Steven Soderbergh is one of the most prolific directors of the decade for someone who “retired” from filmmaking for four years. The Oscar-winning director took a self-imposed break between 2013 and 2017. After his film Side Effects came out in February of 2013, he did not have another theatrical film until Logan Lucky in August of 2017. He was far from unproductive during that time, though. His new film Unsane, which he was the director, editor, and cinematographer of, opened on March 23 of this year. The horror film was shot on an iPhone, as was his upcoming film High Flying Bird, which is already in post production. Since 2014 he has produced four television series: Starz’s The Knick (which he directed all twenty episodes of) and The Girlfriend Experience (based on his own 2009 film of the same name), Amazon’s Red Oaks, and Netflix’s Godless. For HBO he produced and directed the mini-series Mosaic, which included an interactive app that viewers could use to navigate how they followed the narrative. He has another television series in the works for Starz with filmmaker Gregg Araki titled Now Apocalypse, and he has two other television series using the same interactive platform as Mosaic. He definitely isn’t retired anymore.
Soderbergh, 55, has been busy making films since he broke into the indie film scene with his directorial debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which premiered at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, six days after he turned 26. The film received the Audience Award at Sundance, the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and went on to gross $24 million in the US on a budget of $1.2 million. He is the only person in Oscar history to receive multiple nominations for Best Director in the same year; he was nominated for Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter. Erin Brockovich made $125 million in the US; Traffic, $124 million. He directed Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, which have grossed a total of $426 million in the US. His 2012 male stripper film Magic Mike grossed $113 million in the US. His films have starred some of the biggest, most bankable movie stars on the planet, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, and those are just some of the ones in the Ocean’s series.
Ever since he started, Soderbergh has been an eclectic director who has gone between large-scale Hollywood movies and indie films. He is a glowing example of a filmmaker who has done “one for them, one for me.” “Them” being Hollywood, and “me” being Soderbergh’s playful and experimental self. They are all distinctively him own, though. He directed a small budget 2005 film titled Bubble starring non-professional actors and set in a doll factory. He made the 2006 war drama The Good German in black and white with the technology available during the 1940s, the time period in which the film was set. Porn actress Sasha Grey starred in his 2009 drama The Girlfriend Experience. In between these films he was making Ocean’s films and easily enjoyable genre deconstructions such as Contagion and Haywire, often starring multitudes of major stars.
Some of Soderbergh’s films have done extremely well at the box office, but most of his films in the last ten years have underperformed. I think Soderbergh’s disillusion with Hollywood—the films they make and the way they are produced, marketed, and released—began with his 2008 Che Guevara bio-pic Che starring Benicio Del Toro. The four-and-a-half-hour unconventional historical and political epic was a massive production, and it received mixed to generally positive reviews, but its widest release in the US was 39 theaters, and it only grossed $1.778 million worldwide. On the Criterion Collection special features for the film, Soderbergh bluntly says, “It was odd to see people who allegedly are pro-cinema kind of rooting against it conceptually, you know, kind of taking the position of ‘Why would someone make a movie of this length and try and release it this way?’ And my attitude is, well, why wouldn’t you encourage somebody to do something that’s out of the box, whether you like the movie or not. You can not like the movie, but it was odd to see people sort of slamming just the idea of making it.” He goes on to add, “I can’t sit here and tell you that it was worth it. The time, the money, my own money. And the…the sort of…I think the effect it had on the people that worked on it. It also made me consider the issue of whether or not movies matter anymore at all. I think there was a period where they did matter culturally. I don’t think they do anymore. So that…that added to this sense of what was the point of eight years of work when movies, I think, have become so disposable and don’t seem to be…there aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously the way they were in the late 60s and 70s here in the United States.”
Another determining factor of Soderbergh’s anger is probably his treatment when trying to make his Liberace bio-pic Behind the Candelabra. An Oscar-winning director who had made multiple films that had grossed over $100 million had two Oscar-winning actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, in a reasonably budgeted film about an iconic American cultural figure, and all of the major studios told Soderbergh that it was “too gay.” The film would not be a financially wise decision, he was repeatedly told. Soderbergh ended up having to make the film for HBO, where it received wide critical acclaim and won multiple Golden Globes and Emmys. In many other countries, the film was given a regular theatrical release.
When Soderbergh decided to come back to directing theatrical films, he wanted more control over the marketing and distribution of them. He already had many hats on as a filmmaker (director, editor, cinematographer), but he was determined to be as economical about how the films were seen and distributed as he was about making them. With his first foray into feature films in four years, Logan Lucky, he did some interesting and unorthodox accounting. Before the film was even shot, he sold the rights to the film overseas and got the $29 million budget. The impressive cast—Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, Seth MacFarlane, and Dwight Yoakam—helped seal the deal. Then, before the film was released anywhere in theaters, he sold it to various cable channels, streaming and video on demand services, and airlines. The actors also took a pay cut and a profit participation deal where they would get more money based on the box office success of the film. The actors could literally log onto a secure website and track how much money they earned. By dealing heavily with the financial aspects of the film himself, Soderbergh did not just receive creative freedom and final cut on making the film, he was given total control over the marketing, trailers, posters, and distribution methods of the film. Film studios spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns these days in print, on billboards, on television, online, and basically anywhere eyes or ears can consume promotional material. Soderbergh felt like film studios spent way too much money promoting their films and especially wasted the advertising budget with massively popular and well-known properties such as comic book franchises and Star Wars. The director used a scalpel to cut as much fat and as many middle men as possible out of film distribution equation.
And the film underperformed at the box office. The film only grossed $7.6 million opening weekend, $27.7 million domestically, and an additional $19.7 in foreign sales. The film ended up only grossing $47.5 worldwide. Not terrible but underwhelming. What happened? Why didn’t more people see his film? The film was critically acclaimed, with a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 78 rating on Metacritic. It was a smart but easily enjoyable heist comedy with multiple successful movie stars. Perhaps it just wasn’t advertised enough. Perhaps the release date was not the prime time for the film to do well. Maybe audiences were not lining up for a redneck version of Ocean’s Eleven. After all the big budget spectacle films earlier in the summer, the film could have seemed like a good one to wait for at home.
Besides the two Ocean’s sequels, Contagion, and Magic Mike, all of Soderbergh’s films since his triple hits of Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the first Ocean’s Eleven, which all grossed over $100 million, have grossed less than $35 million domestically. That means thirteen of his seventeen films since Ocean’s Eleven in 2001 have made less than $35 million domestically. Seven of them have made less than $3 million domestically. His new film, Unsane, has been out three weeks and has grossed only $7.7 million domestically. Most theaters are not playing the film anymore or will stop playing it after today.
There are many reasons one can point to as to why Soderbergh’s films often underperform at the box office, but it boils down to one main problem: audiences. People are just not going out and paying to see most of his films. He keeps making intriguing, entertaining films in many genres with popular stars, and they are often released on thousands of screens across the country, and people just don’t go. It seems people, for the most part, only want to see big action films, franchises, sequels, animated films, and other generic releases by the major studios. If they’ve liked Transformers 1-4, why not see Transformers 5? Of the 33 films released in the US in 2017 that grossed over $100 million domestically, only eight were original films (not sequels, spin-offs, or remakes). Ticket prices are so high, especially in major cities, that audiences are more selective about what films they will go out and see in theaters. With the short release time for most films between theaters and streaming and home video and with the quality of home theaters, many people wait for smaller scale films on the small screen. Logan Lucky is a heist film set on a NASCAR track, but it’s not really an action film. Unsane benefits from being seen on the big screen in the dark with a group of strangers, but try and convince the average viewer that a horror film shot on an iPhone starring that actress from that Netflix series is worth going to the theater to see. More people have probably seen Black Panther more than once in theaters than have seen Unsane once.
This article could have been written about a myriad of great filmmakers who are trying to make smart, challenging adult films and are struggling to scrape together a reasonable budget and get any kind of theatrical distribution besides a few major cities. The most recent film released in the US by these directors made less than $1 million domestically: Gregg Araki, Andrea Arnold, Susanne Bier, Joon-ho Bong, Albert Brooks, Andrew Bujalski, John Carpenter, Shane Carruth, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Terrence Malick, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Alex Ross Perry, Jason Reitman, Ira Sachs, John Sayles, Todd Solondz, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, and Frederick Wiseman. The most recent film released in the US by these directors made more than $1 million but less than $5 million domestically: Olivier Assayas, Warren Beatty, Danny Boyle, Jane Campion, Terence Davies, William Friedkin, Jonathan Glazer, Charlie Kaufman, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, David Mamet, Mike Mills, John Cameron Mitchell, Sarah Polley, Nicolas Winding Refn, Kelly Reichardt, Jeremy Saulnier, John Waters, Ben Wheatley, and Terry Zwigoff.
The one that hurts the most is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Scorsese, one of the greatest living directors, spent years trying to make his religious film about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan, and it came out in the midst of awards season in December of 2016, and barely anyone went to see it. It got excellent reviews and was released on over 1,500 screens across the country. The director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street made a beautiful, deeply personal film starring Spider-Man #2 and Kylo Ren and it just came and went. Who has time to think and feel for 161 minutes? Why bother with supporting a master filmmaker like Scorsese when he pours his heart and soul into a stirring piece of art? If audiences won’t even pay to see a NASCAR heist film starring Channing Tatum and James Bond with a funny accent directed by one of our most consistently reliable and creative filmmakers, forget anyone seeing a long, slow, depressing religious film set in 17th-century Japan.
In the interview for Che, Soderbergh says that films “have become so disposable” and “there aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously the way they were in the late 60s and 70s here in the United States.” Great films are still being made by great filmmakers, but they are struggling to find space in the modern movie marketplace. There are many reasons for this, but the number one reason is the audience. If Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, Kathryn Bigelow, and dozens of other directors make incredible films and virtually no one pays to see them, does cinema matter anymore? Films don’t matter without an audience, and people don’t seem to be showing up where it counts.