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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.
Ever since he first started hinting about retiring, Steven Soderbergh's fans have been wondering why (and how we might be able to change his mind). Now all the answers are out there, in a phenomenal address Soderbergh gave at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday. Called "State of Cinema," the speech opens with an anecdote about JFK's JetBlue Terminal, hints at the cold calculations that inspired Sony to throw Soderbergh off Moneyball, and ends with a moment of surprisingly vivid hope: "Whenever I despair I think, OK, somebody out there somewhere, while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going."
The speech also contains a lot of horrifying statistics, at least for anybody who wants to believe that the studio system isn't trying to stamp out all the originality of filmmakers like Soderbergh. Like the brutal math that meant no studio was willing to pick up his Liberace biopic (it will air on HBO at the end of May):
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.
But even when a studio is willing to take a gamble on something like Magic Mike, and it winds up making way more money than anyone imagined, there are still some sobering lessons to be learned:
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?
And even though it's cheaper and easier than ever to make an independent film-- and, indeed, more people are making them-- the studio control of the market has managed to make it even harder for those films to get out there.
Let’s sex this up with some more numbers. In 2003, 455 films were released. 275 of those were independent, 180 were studio films. Last year 677 films were released. So you’re not imagining things, there are a lot of movies that open every weekend. 549 of those were independent, 128 were studio films. So, a 100% increase in independent films, and a 28% drop in studio films, and yet, ten years ago: Studio market share 69%, last year 76%. 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. That’s really hard.
There's much, much more greatness where that came from; click here to read the entire speech.
The entire tone of this speech reminds me of the title of David Simon's blog, The Audacity of Despair. Simon was a Baltimore journalist before decamping for television, and spun all his fury and frustration at the many broken systems of America into The Wire, which may as well be Exhibit A for why television, why media, why art matters at all. Soderbergh hasn't yet spun out all his frustration at the movie industry so explicitly, but you can see it all in this speech, and in a way in the work he's done for the last few years. A guy who goes from making Ocean's Thirteen to an all-digital (before digital was nearly as good as it is now) film about a prostitute is clearly not happy with the status quo. A guy who plans his retirement because he has to tear down his filmmaking process has clearly burnt out on the old way of doing things. But if Soderbergh can come back from all of this with his own version of The Wire, he won't just have succeeded as an artist-- he might have the power to actually get this clunky system to change.
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