.

  • Daniel Delago | May 1, 2013 9:10 AMReply

    Brutally honest speech. Since Soderbergh has gone into 'semi-retirement,' he has been telling it like it is. His frustration with the studios has been going on in Hollywood since the days of Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. The best way to fight back is to keep making good quality independent films. Popcorn movies like 'Iron Man 3' have their place during the summer months but the films that resonate with a strong artistic voice will always be the well-crafted indie.

  • Sparky | April 30, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    “If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide, then what is it for?" Well, for one, the collected works of Shakespeare were written at a time when the word genocide didn't exist, so, you know, maybe that wasn't Shakespeare's primary motivation. For Shakespeare, it was to earn a living and to put his writing talent to use. For later generations, it was for stock theatrical companies to have popular, quality material to present to an audience. I think if you're really asking yourself a ridiculous question like that, you don't have any real feeling for or commitment to art. And for him to answer it with "art is inevitable" and "cave paintings," so that he's okay with making Ocean 13, of all pictures, shows me that his question was insincere in the first place.

  • OH_OH_OH | May 1, 2013 9:14 AM

    OH SPARKY/OH TOM:

    " I can say with reasonable confidence that Soderbergh knows the value of Shakespeare's work. "

    Delighted to learn of your confidence, but all we have are Soderbergh's adolescent musings on the works Shakespeare being unable to prevent murder and starvation. And while S's concern for the Oceans' electricity bill is touching, it's hard to see how exactly that concern ends starvation and mass murder unlike, say, King Lear or Hamlet.

    "Finally if the man didn't have any commitment to Art, why would he retire from a lengthy career in film making to pursue painting?"

    On that basis, millions of other people are similar "committed" to Art, only they have to work for a living, not being multi-millionaires. Of course, there's also George Bush. So maybe you do have a point.

  • OH SPARKY | April 30, 2013 7:51 PM

    Your literal and, I will admit, well thought out response misses the entire point of the question. He wasn't asking why Shakespeare created his works or why they continue to be relevant. He was asking why any Art (using Shakespeare as an example) exists from a utilitarian perspective. What measurable benefit does society gain from it. And he never confirmed or denied whether or not he finally justified the making of Ocean's 13, he simply raised that point to signal his doubt at the excess of the endeavor and what possible benefits it could be providing others, as a further reason to question the purpose of art. I can say with reasonable confidence that Soderbergh knows the value of Shakespeare's work. Finally if the man didn't have any commitment to Art, why would he retire from a lengthy career in film making to pursue painting?

  • AMAR R SOVASHEYA | April 30, 2013 6:09 AMReply

    Its gr8 and i also want to be a part of...

  • Trevor | April 29, 2013 9:45 PMReply

    BTW: I'm grateful for the address Steven Soderbergh made.

  • Trevor | April 29, 2013 9:39 PMReply

    I blame Steven Spielberg and the invention of vhs for putting us in the toilet that we find ourselves in today.

  • Tim | April 29, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    “The problem is that cinema, as I define it and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience."

    I'd add that this transaction is much more accurately characterized as manipulation, than as an example of free exchange. There's no doubt the general audience is in full support of it, but that's only because they aren't bothering to look beyond what's being heavily marketed to them and what's most easily available -- in other words, beyond what is being force fed to them. The analogy to the process of making foie gras is entirely appropriate.

    The second, compounding, level of this problem is that it is essentially instilling a Hollywood grammar inside the heads of audiences, and to some degree inside the heads of our young filmmakers as well. When a film doesn't fall in line with that, the first reaction is not to like it. This is arguably an even more lamentable reality.

  • Doubting_Tom | April 29, 2013 12:29 PMReply

    This is, of course, nonsense.

    The indie directors Soderbergh cites aren't making high art. Soderbergh himself, with vastly superior resources, doesn't make high art. The movies he got fired off would not have been high art, with his participation. Meanwhile, Soderbergh enjoys a level of privilege and freedom never experienced by far more accomplished artists, throughout history.

    If the man wants purity, free from commercial considerations, it's there for the taking, in traditional art forms which don't require mass-audiences to sustain production. But those art-forms are unforgiving, and the standards are unforgiving. You won't get rich or internationally famous practicing at the level Soderbergh has achieved in film.

    And it would be easy enough to set up a philanthropic film fund, if that's what he really wants to do -- he doesn't have get hired as a studio head to do it. All that's needed is to shame his colleagues Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, etc. who claim to love the medium so deeply, into funding it. What's a few million a year to these people? Absolutely nothing.

    But they apparently don't love film *that* much.

  • OH TOM | April 30, 2013 2:37 AM

    I just want to address your point concerning "pure, commercial free art forms". Isn't that exactly why he left the film business; so that he could, you know, paint?

  • Alan B | April 29, 2013 12:53 PM

    George Lucas is donating a majority of the $4 billion he received from Disney to his education program and has donated $175 million to USC, but I guess that isn't good enough.

  • chris | April 29, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    Jonathan Lethem, not Levine.

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