Saturday afternoon at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh presented an audience his take on the current state of cinema. The State of Cinema Address is an annual event held at the festival that allows a speaker (not always a filmmaker, last year the festival saw author Jonathan Lethem give his take on the subject) to lay down their thoughts on contemporary film. This year the San Francisco Film Society, the organization that runs the festival, was able to land the prolific Steven Soderbergh at a particularly interesting time in his career: the beginning of a hiatus from directing.
In order to speak on the topic of cinema, Soderbergh expressed a need to first define what the word cinema even means to him, but not before discussing the disconnect in culture and the acceleration of noise that’s affecting it. “When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of the surprise, than some woman being stoned to death, there’s there’s something,” he said, referencing both, the conclusion of “The Dark Knight Rises” and recent atrocities in Africa.
He explained, circuitously, that cinema’s a difficult procedure at this point in time as the modern experience flashes by at a frequency so high that it results in an ambiguous hum as opposed to identifiable cultural beats. Sharing an anecdote about a flight to L.A. where a nearby passenger stacked up an iPad with nothing but action sequences from popular movies of the last fews year free from their narrative, the filmmaker said this practice left him depressed and dumbfounded.
He confronted the issue, quoting Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock,” which he said articulated his recent cultural sensation. “There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result and instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming at once – and from so many different sources- that there’s simply no way to trace the thought over time.”
He continued on to define his idea of cinema, speaking with an accelerating enthusiasm, asking, “Is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on ‘Team America’ I would say, ‘Fuck Yeah!’ The simplest way I could describe it is, a movie is something you see and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the capture medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, whether it’s in your bedroom or on your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial; it could be something on Youtube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach where everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee and it isn’t made by a company and it isn’t made by the audience. It means if the filmmaker didn’t do it, it wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist anything like this form.”
Soderbergh stopped short of describing himself as an author of cinema; in fact, whenever he used his own films as touchstones during the talk it was primarily to relate firsthand financial facts that he could confidently stand behind, but it felt like more of an attempt to find an objective platform to speak from than out of humility. He did, however, log a good number of minutes talking about discovering how to come to terms with the unnecessary extravagances of his profession.
He admitted to having struggled with the thought of film, and art in general, being wasteful in a world where there is real suffering going on, asking himself, “If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide, then what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending this time and resources sort of alleviating the suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and the plays and art installations?” Soderbergh recalled being startled during “Ocean’s 13” at the information that the electricity cost for keeping their casino set operating ran the production $60,000 a week. After much internal debate on the topic he eventually landed on a thought that granted him permission to continue, despite his immediate intellectual objections:
“What I finally decided was: art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of the cave in France 30,000 years ago. And it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. And art is storytelling; we need to tell stories. We need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information to try and make sense out of all this chaos. Sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being and literally seeing the world the way they see it.”
Having described what cinema means to him, he went on to explain the troubles that it currently faces, saying, “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. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and lack of vision and a lack of leadership you’ve got a trajectory that is pretty difficult to reverse.” While he described the war on cinema, he also admitted that it is an attack of indifference, not intention, explaining, “The idea of cinema as I’m defining it is not on the radar of the studios, it’s not a conversation that anybody’s having, it’s not a word you’d ever want to use in a meeting.”
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.”
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