Steven Soderbergh’s Address on the State of Cinema

At the San Francisco International Film Festival, semi-retired (His HBO Liberace film is still in the queue) Steven Soderbergh gave a 35 minute talk to participants on his feelings on cinema, art, the business and all those things in between. The organizers politely asked nobody to record or repost this (although several were live tweeting the event) but as Soderbergh laments right in his talk, nobody can keep a secret any more. Perhaps the ‘don’t record this’ request by the powers that be was simply reverse psychology. Nevertheless, that the cat is now out of the bag, so have a listen.

Bon Mots:

“Whenever people start to get weepy about celluloid,” Soderbergh thinks of a quote he attributes to Orson Welles: “I don’t want to wait on the tool. I want the tool to wait on me.”

“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.”

Quoting D. Rushkoff, “There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result and instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming at once – and from so many different sources- that there’s simply no way to trace the thought over time.”

“Psychologically, it’s more comforting to spend $60 million promoting a movie that costs 100, than it does to spend $60 million for a movie that costs 10.”

“If you’ve ever wondered why every poster and trailer and every TV spot looks exactly the same – it’s because of testing. It is because anything interesting scores poorly and gets kicked out.”

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Courtney Small

I was listening to this early today at work. He makes a lot of valid and interesting points. I like his idea of having a studio that only takes on truly talented directors and provide them with a three picture deal that would foster their talents. Granted, I do not know if it would work from an economic standpoint, every business needs to make money, but it is a great idea nonetheless.

Jonathan Hardesty

I feel like the only way in which the studio idea will work is if it operates at an initial loss. Whoever invests will have to understand that the first films might not make money. On the other hand, indiewood is picking up momentum on the Kickstarter front, so I wonder if that can’t be leveraged into the fold somehow.


Soderbergh made some great points intermixed with some muddled reasoning, (the studio taking a higher percentage of the pie yet wouldn’t they be the most affected by online theft?)… the whole betting on horses over races makes sense, and is reminiscent of the Moneyball idea, of looking for the accumulative effect of base hits over the home runs.

He says that studios should take people like Carruth under their wings, but from what I can tell Carruth is neither asking nor desiring that interference in his work. He found a way of distributing directly and he has made waves with Upstream Color (will it make him millions of dollars, I don’t know, but maybe that isn’t the motivating force).

The primary concern is that there is space left for these cottage industry projects to exist (the piece of the pie held onto over monopoly), how that is achieved, I don’t have a clue. Saturation of the number of films does more harm than anything else (independent alone), for from the numbers Soderbergh mentioned, they doubled in product, that with so many other options for high quality entertainment, it becomes almost inevitable that each film gets less and less of a return. I guess I see the point that just having talent alone is not necessarily enough, particularly in the modern climate where audiences don’t have the patience, the introspection, to appreciate beyond a certain frenzied pace, onto the next thing.

Consumption is getting gluttonous. I heard Rian Johnson in an interview mention a similar malaise regarding his feelings on watching films lately, and I also feel this exhaustion. I mourn the loss of wonder, and maybe it is about getting old, but I don’t think that is the whole story. The medium is the message. It is only with something like Upstream Color, where Carruth controlled how it was marketed, that I could walk into something without much of any foreknowledge and be immersed into a wholly original world, a true piece of cinema as Soderbergh describes it. And I am still savoring it, these morsels are what keep me giving a shit. It is May, and that is the only movie I have seen this year of any real value. If studios are taking a larger piece of the pie (not sure if that means greater distribution than prior years) and studios care chiefly with world grosses, and thus with something watered down for the masses, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the experience of cinema is diminishing. For the die-hard cinephiles that go to multiple festivals a year and see films that would otherwise be hard to come by, sure, they probably don’t see as diminishing an effect.

Again, saturation seems the culprit, for while I would watch any number of smaller films that had potential, when I go to TIFF, I am looking for the very best experiences, irrespective of distribution considerations (less time = more picky) and end up watching the films with talent tried, tested and true.


The best chance for new talent is to be mentored or endorsed by established talent. Considering that competition inevitably plays a part, the common means of introducing new talent is not usually filmmaker to filmmaker but that someone like Ryan Gosling chooses to do a film for a first-time filmmaker like Derek Cianfrance, and his exposure bleeds over and creates an opportunity to be seen. It is up to the established actors to take a pay cut, go down and find something they can be passionate about, and draw attention to new talent. If anything this cross-pollination of high and low needs to be protected, promoted, instituted in some way. It carries over into documentaries too, Matt Damon with Inside Job, Johnny Depp with West of Memphis.

Even with all that, there is just too many movies being made. Soderbergh can talk about the plight of not being able to live on something you created, but that is unfortunately a bonus not a right. Not all the talent in the world is going to get recognized.


I’ve been saying for years the same thing on REMAKES has he says, in that we should be re-doing ideas that didn’t work so well the first time in new and interesting ways, instead of remaking only for Brand potential to sell easy tickets.