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

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

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 (sign up at his new website for upcoming news.
Of course, Soderbergh allowed as how he was
working on a 12-hour miniseries of John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,”
so maybe he has a different idea of just what retiring from filmmaking
constitutes than we did.  Thankfully.
Soderbergh
was introduced by Executive Director Ted Hope, who said that the people
you meet have a lot to do with the life that you lead, and that in
addition to the film industry being filled with narcissistic types,
there were also other types of people. He cited calling Soderbergh cold
when he was trying to put together a film on a Ron Vawter theater piece
and Soderbergh immediately not only said what can I do to make it
happen, but showed up to be in the audience during the filming.
After
Hope told us that Soderbergh had requested no photography, video, or
recording — “respect his privacy” — the man himself strode out
confidently, dressed in a sharp dark grey suit, a lavender shirt, a
darker lavender tie, and his trademark dark-framed glasses.  After
taking a swig of water, he began his rapid-fire talk, glancing at a
script from time to time. It was as assured as a stand-up comic’s
routine — and sometimes as amusing.  He also left room for
improvisation, digressions, and parenthetical remarks.  The following is
my impression of his talk, from scribbled notes that left my wrist
sore.
A
few months ago, he said, on a Jet Blue Flight from JFK to Burbank –he’d spent $60 for the extra legroom, and he was getting ready to relax
when he noticed that the guy next to him had downloaded
action-adventure movies on his laptop.  But the guy was just watching
the action sequences and fast-forwarding through the dialogue
sequences.  5 1/2 hours of mayhem porn!  A wave went over him, a sense
of “Am I going insane or is the world going insane or both?”  He’s
getting old, he’s in the back 9, he’s older than Elvis.  Maybe he should
ask his 22-year-old daughter what she thinks.
When
people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of “The Sopranos” than a woman being stoned to death, what’s happening? People think our
government can stage a terrorism attack, and this when we know there are
no secrets today.  
He
was reminded of the experiment that proved if you’re in a car and going
more than 20 miles an hour, you can’t distinguish a person’s features. 
Which is an odd experiment in itself.  And that was an example of his
circular thinking on that flight.  He cited Douglas Rushkoff’s “Present
Shock”
:
that’s what he’s suffering from.  There’s so much information coming
in from so many sources that it doesn’t make a story — there’s a
constant distracting hum.
What is art for? If the collective work of Shakespeare can’t prevent
genocide, what’s the point?  On “Oceans 13,” the casino set used $60,000
worth of electricity every week.  What about all the resources?  What
about even the carbon footprint to get him here today?
He
finally decided art is inevitable — from the paintings on a wall of a
cave 30,000 years ago to today.  We are a species driven by narrative. 
We need to tell stories.  At the very best, you can enter the
consciousness of another being, and you are altered in some way.  The
experience is transformative.  Art is also about problem solving, art is
an elegant problem-solving model.
And
now we arrive at the subject of this rant.  There is a difference
between movies and cinema.  In cinema, there’s a specificity of vision,
an approach in which everything matters.  If this filmmaker didn’t do
it, it wouldn’t exist.  An acclaimed movie may not qualify as cinema. 
And cinema could be an unwatchable piece of shit.  But it’s not made by a
“company.”
He
likes technology.  He likes things that are smaller, lighter, faster. 
He cites a quote by Orson Welles: “I don’t want to wait on the tool.  I
want the tool to wait on me.”
Cinema
is under assault by the studios, with the full support of the
audience.  There’s a lack of leadership.  This is very subjective, and
there’s an exception to everything he’s going to say (that’s so you
won’t think he’s talking about you).
Meetings
have gotten pretty weird.  There are fewer executives that love and/or
know movies.  It’s as if he was in a meeting with an engineer and told
him how to build his car.   Studios take into consideration the foreign
market, which leads to spectacle, homogenized and simplified.  Narrative
complexity and ambiguity go out the window.
When
he was at a test screening for “Contagion” and a guy stood up and said,
“I hate the Jude Law character, I don’t know if he’s a hero or an
asshole,” he thought “there it goes.”
The
studios run the numbers.  It’s a fungible algorithm (aside: he doesn’t
want to be shot on the streets [for talking about this]. He really likes
his cats). For a start, it costs $30,000,000 to release a film, and
$30,000,000 more to release it overseas.  Therefore it has to gross
$120,000,000 at least (because exhibitors keep 50%).  That’s why the
Liberace movie [“Before the Candelabra,” soon to show on HBO after
premiering at Cannes] didn’t happen.  Even if they only needed
$5,000,000 to make it, it would still cost $60,000,000 to release it. 
And the studios thought it was too special a subject.
How
can you reduce the cost of putting a movie out?  There’s testing. 
“Magic Mike” opened at $38,000,000.  Tracking said it would do
$19,000,000. That was 100% wrong.  How does that happen?  It mystifies
him.  He thinks you don’t have to spend as much on the sequel.  Does
anybody not know that “Ironman 3” is opening on Friday?  Yet studios spend
more on opening the sequel.  
It’s
because of testing that everything interesting gets tossed out —
posters, trailers.  But we don’t see things in isolation.  Maybe a
different poster would stand out if seen in a lineup of many.
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. 

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