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.”
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.”
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