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I'm hardly alone in this, but I continue to resist the notion that Steven Soderbergh's professed retirement from feature filmmaking is permanent -- not least because he's been on such vigorous creative form lately. "Magic Mike," of course, cracked my Top 10 of 2012 list, while his lithely nasty Hitchcockian thriller "Side Effects" is on course to be one of my favorite mainstream genre entertainments of this year -- it would be an enormous pity for him to bow out just as he seems to have perfected the rarely performed trick of the counter-intuitive audience movie.
Still, after reading the lucid, witty but subtly angry keynote speech he delivered yesterday at the San Francisco Film Festival, his retirement doesn't seem quite so rash or ill-thought. He may not address his decision directly in the speech, but it's not hard to read between the lines: stepping away from cinema is his weary response to an industry he finds increasingly stifling and exasperating at a practical level.
The grievances raised by Soderbergh are hardly unusual: money men shy away from the unconventional, studios are over-reliant on tracking and focus-grouping, too much is spent on promoting already expensive films and too little on the small ones, and so on and so forth. They take on extra piquancy, however, coming from someone who's been working both within and around Hollywood's limitations for nearly a quarter of a century.
Here, for example, is his explanation of why his latest film "Behind the Candelabra" -- which the Cannes Film Festival, for one, is treating as a theatrical feature -- was in fact made for television:
"So then 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. 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."
He later tosses in a casual shout-out to Kickstarter -- a pointed aside given the recent controversy over Zach Braff's recent decision to turn down studio funding in favor of a Kickstarter campaign. Soderbergh's description of the targets and obligations attached even to modest studio funding gives some idea of why it may no longer seem like the ideal resource to filmmakers with other options (Braff's apparent unwillingness to dip into his personal fortune is, of course, a separate issue for many.)
Soderbergh also bemoans the fact that studios rarely nurture individual talents across a developmental series of films, instead assigning funding on a project-by-project basis; "Upstream Color" director Shane Carruth, he says, is the type of filmmaker studios should "find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters." Carruth's an interesting example to pick, given that he -- as he explained in our recent interview -- decided to forgo traditional distribution models, instead marketing and releasing "Upstream Color" himself. It's a process that relieves some pressures and creates others, but Soderbergh believes that bringing such talents into the studio fold could be mutually beneficial:
"I’d bring them in and go, ok, what do you want to do? What are the things you’re interested in doing? What do we have here that you might be interested in doing? If there was some sort of point of intersection I’d go: Okay, look, I’m going to let you make three movies over five years, I’m going to give you this much money in production costs, I’m going to dedicate this much money on marketing. You can sort of proportion it how you want, you can spend it all on one and none on the other two, but go make something."
He would know, after all. Round about the time Soderbergh was winning the Palme d'Or for an against-the-grain work like "sex, lies and the videotape," you wouldn't have guessed that he'd eventually be persuaded to bring his stylistic verve to an all-star studio jaunt like "Ocean's Eleven." But some of Soderbergh's best films -- "Erin Brockovich," say, or "Magic Mike" -- have proved that not only can a filmmaker prosper when forced to mesh his sensibility with those of a reasonably constructive studio (and, in some cases, a powerful star), but that audiences can respond in kind. Soderbergh closes his speech by reminding us of another filmmaker, now firmly -- though by no means anonymously -- embedded in the Hollywood system, who was once very much on the outside looking in:
"A few years back, I got a call from an agent and he said, “Will you come see this film? It’s a small, independent film a client made. It’s been making the festival circuit and it’s getting a really good response but no distributor will pick it up" ... The film was called "Memento." So the lights come up and I think, It’s over. It’s over. Nobody will buy this film? This is just insane. The movie business is over ... So 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."
So do Soderbergh's films, for my money. May his retirement be a restful and temporary one. In the meantime, check out the full transcript of his speech over at Deadline -- it's a must.
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