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