Steven Soderbergh addressed the San Francisco International Film Festival regarding the State of Cinema approximately one week ago. Audio of the event was then leaked, gaining widespread attention, and the San Francisco Film Society released the video ‘due to unprecedented demand’ soon after. So why all the fuss? Finally, a big name, Hollywood director, who has worked extensively in the studio system, has come out and verbalised the depressing state of cinema today – that ultimately, cinema as an art form is shrinking dramatically, replaced by a small number of big-budget ‘movies’ taking a huge share of the market, and audiences seem to be in support of this.
Transcript available here.
Within the first few minutes, Soderbergh begins to question the very point of art itself.
‘Given all the incredible suffering in the world, I wonder sometimes, what is art for? … Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating the suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations?’
It’s quite a heavy notion to begin a speech about the state of cinema with, but it’s an important one to consider. He offers a surprisingly simple resolution; that art is an inevitable consequence of human nature, and good art is a transformative experience, so it is extremely important as a tool for communication, and ultimately growth. This also leads into his view on the distinction between movies and cinema.
‘The simplest way that I can describe it is a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made … 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.’
This is a bold statement that feels like neo-auteurism, not in the sense that the director is the sole author (there is plenty of room in this definition for collaboration and I don’t believe Soderbergh wishes to imply otherwise), but that a film made for mass commercial appeal by corporate executives – ‘by committee’ – is not cinema. While this could be argued indefinitely, it’s great to have someone so experienced and successful share these views, because it reflects the concerns so many of us have about modern filmmaking.
Soderbergh’s next point is shocking to hear from an established studio director such as himself.
‘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 anecdote he opens his address with – that of a man on his flight who had edited together action sequences from films to watch on his iPad – is a great example of the consequences of mass appeal; it often equates to mindlessness and genericness. While I’m sure hours of action sequences are enjoyable, do people really view movies as something to simply help them switch off; to merely distract them from all their problems? Surely this goes against the transformative, cognitively active element of all art. With big budget studio flicks that are designed for worldwide distribution and high sales, there are literally tried and tested formulas which the studios employ to construct their films. As I discussed in an earlier post, ‘the focus on established franchises is symptomatic of this. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, every superhero known to man… these get constantly rehashed and rebooted.’ In a sense, this is the direct opposite of auteurism, with studios and investors being the creators of a product, and artists being brought on for the purposes of physical labour. They are also expendable. There wasn’t much in The Amazing Spiderman that made me believe it was Marc Webb’s film. Similar things could be said about Tim Burton’s more commercial ventures, such as Alice in Wonderland, and of course this isn’t necessarily a reflection on the ability of those filmmakers (both of whom I think are incredibly talented and unique), but of the influence of major studios when so much money is at stake. There are countless examples of films losing a sense of ownership because of this.
This may not be a new concept, but the statistics Soderbergh quotes are unsettling. The current trend results in fewer big budget films taking a larger market share, and a dramatic increase in independent films competing over a consequently smaller share. Of course, online distribution is a much cheaper method, but seeing a film in a theatre is an experience which can’t really be emulated. That said, admissions are falling, so perhaps audiences don’t care. And what happens when the online market becomes saturated, if it isn’t already? Audiences are still more likely to buy the big budget behemoths. In addition, Soderbergh claims the number of executives that are in the business because they love movies is decreasing. The movie business has become just that; a business, focused on a standardised model of production and marketing, ensuring a solid return on investment with an unwillingness to support anything out of the ordinary.
Soderbergh suggests alternate models for funding and distribution. His own view is that a studio should attempt to gather talented filmmakers, rather than treating each film as a separate entity which isn’t influenced by the filmmaker. Again, the debate around auteurism comes into play. His example of Memento being unable to find a distributor is bittersweet. No distributor would pick it up, but the people who financed it established their own company to distribute the film. Cloud Atlas is a recent example of a film which had similar issues, ultimately being funded by various studios and organisations from around the world.
‘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 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 almost like you’re having an epiphany, and say: “You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.”’