Description image

Steven Soderbergh: 'Studios Only Gamble on Openings, Don't Support Filmmakers over the Long Haul'

04.28.13 @ 7:21PM Tags : , ,

Steven Soderbergh has been making movies at a rapid pace over the last few years, likely trying to get everything out of his system before his “retirement” from filmmaking. We’re not sure if the new Liberace film will truly be his last, or if he’ll ever direct anything else again, but one thing is sure: he still has a lot of strong feelings about the film industry and many of the problems facing filmmakers today. He recently spoke at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, and got into some of the major issues that affect filmmaking — and filmmakers — today. [Update]: you can now watch the full speech online.

Joseph Beyer, who was at the talk, was live-tweeting as much as possible:

"Fewer and fewer executives in the industry love movies, there's a total lack of leadership in my opinion, that's what's killing CINEMA."
Joseph Beyer
"We only needed $5M to make the Liberace movie, but the studios needed it to gross $70M to even wanna do it. That doesn't work." Soderbergh
Joseph Beyer
"Studios only gamble on openings instead of supporting filmmakers over the long haul. In my opinion, it's about horses - not races."
Joseph Beyer

Eric Escobar over at ProVideo Coalition was also there, and wrote a post summarizing some of the points made by Soderbergh:

4) Marketing Costs Are Fixed: It doesn’t matter if your film cost 5 million or 50 million, it still costs about 70 million in marketing and distribution to do a wide enough release to recoup costs. Studios have found that their risk is lower and returns higher on the big budget films. How many 5 million dollar films have made 70 million?  No one, and people have tried, to figure out how to make this cost lower.

This is the biggest problem that filmmakers face trying to get anything into a theater. If you’re wondering whether independent films released in theaters make money — your answer is right there. Plenty of independent filmmakers want to get a distribution deal and get their film seen in hundreds or thousands of theaters, but the reality is that the bigger studios still don’t know how to get movies into theaters cheaply. They are best at throwing money at a problem in order to solve it, and when you’re already working with very little money, that just doesn’t work.

Though we’re all still trying to figure out how we can make internet distribution and VOD work, it’s still a long road ahead for independent filmmakers. Many will say, “If it’s any good, someone would have already been distributing it.” The reality is that many filmmakers either get terrible deals that leave them with no money for their hard work, or they’ve got issues with clearances that will cost too much money (this is especially true for documentary filmmakers — I’ve run into a few people with this exact issue).

Soderbergh also went on to talk about how he would run a studio:

Soderbergh dropped this math on us and concluded that if you’re a studio then the set up is working fine. Then he pontificated that if he were given a half a billion dollars he’d gather up all the really good indie filmmakers he knew (name checked Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth and Barry Jenkins) and set them loose within a timeframe and budget total and say go for it, make me three films, spend the money as you see fit. But no one has given him a half a billion dollars.

I’m not sure how well that studio would do, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. One of his biggest problems with the studio system is that the filmmakers are blamed for all failures, and there is no room for them to learn from those mistakes. They are simply replaced. Supporting filmmakers over a career would definitely help improve the quality of films, as people would be less concerned about each film being their last.

It’s definitely a dangerous time for cinema, as it is a race to the bottom both in terms of getting the most bang for the buck, and making films simple enough so that they can appeal to the widest audience. I’ve heard so many people talk about how bad Hollywood movies are lately, but this wasn’t always the case. The bottom line has taken over all decision-making. It’s no longer about the quality of the film, but how much money they think they can make in a particular market by casting a specific star or changing some dialogue to appeal to a broader demographic.

I think cinema as an art form still has a future, but we’ve still got a long road ahead of us.

Be sure to head on over to Joseph’s Twitter account and read the rest of Eric’s post for more words from Soderbergh.

What do you think about what he’s saying? Can we make the system work for smaller films? Do you think studios will continue down this dark path of lowest common denominator filmmaking?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 50 COMMENTS

  • I think the music industry is a perfect example of what is happening with the film industry. As soon as people were able to start recording their music on their own with low-cost computers and software, a transition began where independent music blossomed and the major labels diminished. The high-cost of recording an album in a million dollar studio is what kept musicians reliant on the major record labels. Now a laptop or even an iPhone is good enough to record a good sounding album. As far as distribution, the internet offered a solution for musicians to connect directly with their fanbase.

    The major record labels are still around, but they don’t have the strangle-hold they used to have on the music industry. Independent musicians are able to bypass the major labels completely and still be very successful; where before, the majors were the ONLY way.

    The same thing is now happening in the film industry. The cost of cameras are plummeting each year and the internet is finally fast enough to distribute movies. It doesn’t have to cost millions of dollars to make a movie anymore. You can make an amazing film with a cheap DSLR. Online distribution is still in the early stages, but once that gets worked out, all the pieces will fall in place. It’s just a matter of time.

    • I’ve thought about this example a lot. I had a band from 1998-2002, then we started up again around 2004. Over those two years everything changed. We recorded an album in 2002 right before we quit, when we started again in 2004 we sent it to CD Baby and to this day, my album is still on spotify, iTunes and every other way you can digitally distribute music. Even though the band doesn’t exist anymore and I do absolutely nothing to advertise, I still make about $70 a year.

      While a lot of this same stuff can be applied to video entertainment, I don’t think it will work for films in the same way. As a band it takes YEARS to build a big enough following to make any money off if an album, but that’s not even where bands make money.. The main revenue source for a band is selling merch while on tour.

      So for content producers like us to be successful we need to think about productions in the way a band would be successful. It’s not going to be about one film. Generating hype for one film is a bitch, that would be like just putting out an album, changing your band name and then putting out another album and starting from scratch.

      The future of independent productions will have to treat your production company like the band and any content like the albums. If you want to be really successful then you will have to have merch to sell as well. The best example of this I can think of is epic meal time. Here’s the info from their Wikipedia page about their income.

      “Epic Meal Time uses merchandising to raise money for the show, currently selling a line of branded t-shirts. In interviews, Morenstein and Toth have also discussed the creation of a cookbook and an iPhone app.[22] The episodes also contain advertisements, generated by YouTube using Google AdSense. More recently, the group has participated in referral programs for other companies such as Netflix and Gamefly.[27] Most of the referral codes are given through the Epic Meal Time website, though the group has occasionally directly mentioned them in videos.[28][29]

      An EpicMealTime video game was released as an app on the Android and iOS for buy and download on July 26, 2012.[30] The game is somewhat similar to that of Fruit Ninja and it revolves around one of the Epic Meal Time crew, first character playable is Harley Morenstein (until other crew are unlocked), as they eat unhealthy food such as pizza, meat and bacon while avoiding and pushing away more healthy consumables, mostly vegetables. Gameplay shows the EMT member being fed and opening his mouth to receive the food that flings in from both directions, while the player then navigates the food to go to the members mouth and pushing away healthy items. The game starts you with three strikes and if the player consumes three healthy items, the game ends. There are no “levels” but simply playing for score as your “games” are counted every time you retry. Challenges can be unlocked as well as more food items, backgrounds, crew members and hats.[31]“

    • Adam is absolutely right. And the major book publishers — another industry that thought they were bullet-proof because they exclusively controlled access to the marketplace and distribution — learned the same lesson the record labels did when technology (e-books and self-publishing) destroyed their monopolistic business model, too. The same exact thing is now happening to filmmaking, albeit a little slowly, but the end game is assured. Thanks to inexpensive technology in cameras, editing software, lighting equipment, etc., true indie filmmaking will soon explode (as a democratized digital distribution model evolves and matures, just as it did for music and books). And the major studios will be reduced to a handful of major global blockbusters a year, all based on comic books, board games or video games. It is inevitable. And it will be wonderful for those of us who love cinema.

      • I disagree. With all of the above.
        A book can be written by one person on a computer. An album can be recorded (and sound somewhat great) in a living room. Very few movies’ stories work in a living room.
        Movies are extremely expensive, if you plan on paying for labour, equipment, locations, etc. And your story dictates your budget to a good degree as well. And I don’t just want to see movies about a couple in their apartment, or a house somewhere in the stix.

        • Paranormal activity 1,2,3&4 would beg to differ.

          • Yes, but it’s a very specific story in one location. Imagine all indie movies happening in just one location with 4 actors…

          • A couple of films out of thousands don’t make it a rule of thumb, it still costs a lot to make movies.

  • No offence to him, but his idea of running his studio is terrible. Running a movie studio is about the balance of art and money. Like it or not, at the end of the day, money is more important for studios and distributors than the art, for it is such an expensive art form.

    Moreover, he is asking for someone to give him half a billion dollars. How about he gives his own money to those filmmakers and let them do whatever they want to do with that money? I am pretty sure he will forget all about art at that time.

    • Very True, I’m sure Carruth could make A Topiary with Soderbeigh’s pocket change.
      The man should be the last one filing complaints, he runs amuck with 3 films a year ahha

    • he’s referring to a critical mass of capital required to start a movie studio – it’s not just about making the movies.

      • Sure, but why should anyone give him money? I am pretty sure he has some money in his bank account. He can start up a small studio with that. He can go to the banks to take loans. Just like any other person who start his/her own business.

    • Yeah but he is making the argument that it is in the interest of the commercial side of the business to reconcile itself with the artistic side of the business. You know, the side that creates the products they sell to make money? He’s positing that if you bet on individual filmmakers instead of movies that you’re odds of making a profit are better. How did you miss that? I mean its right there in the speech. You know what? Never mind…

  • Raphael Wood on 04.28.13 @ 8:26PM

    Zachary Levi has pretty interesting ideas that adress these exact problems. Such as distributing directly to the viewer through digital download at reasonable prices. That will not however save theater distribution, in fact quite the opposite.

    • Right, and the theaters and studios make deals that benefit each other. The theaters don’t want people downloading movies or watching on VOD.

      • Hear about Moviepass yet? I think this new iteration as an iPhone and Android app might extend theater existence…

  • This is both saddening and enlightening. Probably more so saddening. It’s really difficult for us to gain funding for films, let alone distribution. The relief is knowing that studios still aren’t sure about the distribution process themselves, they just have the funding to see the clusterfuck through to prevent absolute failure.

  • Soderbergh also said he hates the look of film, so his opinions are just that.

    • I don’t believe he has ever said he hated the look of film. He never liked the workflow and dislikes bad film projection, but I’m not sure he’s ever said anything about not liking the look of film.

  • I just happened to watch ‘Haywire’ and can only say I didn’t expect the RED one to look this bad in some of the shots, IMO it needed a lot more lighting in order to deliver ok results…

  • I’m of the firm belief that content will come out ahead when all the chips have fallen.

    The keys of the kingdom are slipping from the studios fingers and now they’re cutting any fat they can to earn the almighty dollar… that sounds like survival to me. The ‘fat’ happens to be anything that isn’t a presold franchise (be it adapted from another medium or a reboot/remake of a prior financial success) so riskier and original (‘unproven’) projects are the first to go. The audience is king when all is said and done; whether that means they move towards quality stories or the latest schlock-buster is up to them. There may be no time for filmmakers to garner word-of-mouth (you know, that thing old films used to garner and become classics) on the silver screen, but there’s more and more outlets to deliver content to the masses, and it’s pretty damn exciting.

    So what if your film isn’t seen by a couple hundred in 1000+ theater domestically at 12.50 a pop? How about the potential to reach billions globally for a quarter of the admission? I love the theater experience as much as the next guy, but if Hollywood fills it with trash I’m not playing ball, I’ll go elsewhere.

    As indie-filmmakers and viewers I don’t think we have anything to be sad about. Sure, the lottery mentality of ‘getting into the system and earning that fat check’ isn’t as realistic as before because of this corporate attitude dominating the film industry… but who are we kidding, you stood less of a chance THEN than you do now of even MAKING a film let alone getting a seat on the throne of a big studio picture.

    Let the castles crumble and the studios declare ‘cinema is dead’ because they can’t justify the dozens of producer salaries (compare the number of producers fifty years ago to now, it’s hilarious), the ungodly wages of actors (40 mil for a picture? That’s what a top neurosurgeon earns in his entire career if he/she is lucky) and the archaic model of old-media advertising in a new-media world.

    Soderberghs heart is in the right place but his perspective is from atop a tall mountain. As much as he tries to be a ground-level filmmaker he isn’t, so anything below that mountains peak seems like a mighty big fall.

    Cinema isn’t dying, it’s being freed.

    • “Let the castles crumble and the studios declare ‘cinema is dead’ because they can’t justify the dozens of producer salaries (compare the number of producers fifty years ago to now, it’s hilarious)”

      Yep. This is where the major problem is. The industry is drenched in nepotism and friends-hiring-friends. Nobody knows what they’re doing and everyone has 15 assistants. If you’ve ever been on a set anywhere in LA, it’s not difficult for any sane human to understand that the whole “process” and “industry” is one big joke… and a huge game of “pass the blame”. It’s the “who you know, not what you know” mentality that leaves the executive and studio-level decision making to ill-equip sycophants who’s only skills are networking and ass-kissing, instead of entrepreneurs of the medium. This is just what happens when there is no competition to incentivize innovation and the hiring of proper people in key positions. Hopefully internet distribution will be just that…

  • No longer about the quality of the film? Bottom dollar is now almighty? When wasn’t it? Some spats in the seventies and nineties I guess, which I’m not nostalgic for. I remember a fella who made a couple cool movies about some Corleone schmo who nearly bankrupted Paramount with a colossal nihilistic/narcissistic ride up a river. Studio got really lucky there. Not a good business model though. That filmmaker, much loved as he is, could have put a lot of people out of work if his self indulgent trip didn’t pan out. But it did and everybody lived happily ever after and I’m sure there are no lessons to be learned.

    People are still making (what I would call good) films. It’s just harder to make them via hollywood. The game is changing. Are we sad hollywood is seemingly moribund? Everybody has to know that something is gonna give way sometime, cause the status quo ain’t gonna hold out forever. I’m not worried. I see a lot of opportunities on the horizon.

    I would never take business advice from an artist. Businesses exist primarily to make money. Art is secondary, as it should be in a business.

    • >Art is secondary, as it should be in a business.
      >as it should be

      Ladies an Gentlemen… the Capitalism in all of it’s rotten glory.

      • Exactly. Thank you.

      • This is not capitalism. Stop listening to the biased-media’s definition of economics and politics. Capitalism is actually the answer to the problems right now. It’s the nepotism and favoritism of a more Socialist system under union control (i.e. THE CURRENT SYSTEM) that breeds corruption. The problem is NO COMPETITION for Hollywood. Opening up the market with online distribution and giving the consumer more option (CAPITALISM) would solve the problems. You’ve got it all backwards.

  • Soderberg seem cinema as his own personal sandbox – he’s self-indulgently tackles a new genre each film, and to be honest deliver’s a quite bland result every time.

    Out Of Sight is his only true success (I admire Traffic but I’m no fan). Films like Haywire and Contagion come across as a series of experiments which only exist to tittilate Soderberg himself.

    I can completely understand why studios don’t want to give him much money.

  • The analogy with the music industry is evident and here are a few things we should learn from it:

    - putting tools in the hands of everyone produces more content, most of it of a poor quality (content- and technical-wise). It also permits for good artists to release their work, which is great.

    - the internet offers lots of options to self-promote and self-distribute but, as it is available to everyone, it has become a giant worldwide marketplace where everybody is yelling for attention. We have gone from a time where the audience was expecting what artists produced to a time where artists are begging for the audience’s attention.
    How to make yourself heard? This is where investing in a proper marketing campaign can still pay off. So, we’re basically back to a proper label or any structure that can put some hard work and a real budget on the promo/distribution.

    - if you produce what the masses seem to want, the artistic content will most probably become quite poor. Most of those reality-TV concepts have demonstrated it. YouTube has demonstrated it. A good short usually gets less attention than the quickly consumed funny video.
    I think that a bit of financial pressure/responsibility is important to keep artists in touch with reality and help them produce content that will be meaningful for someboy else than just themselves ;-). But giving the audience the producer’s seat is like tranferring your chef cook’s hat to your children: the regime is going to turn un-healthy pretty quickly.

    It’s an artist’s role to push creative boundaries, ask questions, reveal beauty where it’s unexpected …

  • Ryan koo, joe marine and all the guys out here, did you guys see PIRATES, BAND OF MISFITS. i think this issue with indiefilmmakers and the studios (and award seasons) is what that film was all about.

  • “When the accountants took over the CEO positions, it all went to shit…”
    Some bloke somewhere…

  • Not surprised by the level of debate here.
    A) Its nothing like the music industry. That analogy holds no water at all. One word: distribution. Film still has it – music disemboweled it in favour of digital (in the hands of one supplier!), murdering retail. By the way, that model is exactly what this site often promotes. How did that work out for music? Its better now?
    B) I can’t believe Soderburgh is being so simple-minded and grumpy. As he points out: studios in 2013 make money. Heavy money. In the glory years of Hollywood (the early to mid 70s) studios went bust and were sold all the time. Non-stop. Owning Paramount was like owning a roller derby team. What profits they made were often tiny. Now a bad year means $2B vs $4B. That, for fim and TV overall, is a good thing.
    C) His studio idea is beyond laughable. Be the fastest way to flush $500M in history, and he knows it.
    D) The correct analogy is the sports industry. In 1974 you could buy the Yankees for the price of a midtown condo today. Players were paid relatively little – tickets were cheap. New football and basketball leagues launched all the time, and actually competed with the incumbents. Fast forward 40 years and its a behemoth where launching a new brand or league is financially prohibitive.
    e) There is exactly a distribution system and area where a $5M creative project can have significant cultural impact. Its called cable TV/Netflix. Now if you’re talking about getting Shane Carruth a 5 part mini series on Netflix? That Hollywood would write the check for tomorrow.

  • I like what pask is saying.

    One thing I’d like to see happen with the rise of truly independently created and distributed films is to have more websites that “curate” a collection of films, and make them available for rental/purchase online. As much as I’d love to discover that next gem of a film sitting out there in cyberspace, I just don’t have the time to invest in weeding through the junk that inevitably comes when making films is easier and cheaper. I’ve come to love the Vimeo staff picks, for example, for that reason. They consistently present interesting and excellent videos, and I’m sure they weed through a lot of crap to find them. A higher-brow example would be the Criterion Collection. I’d watch any of their films simply based on the reputation they have built over the years as curators. If there are more businesses like that focusing on niche markets, it may take some of the pressure off of the filmmakers themselves to market and promote.

  • Hollywood needs movies that will sell worldwide. Quirky Independent Comedies don’t work in non-English speaking countries., but Action Adventure does. Simple as that.

    Movies aren’t music, so you need a front-man to hang your hat on. A James Bond or a modern-day Little Tramp. Maybe “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” parts one through twenty 8-)

  • For those interested, Indiewire has a recording of Soderbergh’s speech

  • What happens when you open the flood gates to the ability to make your own music, photography and indie filmmaking? Well, you get a ton of horrible indie bands and a ton of horrible films, all crying for attention and all feeling they deserve big money. Myspace is the graveyard for millions of crappy bands and youtube and vimeo are starting to become ( or if not already) the graveyard of filmmakers. 5 years from now or sooner it’ll be embarrassing to be called a filmmaker as much as it is to be called a musician in a band nowadays. Major labels and the film industry had a system, “to make money”! Yes, its a business, but it weeded out some of the crappy talent we see everywhere now and at least kept the illusion that everything was big and loud and a blockbuster. Now that the veil has been pulled back the reality is that the average musician and filmmaker is small with bad sound. Sucks.

    • This doesn’t really bother me. Like many have mentioned before, and I firmly concur, after the flood gates opened, people with talent but no means were finally able to make and share their wonderful creations with the world, with people who appreciate those wonderful creations consuming them.

      More crap is being made? So what, I don’t have to watch any of it. Yes, it hurts my brain and eyeballs when I land on a poorly-made video on Youtube, but that pain is short-lived compared to the potentially life-altering experience of a good flick.

      And yes, I agree, I wish it would sound cooler when I tell people ‘I’m making a movie’ or ‘I’m a filmmaker’, but at the end of the day, I’m having fun and LOVING what I do, and I don’t feel the need to justify myself, because I know that I’m putting out quality work (or at least, I hope I am). I’m not in it to be cool. If I was, I wouldn’t last two seconds with the absurd amount of effort that it takes to produce 90 minutes of entertainment.

  • The historical “Hollywood Studio” system was a type of commune where everyone lived together on set: actors, crew, directors, producers and so forth. Ironically, this may be the new path for “independent studios”; why not group together resources (basic-needs) so that the (relatively small) teams/studios are producing four films every year? Some of the films may be successful, others may not. For example, the farmers in the mid-west of the US support other farmers in the vicinity through a localized bank in the case of a bad crop-year.

    The art of films and filmmaking is difficult for too numerous of reasons. The correlation to the old music industry, the new music industry relates in more ways than business. The desire to retain artistic autonomy is real. The differences of tastes between filmmakers are real. Yet the filmmaker is in greater need of trust than the drama within and between musical bands. I say this to then suggest that an example to both “garage-filmmakers” and “multi-million filmmakers” must be made if any solution is to be had, similar to our failing US economic-model, our failing Health-care, our failing Education-system, and our failing employment-system. Obsolescence is inevitable and more prescient in our time.

  • Documentary teaser about the collision of art, money, ego, success and fear: