Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Cameron Sinz
April 30, 2013 11:23 AM
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Read the Full Transcript of Steven Soderbergh's Impassioned 'State of Cinema' Address From the San Francisco Film Festival


So, that means you can take a perfectly solid, successful and acclaimed movie and it may not qualify as cinema. It also means you can take a piece of cinema and it may not qualify as a movie, and it may actually be an unwatchable piece of shit. But 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. I love all this new technology, it's great. It's smaller, lighter, faster. You can make a really good-looking movie for not a lot of money, and when people start to get weepy about celluloid, I think of this quote by Orson Welles when somebody was talking to him about new technology, which he tended to embrace, and he said, “I don't want to wait on the tool, I want the tool to wait for me”, which I thought was a good way to put it. But 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 a lack of vision, and a lack of leadership, you've got a trajectory that I think is pretty difficult to reverse.

Now, of course, it's very subjective; there are going to be exceptions to everything I'm going to say, and I'm just saying that so no one thinks I'm talking about them. I want to be clear: The idea of cinema as I'm defining it is not on the radar in the studios. This is not a conversation anybody's having; it's not a word you would ever want to use in a meeting. Speaking of meetings, the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, 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, and that's kind of what you feel like when you're in these meetings. You've got people who don't know movies and don't watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you're going to be allowed to make. That's one reason studio movies aren't better than they are, and that's one reason that cinema, as I'm defining it, is shrinking.

Well, how does a studio decide what movies get made? One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It's become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it's got to be, the more simplified it's got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.

Speaking of ambiguity, we had a test screening of Contagion once and a guy in the focus group stood up and he said, “I really hate the Jude Law character. I don't know if he's a hero or an asshole”. And I thought well, here we go. There's another thing, a process known as running the numbers, and for a filmmaker this is kind of the equivalent of a doctor showing you a chest x-ray and saying there's a shadow on it. It's a kind of fungible algorithm that's used when they want say no without, really, saying no. I could tell you a really good story of 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 I really like my cats.

So then there's the expense of putting a movie out, which is a big problem. Point of entry for a mainstream, wide-release movie: $30 million. That's where you start. Now you add another 30 for overseas. Now you've got to remember, the exhibitors pay half of the gross, so to make that 60 back you need to gross 120. So you don't even know what your movie is yet, and you're already looking at 120. That ended up being part of the reason why the Liberace movie didn't happen at a studio. We only needed $5 million from a domestic partner, but when you add the cost of putting a movie out, now you've got to gross $75 million to get that 35 back, and the feeling amongst the studios was that this material was too “special” to gross $70 million. So the obstacle here isn't just that special subject matter, but that nobody has figured out how to reduce the cost of putting a movie out. There have been some attempts to analyze it, but one of the mysteries is that this analysis doesn't really reveal any kind of linear predictive behavior, it's still mysterious the process whereby people decide if they're either going to go to a movie or not go to a movie. Sometimes you don't even know how you reach them. Like on Magic Mike for instance, the movie opened to $38 million, and the tracking said we were going to open to 19. So the tracking was 100% wrong. It's really nice when the surprise goes in that direction, but it's hard not to sit there and go how did we miss that? If this is our tracking, how do you miss by that much?

I know one person who works in marketing at a studio suggested, on a modestly budgeted film that had some sort of brand identity and some A-list talent attached, she suggested, “Look, why don't we not do any tracking at all, and just spend 15 and we'll just put it out”. They wouldn't do it. They were afraid it would fail, when they fail doing the other thing all the time. Maybe they were afraid it was going to work. The other thing that mystifies me is that you would think, in terms of spending, if you have one of these big franchise sequels that you would say oh, we don't have to spend as much money because is there anyone in the galaxy that doesn't know Iron Man's opening on Friday? So you would think, oh, we can stop carpet-bombing with TV commercials. It's exactly the opposite. They spend more. They spend more. Their attitude is: You know, it's a sequel, and it's the third one, and we really want to make sure people really want to go. We want to make sure that opening night number is big so there's the perception of the movie is that it's a huge success. There's that, and if you've ever wondered why every poster and every trailer and every TV spot looks exactly the same, it's because of testing. It's because anything interesting scores poorly and gets kicked out.
Now I've tried to argue that the methodology of this testing doesn't work. If you take a poster or a trailer and you show it to somebody in isolation, that's not really an accurate reflection of whether it's working because we don't see them in isolation, we see them in groups. We see a trailer in the middle of five other trailers, we see a poster in the middle of eight other posters, and I've tried to argue that maybe the thing that's making it distinctive and score poorly actually would stick out if you presented it to these people the way the real world presents it. And I've never won that argument.

You know, we had a trailer for Side Effects that we did in London and the filmmaking team really, really liked it. But the problem was that it was not testing well, and it was really not testing as well as this domestic trailer that we had. The point spread was so significant that I really couldn't justify trying to jam this thing down distributor's throats, so we had to abandon it. Now look, not all testing is bad. Sometimes you have to, especially on a comedy. There's nothing like 400 people who are not your friends to tell you when something's wrong. I just don't think you can use it as the last word on a movie's playability, or its quality. Magic Mike tested poorly. Really poorly. And fortunately Warner Brothers just ignored the test scores, and stuck with their plan to open the movie wide during the summer.

But let's go back to Side Effects for a second. This is a movie that didn't perform as well as any of us wanted it to. So, why? What happened? It can't be the campaign because all the materials that we had, the trailers, the posters, the TV spots, all that stuff tested well above average. February 8th, maybe it was the date, was that a bad day? As it turns out that was the Friday after the Oscar nominations are announced, and this year there was an atypically large bump to all the films that got nominated, so that was a factor. Then there was a storm in the Northeast, which is sort of our core audience. Nemo came in, so God, obviously, is getting me back for my comments about monotheism. Was it the concept? There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills. Did that make the movie seem more commercial, or did it make it seem more generic? We don't know. What about the cast? Four attractive white people… this is usually not an obstacle. The exit polls were very good, the reviews were good. How do we figure out what went wrong? The answer is: We don't. Because everybody's already moved on to the next movie they have to release.

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7 Comments

  • H. | May 14, 2013 10:51 AMReply

    Great speech. But: Steve Jobs is a rather bad choice as a saint of intellectual property. Apple and any other tech company out there are blatatenly stealing ideas from each other and then go on submitting tech patents on obvious "innovations" for the patent war. Steven should rather look at the lessons of Gabe Newell who demonstrated with Valve/Steam in Russia that primarily, piracy is a "service problem" (Gabe's words).

  • Proteus | May 2, 2013 3:44 AMReply

    The story of the guy who kicked off Steven's thought process by only watching the action scenes of movies, highlights another pertinent issue for me. The under appreciation of the people who do the work that gets people into movie houses (I would call them cinemas, but Steven has just appropriated the word for his own ends) - the VFX artists. The short sighted greed of the Studios has meant that these artists are being laid off in droves because the Studios are not willing to pay realistic prices for this work that has been an integral part of almost every single tent-pole movie of the past decade.

  • nitpicker | April 30, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    The "transcript" is almost a paraphrase. I listened to the audio as I was reading and gave up after a couple paragraphs. Listen to the audio if you want to know what Soderbergh said.

  • Chris | April 30, 2013 1:47 PMReply

    I have never been a huge fan of Steven but recently I saw the first half of "Che", the bio-poc about Che Guevera, and I absolutely loved it. I admired him even more when I read about how he fought so hard to make that film entirely in Spanish, rather than in English, for he believed that would be a form of cultural colonialism to make the film in English in order to reach a wider audience. Eventually the film was made thanks to funding from several countries and it was not backed by a major studio. It was a very well-made film and I strongly encourage everyone to check it out.

  • tyler4all | April 30, 2013 12:46 PMReply

    Thanks for posting this! great speech! I loved that quote with which he ends the speech. and he loves Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz and Memento! yeah!

  • Paul | April 30, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    Steven Soderbergh makes mainstream films in the conventional vernacular of Hollywood blockbusters. I struggled with that enigma after watching and feeling dumbfounded about all the hysteria about "Out of Sight" from hipsters before they were even called hipsters, lauding the film as an indie masterpiece. After that run-of-the-mill feature (followed by Erin Brokovich with its twangy music soundtrack and langorous camerawork fixed on Julia Roberts), I never returned to his work. Point being, this speech would have sounded different from an actual auteur who has any shot at occupying history books.

  • Ira | May 4, 2013 11:03 PM

    I think winning the Palme d'Or in his mid 20's and receiving two oscars for directing and best picture are historical enough.

    Excellent speech.
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