"When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball." – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013
Did the Sundance Film Festival make "sex, lies and videotape" or did "sex, lies and videotape" put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca's "True Love" (even as it eventually won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) but took home the Audience Award. More importantly, it landed a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and "sex" was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the "big bang of the modern indie film movement," in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.
Soderbergh's feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat, and the terror of true intimacy. The only nakedness on display is emotional, and Soderbergh, with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker, confronts uncomfortable issues with frank talk and uncomfortable directness.
This is still Soderbergh in raw form — he would become more visually interesting and conceptually adventurous, learn to edit with a swing to his rhythm, and eventually pick up the camera to shoot his own features, perfecting a particular visual aesthetic that underlies his films. But his honesty, and his ability to tap the cultural zeitgeist, created the first-ever hit to come out of Sundance competition (thanks in large part to the savvy positioning and marketing of the Weinstein brothers). It established a certain indie aesthetic: simple, uncluttered locations, small scenes with minimal casts, tonal music, provocative (and thoroughly contemporary) subject matter, uncomfortable intimacy, and mature discussions of adult issues and concerns within a personal framework.
And just as important, it took on issues percolating throughout contemporary culture, in some ways turning the camera back onto the audiences. Hollywood had turned its back on the kinds of stories grounded in the world that the audience lived in. "sex, lies and videotape" was cool and elegant rather than gritty and scruffy, but it was a perspective on modern life that the movies weren't offering at the time.
Even as Soderbergh was the new golden boy of the independent scene, it took him almost a decade to find his footing in the filmmaking ecosystem. He did it by straddling the indie sensibility and studio model with "Out of Sight," an affectionate, energetic, stylish piece of pulp fiction with adult emotions, sexy star chemistry, and an offbeat style that was contemporary, retro, and timeless all at once. After struggling through the early nineties he became embarrassingly prolific, averaging two features a year — not counting a couple of TV series and a sideline as a producer — a terrific pace in a filmmaking culture where many directors spend years getting projects off the ground. All the while, Soderbergh never lost his sense of adventure. He took on everything from big budget capers ("Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels) and indulged in experimental exercises ("Schizopolis" and "Bubble”), grabbing an Oscar for "Traffic" along the way. But his most enviable triumph was maintaining autonomy through it all. Soderbergh understood the commercial imperative and still found a method to do it his own way.
The success of "sex" also helped transform Sundance into an industry event, as much a film market as a festival of independent cinema. Pet projects of established stars screen alongside regional films without a recognizable name in the credits and there is a tilt toward both easy-going, audience-pleasing pictures (hello, "Little Miss Sunshine") and provocative, attention-getting subjects that, like "sex," can cross over to a mainstream audience. These days, American Indie has become a brand.
You can't blame Soderbergh for that, of course, and as his career shows, independence is a matter of vision and control, not money. For every "Little Miss Sunshine" and "(500) Days of Summer," Sundance also launched a "Frozen River," "Winter's Bone," and "Fruitvale Station."
This success story doesn't come to the happy ending you might expect. 25 years after breaking through with a small, personal, provocative picture, Steven Soderberg has retired from filmmaking. “I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and ability to do so,” he told the New York times a couple of years back. “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money I’ll be back making another ‘Ocean’s’ movie.”
But he also left us with a warning about the future of filmmaking. Not about creativity or technology but about numbers and industry practices. "You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie. That’s hard," he told an audience at his keynote address at the San Francisco International Film Festival last year. "This is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies."
The challenge of Sundance in the next 25 years is to keep finding and promoting those independent voices, whether they come with stars attached or not.