The World According to Steven: Insights from Soderbergh (with video)

Posted by Eugene Hernandez on 4.29.2013


Video of Steven Soderbergh's speech has been provided by SFIFF and a trancscript of the speech is also available on the SFFS blog.

“Cinema is under assault,” Steven Soderbergh told an audience in San Francisco over the weekend. He said that the Hollywood studios are to blame and that moviegoers are their accomplices. "Fewer and fewer executives in the industry love movies,” Soderbergh continued, “There's a total lack of leadership in my opinion, that's what's killing cinema."

The director’s remarks came at the San Francisco International Film Festival’s annual State of Cinema Address. It was a sort of Jerry Maguire memo available only to an in-person audience, but live Tweets during the talk offered many nuggets from Soderbergh’s nearly 45-minute speech.

UPDATE: Video of the speech, provided by the San Francisco International Film Festival, has been added above and an audio podcast of the talk has been embedded below.

"The problem is that cinema as I define it and as something that inspired me is under assault by the studios and from what I can tell with the full support of the audience," Soderbergh said in the full quote added here after listening to the complete audio of the speech today, "The reasons  for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision and a lack of leadership you've got a trajectory that is pretty difficult to reverse."

In his remarks, Soderbergh defined the notion of cinema and then looked at how the economics of Hollywood are compromising art today. "This is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies," he said of the business today.

"Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s as unique as a fingerprint. If it's done well, you know exactly who made it,” Steven Soderbergh defined on Saturday, "Is there a difference between cinema and movies? If I ran team America, I'd say fuck ya. Cinema is something that is made, movies are seen.”

It was Sundance Institute’s Joe Beyer (Twitter: @cinejoe), the organization’s Director of Digital Initiatives, who posted the steady stream of updates from the event held at the city’s Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on Post Street. Beyer said that Soderbergh stood at a single podium and reiterated that the talk would not be recorded or available online.

“The industry is filled with tremendous generosity of spirit,” San Francisco Film Society head Ted Hope said, introducing the director this weekend, “Steven Soderbergh is that type of artist. That’s why he’s here.”

There was even chatter over the weekend about this being Steven Soderbergh’s last appearance ever talking about film.


Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday. Photo by Pamela Gentile

Since unveiling Side Effects a few months ago, Soderbergh has been taking a bit of a victory lap. He appeared at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in late January and was profiled in an extended interview with New York Magazine timed to the film’s release.

"Just to be clear, I won’t be directing 'cinema', for lack of a better word," he told New York earlier this year, "But I still plan to direct — theater stuff, and I’d do a TV series if something great were to come along."

Don't you think it's strange that Steven Soderbergh won't be making movies anymore? For all of my adult life, he's always been there, and he's remained one of the more interesting American directors over that span. In fact, it was watching, studying and talking about Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, along with Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning, that gave me hope for the movies back in college.

There must be some nuanced aspect to Soderbergh's declared retirement, a loophole, that will allow him to keep directing films after debuting Behind the Candelabra in Cannes next month. Right?

Whether or not he ever directs another movie, his comments this weekend come at a crucial time. And Soderbergh began his talk by defining the purpose of art. 

"Art is simply inevitable, it was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago and its because we are a species that's driven by narrative," Soderbergh said on Saturday, "Art is storytelling, we need to tell stories."

"We need to tell stories to pass on ideas and information and to try and make sense out of all of this chaos," Soderbergh elaborated, "And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story you can almost  achieve that thing thats impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being and literally seeing the world they way they see it. And then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you are experiencing that piece of art you are not alone. You are connected to the artist."

Soderbergh holds Hollywood's gatekeeper's to blame for the decline of cinema and he called out the studios for a lack film aficionados in its executive suites.

"There are fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies, there are fewer and fewer executives that know movies," Soderbergh said, "I know how to drive a car but I wouldn't presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one and that's kind of what you feel like when you are in these meetings. You've got people who don't know movies -- don't watch movies for pleasure -- deciding what movie you're going to be allowed to make and that's one reason studio movies aren't better than they are and thats one reason that cinema as I'm defining it is shrinking."

Soderbergh’s Saturday talk looked at how art is being compromised by commerce, specifically he expressed his own frustrations with the business side of Hollywood. He questioned the economics of moviemaking, particularly in terms of marketing. He also warned of the dangers of piracy and even wondered about the sustainability of big budget filmmaking.

Soderbergh said that he needed $5 million to make his upcoming Liberace movie, Behind the Candelabra, which stars Michael Douglas as the famous piano player and Matt Damon as the musician’s lover. Yet he said that the studios needed the movie to gross $70 million to make it work financially.

"No one has figured out how to lower the costs of marketing movies...no one," Soderbergh said. "The thing that mystifies me is in terms of spending, is there anyone in the galaxy that doesn't know Iron Man 2 is opening that weekend!?" He continued, "Studios only gamble on openings instead of supporting filmmakers over the long haul. In my opinion, it's about horses - not races."

He also wondered about accountability. "Executives don't get punished for making bombs the way filmmakers do,” Soderbergh charged, “So there's no turnover with people who don't know their own business.”

"I'm spending so much time talking business and sexy math because this is what's driving everything right now,” Soderbergh said. Yet he also sounded a few optimistic notes.

So what would he do differently? "If I were running a studio, I'd get a Shane Carruth, a Barry Jenkins and an Amy Seimetz and ask 'What do you wanna make?'” Soderbergh said, "I don't think it's unreasonable to expect someone running a multi-billion dollar business to be able to identify talent."

Soderbergh's Saturday remarks were not without a few notes of optimism.

"Whenever i despair," Soderbergh said near the end of his speech, "I think someone out there somewhere is making something cool that we're gonna love and that keeps me going."

After the address, Sundance’s Joe Beyer said that he couldn’t stop thinking about how moving and personal Steven Soderbergh was during his speech. “He spoke of panic he felt in studio meetings trying to convince execs, ‘I want to make something beautiful and meaningful’, in fear he would have to dig deep and trust that they wanted to be a part of such things, maturity has come knowing they don’t,” Beyer said on Twitter.

As Steven Soderbergh concludes his moviemaking career, it will be interesting to see how his thoughts about cinema and Hollywood are handled. His comments are being shared widely and quoted by the mainstream media, but he's also left the door open to debate.

"I'm wrong a lot, it doesn't even raise my blood pressure anymore,” Soderbergh said on Saturday in San Francisco, “Maybe the audiences are happy, the studios are happy – maybe I’m wrong."

"Maybe everything is just fine," Soderbergh said at one point near the end of his speech. The room erupted with some chuckles because clearly those in the audience agreed with him that everything isn't just fine.

UPDATE: Thompson On Hollywood has posted an audio podcast of Soderbergh's speech. It is embedded below:

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Follow him on Twitter: @eug.

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