Steven Soderbergh's state of cinema talk, delivered Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival, caused a big stir. Because he requested his remarks not be filmed, taped or transcribed — and because, of course, it inevitably was — information about the speech trickled down in dribs and drabs. What was initially colored as the kvetching of a director reiterating the timeless Hollywood battle between art and commerce has a lot more to chew on than initially reported. Five things to chew on from one of our smartest (ex?) directors':
1.) "Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model."
That explains a lot about Soderbergh's filmography — famously eclectic in its subject matter, yet easily recognizable as the work of one mind. Some of the ways in which Soderbergh asserts himself aren't universally pleasing, to say the least: the color-coded filters which separate one location/time from another (introduced in "Traffic," taken to their logical extreme in "Contagion") are as ugly as they are functional and have been known to turn former fans into haters.
But here's a guy who's approached disparate projects and genres and made them distinctively his own: in his latest hyper-productive stretch ("Contagion," "Haywire," "Magic Mike"), it would take only five seconds to ID the maker. Compare/contrast with a director like Ang Lee, who's solved many problems — filming on water with a tiger on "Life of Pi," mainstreaming gay anti-romance with "Brokeback Mountain" — yet still seems stolidly, insistently anonymous, both stylistically and thematically. Soderbergh's films fixate on economic inequality, the visible symptoms of late capitalism at its worst, and what it's like to track one story through multiple global locales, imposing a viewpoint through distinctive visual/editorial products.
2.) "When a studio is attempting to determine on a project-by-project basis what will work, instead of backing a talented filmmaker over the long haul, they’re actually increasing their chances of choosing wrong. Because in my view, in this business which is totally talent-driven, it’s about horses, not races."
There's a closer-to-home, non-sports analogy in the music industry. In the 2009 book "Appetite For Self-Destruction," Steve Knopper makes the point that record companies once functioned on a model of signing a band, then letting them work the kinks out of their artistic system until they were ready to make music that would satisfy both them and the vast public, the prototypical example being R.E.M. That model collapsed eventually — Knopper devotes a few pages to Debbie Southwood-Smith, whose last act before being canned from Interscope was to sign TV On The Radio, who paid off long-haul after she'd been fired — but it's not clear that the music industry's benefitted from concentrating on short-term effects. Major labels also notoriously focused on a model in which the vast majority of albums would flop terribly, hemorrhaging money all over the place, but in which blockbuster records would more than make up the cost. That strategy isn't surefire and can be costly, as when Universal Pictures lost $83 million for one quarter on the sole basis of "Battleship" bombing.
3.) "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."
This is the part of the speech that got the most attention initially, and I'm not interested in disputing it: I'm not an industry reporter, nor do I have access to the kind of mind-numbing, soul-crushing info Soderbergh does, and I believe what he's saying. However, there's clearly one pocket of studio production that's beaten the advertising cost odds, and that's the micro-budget horror movie. Inspired by the success of "Paranormal Activity," grungy little movies that rarely top the $5 million mark budgetarily are released all the time, and they work like gangbusters. It doesn't matter if they're terrible or audiences feel burned — as with last year's "The Devil Inside" — because a good opening weekend is really all that matters. For whatever reason, these things sell themselves, and it's an anomaly worth noting.
4.) "The international box office, which used to be 50% of revenue is now 70%."
Industry people know this, but the general public doesn't seem to get it, and it's an important answer to a question frequently asked by frustrated multiplex audiences: "What is this? Why was this made?" Most Hollywood movies aren't made for Americans at all: they're made for international consumption by audiences whose domestic industries can't afford the high-grade CGI and lavish, visible overspending we can. A mediocre blockbuster spectacle is still a spectacle: as Soderbergh observes, genres that travel best are "action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there." (The only Hollywood movies intended pretty much solely for domestic consumption are most comedies and the ambiguously-named "urban" [read: black-audience-oriented] movie.) You're not the target audience, you're just the excuse.
5.) "...Pushing cinema out of mainstream movies."
Soderbergh argued that cinema as he conceives it — art, in short, rather than naked commerce — can no longer come through the Hollywood system, which seems as true as ever at the moment. I'd suggest a corollary, which is the decline of the hired-hand craftsman. The "genius of the system" has often been paid tribute to, and from time to time directors lament that they can't participate in an efficient production line. Recently, for example, as unlikely a director as Portugese arthouse terror Pedro Costa said he'd "like to have a system that grounds me." Forget cinema: what's been lost in Hollywood is an assembly-line that's good at what it does, economical in doing so, and capable of matching directors who want nothing more than to be efficient at their jobs with appropriate material.
It's striking that Soderbergh's recent run is his attempt at being a one-man studio, tackling various forms of genre while keeping an eye on what he thinks mainstream audiences might like. The sheer amount of inefficiency and interference from start to finish, combined with toxic amounts of money, has ballooned significantly in the time Soderbergh's entered the system, reducing the amount of space available for minor miracles of economical precision. One of the joys of film history is sifting through previously marginalized B-movies for examples of the undervalued craft; when the historians come for the Hollywood of the last decade, they'll find almost nothing like that.