Salesman Steven Soderbergh and the State of Cinema

Steven Soderbergh (State of Cinema)

The aftershocks of Steven Soderbergh’s far-reaching speech on the State of Cinema—delivered last Saturday at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival—are still been felt. In his frank and often humorous self-described “rant”, Soderbergh vigorously inspects the meaning of art, difference between ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’, film as business, and the need for artists to remain hopeful no matter how bleak things get. It is the kind of pep talk young soldiers like to hear from generals.

Steven Soderbergh—allegedly retiring as film director after his last hurrah, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, the HBO Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon—is not new to public grandstanding. He has done it before…before OCEAN’S 11, before the Oscar awards, before the highly cultivated public persona. Read his book Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw published in 2000 or watch the wildly inventive SCHIZOPOLIS (2003) to understand Soderbergh’s many skills as filmmaker, thinker, articulator of the obvious and master aggregator of the prevailing zeitgeist.

In my view, Steven Soderbergh is a salesman. An erudite, charming and useful salesman. 

His speech at SFIFF comes at an opportune time. Steven Soderbergh, now 50, is transitioning from a lifetime of filmmaking (twenty-seven films in twenty-four years) to…paint. Between wrapping up his final obligations as filmmaker, Soderbergh has been popping up at various film events, gatherings and discussion panels. His recent interviews have been shared inside the filmmaking community with the kind of fervent, hallowed veneration reserved for the first translated copies of the New Testament.

Steven Soderbergh in SCHIZOPOLIS

Steven Soderbergh practicing his winning smile in SCHIZOPOLIS (1996); directed by Steven Soderbergh, cinematography by Peter Andrew a.k.a. Steven Soderbergh

Though Soderbergh’s now legendary speech at SFIFF was initially off-the-record (he had asked the festival that no photographs, audio or video of his rant be disclosed), transcripts and recordings spread like wild-fire across the internet. Then “due to unprecedented demand”, Steven Soderbergh gave The San Francisco Film Society permission to release a 40-minute video recorded initially only for archival purposes. The full transcript of the speech was also released.

For the curious types, things suddenly became even more interesting. Just one day after the speech, a hard-boiled suspense novella called Glue began to appear on Twitter under the handle @Bitchuation, known to be Steven Soderbergh. With 140 characters per tweet and an occasional photograph at a time, seven chapters have appeared so far.

Coincidence? You tell me.

Disregarding the artful machinations of Salesman Steven Soderbergh, the talented filmmaker does bring up a couple of important themes in his State of Cinema narrative. Here is one part of the speech I found particularly intriguing:

“I love all this new technology, it’s great. It’s smaller, lighter, faster. You can make a really good-looking movie for not a lot of money, and when people start to get weepy about celluloid, I think of this quote by Orson Welles when somebody was talking to him about new technology, which he tended to embrace, and he said, “I don’t want to wait on the tool, I want the tool to wait for me”, which I thought was a good way to put it. But 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. 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 I think is pretty difficult to reverse.”

Soderbergh has always been an early adopter. He was first in line to buy the RED digital cinema cameras when they came down the pike. He also had a hand in David Fincher’s conversion from the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera (used for ZODIAC) to the superior RED One MX and Epic.

While cinematographers and directors were bemoaning the obsolescence of celluloid, people like Soderbergh and Fincher and Michael Mann were championing digital cinema. Which is not surprising considering that these brainy filmmakers are, seemingly at least, of the same breed. Their raison d’etre is process over result; efficiency above all else. It’s just another way of thinking that celluloid-loving directors such as Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson do not ascribe to. Taste, no doubt, is another factor.

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh seen here on set with an early version of RED One MX camera

Back to Soderbergh’s comment on technology and the studio’s lack of vision…This underscores a fundamental challenge facing a majority of filmmakers. It is the little problem I like to call overabundance of content.

With the democratization of filmmaking (you take a DSLR, switch it on, put a couple of friends in a room, then 60 minutes later you have a “feature film”), anyone can and has indubitably become a filmmaker. The film industry is in its biggest existential transition as the proliferation of technology and new financing and distribution continues unabated.

Yes, it is now *easier* to make movies, which is great—but, on the other hand, with so much content being produced,  and the unprecedented competition, it has become *more difficult* for the the elegant filmmaker to get his or her film seen/noticed/exploited.

Now say you’re a brand; a name with thousands of followers on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook; or someone with access to celebrities and the capacity to have sex with them. Well, now there’s a certainty involved. But, say, you’re the salt-of-the-earth struggling filmmaker in Rawalpindi or Chittagong. Suddenly the chances of your masterful film reaching audiences worldwide has become less than good.

At this point you’re telling yourself, “Yeah, so what? Doesn’t the cream always rise to the top? Didn’t Soderbergh mention names like Shane Carruth, Barry Jenkins and Amy Seimetz in his speech?” Of course he did! But I suspect the subtext of Soderbergh’s above quote is the simple fact that independent filmmakers still need the four-wall protection of a structured organization. In plain-speak, a studio.

Let me explain. Soderbergh made SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE in 1989…but it took him ten years from his Sundance break and a film like OUT OF SIGHT (1998) to really get his groove on. How many of you reading this have actually seen the independent films he made during those in-between-years: KAFKA (1991), KING OF THE HILL (1993), UNDERNEATH (1995), GRAY’S ANATOMY (1996)?

Financing. Soderbergh didn’t have Kickstarter back in 1989, but he found ways to finance his films and have them seen, somehow. But it still wasn’t enough, was it? Until he had made OUT OF SIGHT (1998) with Universal, inside the ‘evil’ studio system. Clearly, someone believed in him enough to allow that to happen. Whoever that was.

Out of Sight

Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney figuring out who’ll get the check in OUT OF SIGHT (1998); directed by Steven Soderbergh, cinematography by Elliot Davis

Our problems now as independent filmmakers in 2013 are the same as problems of independent filmmakers in 1989.

With one major exception: when the young, unknown Steven Soderbergh submitted SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE 1989 to a film festival called Sundance, there were fewer films he was competing against. Want to know how things went down last year at Sundance in 2012?

  • 64 short films were selected from 7,675 submissions from around the world.
  • 58 narrative and documentary films were picked from 4,042 features films from around the world.

A staggering ratio between submissions and selections. The above statistics compound the problem of exposing good talent. Filmmakers need exposure to the right people (financiers, producers, sales agents, audiences) during the transitionary period until you—yes, you, the filmmaker in Nebraska, Ajman or Karachi—can get a little brick-and-mortar support to help you make your next film. The kind of film that will be seen and exploited and keep your film career and family going.

Here is another useful talking point from Soderbergh:

“First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say Fuck yeah! The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision.”

An important proviso when discussing the challenge of exposure is that you’re a filmmaker interested in making films not just for entertainment; that the films you make are of substance and artistic value; these are films that can preserve cinema as an art form. You are the type that will create not only one film, but a body of films which may or may not be seen. And you do it with humility, in silence, with courage. That’s what happened to Steven Soderbergh with OUT OF SIGHT. He worked hard to get to a very precise moment when the circumstances existed for his talent to be exposed and utilized. Are the circumstances the same for filmmakers in the here and now?

What is the way out of overabundance of content, increasing competition for eyeballs, annoying Kickstarter funding campaigns, and the constantly changing technology and distribution models?

Hard work, grit but, above all, hope.

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Adnan X. Khan is a cinematographer based in Dubai.

Photo source: San Francisco Film Society / Various awesome places.

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