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LISTEN: Steven Soderbergh on 'What's Killing Cinema,' A Fungible Algorithm (PODCAST)

by Meredith Brody
April 29, 2013 3:11 PM
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Magic Mike, Mike and Dallas

He had a London trailer for "Side Effects" that didn't test well, so had to abandon it.  Not that testing is all bad; especially for comedy.  You need 400 people that are not your friends to tell you what's wrong.  And yet "Magic Mike" tested poorly.

"Side Effects" didn't do as well as they'd hoped.  Was February 8th a bad date?  The Oscars had just been announced, and gave large bumps to the nominated films.  There was a storm in the Northeast, an important market -- Nemo came in, was God getting him back for his comments on monotheism?  They sold it as a straight thriller, disconnected from pervasive theme of pill-taking.  There were four attractive white people, that usually works.  It was well-reviewed.

He'll attempt to show how a certain kind of rodent might be better than a studio in choosing movies.  The rodent will take the button that gives you a 60% chance of food over the one that gives you 40%.  But the studio increases their chances of choosing wrong.  He would gather the best filmmakers he could find -- he cites Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, and Barry Jenkins -- and give them money and time, with which they could make three movies or one.  But that only works if you're good at identifying talent.  I

f you're a studio, you need all kinds of movies.  What they tried to do at his company Section 8 only works if budgets are low.  But what's most profitable are big-budget home runs, not singles or doubles.  It feels better to spend $60,000,000 promoting a $100,000,000 movie instead of a $10,000,000 one, and it's easier for a $100,000,000 movie to make $320,000,000 than a $10,000,000 one to make $140,000,000.

Well, maybe nothing's wrong.  Maybe he's a clown.  There are fewer releases, and he reads a "Variety" article that says the studios have boosted the financials of the conglomerates that own them.  The international box office now counts for 70% of a picture's returns, rather than 50%.

The studios are one place where trickle-down economics actually work -- they spend more to make more -- not like the mortgage bullshit that almost brought down the world.  

There are too many executives, too many that you have to talk to who can't say yes. Why do the studios remake the famous movies?  Why not the infamous ones with interesting content?  Even if they don't know about those movies, surely they could hire somebody who did.  The executive ecosystem is distorted. They don't get punished for bombs the way filmmakers do.

Movies are the third biggest export the US has.  It's one of the few things we do that other people like.  So he's no longer ashamed.  He's wrong so much it doesn't even raise his blood pressure anymore. One thing is that admissions have changed -- from 1.5 billion ten years ago to 1.3 billion now.  Theft is a big problem.  He quotes Steve Jobs about protection of intellectual property.  It's not just because it's a person's livelihood.  It's wrong, and it changes you.

He thinks that what people go to the movies for has changed since 9/11 -- collective PTSD.  We haven't healed.  We're looking more for escapist entertainment.  Only people who have it good will spend money on entertainment to make you feel bad.

In 2003, 475 films were released.  Last year, 673.  And despite a 28% drop in the number of studio films (versus 100% more in independents), they have a 76% share of the market, which is greater than ten years ago.  So the independents are scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie.

This is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies.  He's repaying karmic debt by making something good and beautiful.  

There are a couple of movies that represent half a billion dollars.  Kickstarter!

But he doesn't want to bring this to a conclusion on a down note.  He once got a call from an agent who wanted him to see a movie that no distributor would pick up.  It was "Memento." He was upset -- if no one would release this, it was over.  But the people who made it formed their own distribution company and made $25,000,000.

He ends with this advice:  if you're in a meeting -- the story can be about genocide, a child killer, the worst kind of criminal atrocity -- stop yourself at some point and say "At the end of the day, this is a movie about hope."

And, scarcely 45 minutes after Sodebergh began, he exited the stage without pausing for the customary q-and-a.  Leave them when they're wanting more!  I could almost feel the audience yearning to hear more about what he had planned for his "retirement."  To me he just sounded like he was temporarily stepping away from the meetings with people who can't say yes, but can attempt to simplify and homogenize your vision.

Because I'm sitting with my friend Alison Brantley, not only a respected acquisitions exec but also Soderbergh's onetime sister-in-law (and aunt of the 22-year-old girl whose possible equanimity in the face of changing media he cited), I'm swept up along with David Siegel, Scott McGehee, and Rebecca Yeldham to join Soderbergh backstage, in a cramped improvised dressing room.  I overhear him tell assorted complimenters that he'd practiced the speech a number of times.  

We then all march down the street to a State of Cinema party at 1300 Fillmore. Siegel, still thrilled that he and Scott got to present "What Maisie Knew" at the Catro in the city where they lived for 15 years, reminds me that our mutual friend Howard Rodman once said that the purpose of the studio development project was to take a script that had been written by one particular person and make it read like it could have been written by anyone.  David also tells me that Soderbergh was responsible for getting him and McGehee finishing money on their first feature, "Suture." From Hope's Vawter story to "Suture" -- a nice example of circular thinking and putting your money where your mouth is. 


  • Stevart | June 24, 2013 9:15 AMReply

    "You are either Australian or a German refugee. This is a gentile house, bud. So why don't you just run along."

  • Sam Lowry | April 29, 2013 8:14 PMReply

    Oh Kevin. Kevin-y Kevin-y Kevin.

    And you, JG. You might actually be worse. (But then I would say that - I'm actually working for the CIA. We have cameras in your apartment. You really need to do your laundry more frequently, my friend).

    In a way, both the moronic commenters below and the unfortunate (and yet fortunate) broadcasting of this would-be private speech are connected. Because what Mr Soderbergh was trying to address was something specific and trenchant about the world as it exists right now in 2013 – about broader societal trends, about waves of information overwhelming us thanks to a pseudo-connectivity that unites us but drowns us, exposing us not to singular, clearcut forms of expression and ideas (what once was called "genius" before it was co-opted to describe just about anything and anyone, and Soderbergh calls "cinema" – the transmission of one person's worldview into another's consciousness) but a tidal wave of mediocre thinking and the bland tastelessness of the quotidian which is present as much in the anonymity of the modern bulletin board (never read the comments, my friends...) as it in Kevin and JG and yes – arguably – in consensus-driven, profit-led moviemaking.

    Which is to say that Soderbergh rules, and Kevin and JG are *very* silly billies.

    Anyway – in the absence of an articulate response to a deeply articulate and heartfelt cri du coeur I thought it might be valuable, just this once, to post a specific response on the internet to the content of the actual speech – you know, to populate the "comments" field with something resembling an actual thought - just in case, as I hope, the vast majority of visitors to this page, like me resemble a thoughtful, silent majority rather than knee-jerk comment-writers sitting at home in their underwear stabbing wildly at their keyboards with one hand as they bite into another piece of dripping chicken with the other.

    To Steven I say – rock on, soldier. It's a pain in the ass that this speech got leaked in this way, yet on the other hand this is the world we live in and c'est la vie, et cetera.

    Broadly speaking, surely the simplest response to your thesis is surely "twas ever thus", no? Perhaps from the eye of the storm the twister looks more violent than e'er before and yet for those of us on the sidelines this particular period, economically speaking, is just another cycle on the merry-go-round. The black swans manage to break through, and always will – not just your Mementos, but also the Shane Carruths and Amy Seimetzes. That's why art's art, right? Because they're the exception, not the rule. Are Carruth and Seimetz looking for three picture deals with Disney? You'd know better than me, but I wonder if it isn't the struggle that makes them who they are, not the plush office on the Warners lot, or the ready financing from a corporate behemoth.

    I suspect that what your fabulous speech is really about is the frustrations of a first-class, award-winning filmmaker at the top of his game unable to find the financing for the stories he wants to tell – which is fair enough. A system in which moving to the top of the ladder doesn't make things any easier for the artist must feel like no system at all – but as you pointed out, this is the purest form of free-marketeering, which is to say the numbers will tell you absolutely nothing about art. Art (cinema) is never the popular shit. You can't legislate for it, or manufacture it or steamroll statistics-driven (transparent) industry into cranking it out. Ah yes, you'll say, back in the seventies – but who the hell knows what happened then? I think being high probably had a lot do with it.

    In short you sir are the geek in school who got made prom king – the luckiest bastard you ever saw. But the metric here is skewy –you're lookin for art where nobody else expects to find it, in the pie-charts of a sausage factory.

    So yes, things have got tougher for artists in your position who've made a living out of gaming the system, but I guess you either shit or get off the pot. Zemeckis makes Flight. Coppola makes Tetro. PTA makes all kinds of random-ass shit that makes less and less sense and is more and more beautiful. And you...

    Well, it looks like you're getting off the pot. Those of us who are your fans – the ones who've sat through the commentaries, who've read your book, who think you're hot shit and who remember your Academy Awards speech with gratitude and respect – feel it's a shame you're getting off the pot, but it's cool. We all know you'll never stop doing your thing. And we also know that once you regain your mojo and start from the ground up – do something cheap, like back in the old days, that you'll start to get back into the swing of things. And so it goes and so it goes. But thanks for doing your thing, and for being resolutely yourself. On behalf of the silent majority who don't normally comment on bulletin boards – adieu, and au revoir.

  • John Wheaties | April 29, 2013 7:54 PMReply

    "If the collective work of Shakespeare can't prevent genocide, what's the point?"

    Soderbergh makes some good points, but the above "quote" makes him sound like a teenager waking up to the ways of the world. Most of us figured this out - that art doesn't prevent great evil - before Soderbergh wrote SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE.

  • John Wheaties | April 29, 2013 10:02 PM

    Ok, I read the summary (again) barely observing Soderbergh's wishes, and I was unfair to nail him for the Shakespeare "quote," I didn't read carefully and didn't pick up on the fact that that wasn't his subject. But still... I feel for him (my inner 99cent-store psychologist says this probably stems at least in part from his experience with MONEYBALL) but reiterating to some extent Sam Lowry above, and somewhat less charitably - this is basically all old news. William Goldman said costs only go up years ago. It stands to reason that the intelligence quotient in studio films must go down. Soderbergh is entitled to feel burnt out, but here's hoping the Jeff Nichols and the other voices outside and inside the studio system still have the desire and energy to scramble for the leavings. And PAIN & GAIN was actually pretty good!

  • kevin | April 29, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    What is killing cinema is hacks like this guy. Soderberg is a blowhard. The girlfriend experience was a terribly shot horrible movie like most (i said most not all) of his crap

  • GG | April 29, 2013 11:33 PM

    Right on, Kevin. Soderbergh is overrated and comes across as a whiner in almost every interview he does. Get tired of people treating him like some sort of god.

  • jg | April 29, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    Utterly ignorant comment about terrorist attacks near the beginning. That is faith based reason, lacking evidence and analysis. US government supports terrorism around the world, notably Libya, Syria and oh... what's that one... hit the news recently... Chechnya. Don't run your mouth on important topics if you have no idea what you're talking about.

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