It’s totally fair to call Steven Soderbergh’s keynote address on the State of Cinema at the San Francisco International Film Festival a rant. After all, he did. The filmmaker, who came of age during the halcyon Down and Dirty Pictures days of 1990’s nascent indie movement, has expressed his increasing frustration about being boxed-in by the studio’s increasing reliance on blockbuster tentpoles. “I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird,” he told the festival audience. “I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, ‘Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?’ But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.”
Soderbergh’s vowed to retire from directing, and is actively seeking other outlets for his creativity. But his speech yesterday was a passionate clarion call for the industry and the art form he senses is slipping away. Here are 10 important takeaways, followed by video of his speech.
1. There’s a reason this isn’t called the State of Movies speech. “Movies” is a dirty word, and it’s movies that are strangling “cinema.”
“First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say F–k yeah! The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. (11:30)
2. An encounter with a fellow airplane passenger who watched “mayhem porn” on his iPad, just jumping from one action sequence to another from different movies, sent Soderbergh into a downward spiral about the future of filmmaking.
“I got my hands on a book by a guy named Douglas Rushkoff and I realized I’m suffering from something called Present Shock which is the name of his book. This quote made me feel a little less insane: “When there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time”. That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us. I think it’s having an effect on our culture, and I think it’s having an effect on movies. How they’re made, how they’re sold, how they perform.” (6:52)
3. America still hasn’t recovered from 9/11, and it’s impacting what we want from our entertainment.
“I think that what people go to the movies for has changed since 9/11. I still think the country is in some form of PTSD about that event, and that we haven’t really healed in any sort of complete way, and that people are, as a result, looking more toward escapist entertainment. And look, I get it. There’s a very good argument to be made that only somebody who has it really good would want to make a movie that makes you feel really bad. People are working longer hours for less money these days, and maybe when they get in a movie, they want a break. I get it.” (33:00)
4. The sky is falling.
“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.” (13:35)
5. The Suits are ruining it for everyone.
“There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, 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’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.” (14:30)
6. Soderbergh’s strict theory of the auteur: The director is God.
“Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.” (11:50)
7. Soderbergh is sincere about his desire to retire from making Hollywood movies… unless you give him $500 million. He never mentioned his oft-repeated vow but his frustration with the studios permeated his every word.
“Maybe the ideas I had don’t work, and the only way they’ll find out is that someone’s got to give me half a billion dollars, to see if it’ll work. That seems like a lot of money, but actually in point of fact there are a couple movies coming down the pike that represent, in terms of their budgets and their marketing campaigns, individually, a half a billion dollars. Just one movie. Just give me one of these big movies.” (36:08)
8. William Goldman was right: Nobody in Hollywood knows anything.
“There have been some attempts to analyze it, but one of the mysteries is that this analysis doesn’t really reveal any kind of linear predictive behavior, 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?” (18:10)
9. Make ’em laugh! Or at least promise that you will try.
“The other thing I tell young filmmakers is when you get going and you try to get money, when you’re going into one of those rooms to try and convince somebody to make it, I don’t care who you’re pitching, I don’t care what you’re pitching – it can be about genocide, it can be about child killers, it can be about the worst kind of criminal injustice that you can imagine – but as you’re sort of in the process of telling this story, stop yourself in the middle of a sentence and act like you’re having an epiphany, and say: You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.” (37:57)
10. Soderbergh doesn’t appreciate a soundtrack while he’s pissing.
“I don’t know when it was decided we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go. I was just in the bathroom upstairs and there was a soundtrack accompanying me at the urinal, I don’t understand.” (3:40)