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

Photo of Meredith Brody By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood April 29, 2013 at 3:11PM

No State of Cinema address at the SFIFF has been as hotly anticipated as this year's by Steven Soderbergh. (Listen to our podcast recording below.) This is not only because he's a prolific and beloved auteur that has worked in every genre and budget, but because he recently announced his retirement from filmmaking, in order to spend more time painting, making collages, writing books, directing a new play by Scott Burns about Columbine, as well as a stage version of "Cleopatra," and exploring other avenues of creativity.
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. 

This article is related to: Steven Soderbergh, Steven Soderbergh, San Francisco International Film Festival

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.