Steven Soderbergh: Frenemy of the State (of Cinema) #SFIFF


In introduction to the State of the Cinema Address at San Francisco International Film Festival, Film Society Executive Director Ted Hope told an old story. While producing his first project, a one man show about an actor with AIDS, Hope asked a friend for Soderbergh’s number and the result of a cold call (an industry no-no) was not just Steven Soderbergh’s allegiance, but a dedication to “make this (one man show) happen.”

Soderbergh’s support during Hope’s first project has a pleasing symmetry with the director's support in this event (Hope’s inaugural film festival) and also acts as a salve of sorts. Why should Steven Soderbergh, a perennially retiring artist, give the SFIFF's annual high-publicity pep talk? Is hope present in name but not in spirit?

Soderbergh has a reputation as an auteur with the flexibility to reach from the arthouse to the multiplex and back again. A wunderkind and arguably the first Sundance "graduate," he's found ingenious ways to fulfill the prophesies of the 70’s Whiz Kids (Spielberg, Lucas, Millius, Demme, et al.), spirited filmmakers who used spectacle to marry big ideas and blockbuster sized melodrama. Why not do it all? It’s there to be done! Yet our human drives are in constant competition with our better senses, and like anyone in a congenitally risky system Soderbergh has reason to rattle the Hollywood cage.

To finance a viable mainstream picture requires an excess of $30million because that's the starting cost of wide domestic distribution—and really it’s more like $60million because the exhibitors will take half of box office. Which means a modestly budgeted film prices itself out of the market by being modest: a production that costs $5m still needs the $30m to get it to theaters on a major national level. Push the film towards international distribution and you’re going to need $120million. The more money goes towards a project, the higher the pressure for homogeny and simplicity. Soderberg lamented: ‘Cinema is on assault by the studios and with full support of the audience. Add a lack of leadership and you’ll have a trajectory none can stop.’

“Art is inevitable. We’re a species driven by narrative…to make sense of all this chaos.” Yet all films aren't made alike and story (structure) can be a prison used by Hollywood to limit potential. “Movies are something you see. Cinema is made. Cinema is a specificity of vision. An approach to what matters. It’s as unique as a fingerprint and made by an artist and if that maker didn’t do it, it wouldn’t exist in this or any form.” That said, Cinema and Movies are tenuously united by a trail of green "tape."

It's doubtful the director of Traffic and Magic Mike wants to stop making films; he just wants change in the industry that both insults and supports him. “Meetings got weird. I drive a car but I wouldn’t sit in a meeting and presume to tell an engineer how to build one and that’s what these meetings have become.”

There’s a built in irony to Soderbergh offering the “State of the Cinema” address. He knows the score, hates it and yet isn’t quick to judge anyone for wanting two pieces of the shat-in chocolate pie. Despite the fact the industry is crippled by obvious infrastructure problems and a built in fear of obsolescence, “it’s the only industry where trickle-down economics work: if the studios are flush, they spend more to make more…So maybe everything is just fine.” He reports admissions are up regardless of Hollywood’s internal crises, so then why is morale so abysmal?

His final words serve as advice to people with aspirations to work in film, people who regardless of the substance of their pitch, would do well to playact their faith in investor meetings. Soderbergh advises, “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.”

#stevensoderbergh #sfiff #StateOfCinema

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