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If 'Logan Lucky' succeeds, Steven Soderbergh just might upend the studio system as we know it

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

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Director Steven Soderbergh on the set of his film, "Logan Lucky." Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

You might recall that Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking back in 2013, citing the “horrible treatment” of directors by the people who finance films.

After a stint directing all 20 episodes of “The Knick” on Cinemax, Soderbergh is back on the big screen with the film "Logan Lucky," out on Aug. 18. It’s a heist film set during a NASCAR race that stars Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig.

It’s the first feature to be released under Soderbergh’s company, Fingerprint Releasing, in collaboration with the distributor, Bleecker Street.

"Logan Lucky" is very much an experiment in a new way to finance, produce and distribute studio-level films without, well, a studio. (One note about Hollywood lingo that you’ll hear Soderbergh use: the phrase “P and A” refers to the cost of prints and advertising when releasing a film.)

When I met with Soderbergh recently in New York, I wanted to know what spurred him to take a break from filmmaking, and why "Logan Lucky" was his chance to step back in:

Interview highlights:

On pursuing television:

Director Steven Soderbergh, left, and Daniel Craig on the set of "Logan Lucky."
Director Steven Soderbergh, left, and Daniel Craig on the set of "Logan Lucky." Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

At the time I wasn't sure what my relationship to movies was, and also the business had stopped being fun — most of it. If one or both of those situations changed and my feelings shifted, I would step back in. It was never something I felt would be permanent.

As it turned out, I had a great time working in television and working on projects with other people. But in the fall of 2014, the "Logan Lucky" script came into my hands and it coincided with some conversations I'd been having both with Dan Fellman, who used to run distribution at Warner Brothers, and [the National Association of Theater Owners] — just sort of free form conversations about what was going on in the film business, in regards to distribution. It became clear to me that we were nearing a point where it was possible to take a movie, that for all intents and purposes is a studio film with movie stars in it, and wide release it without the studio, in a way that didn't really exist before. When the script came in, I started accelerating those conversations and saying, OK, I think I have a project. Can we talk seriously about what that would look like?

On the release model:

It's important we frame what our metric of success is because it's very different than what the studio metric for success is. What I'm hoping is that [through] Fingerprint, the company I formed to be the lead on this in conjunction with Bleecker Street and Amazon — who bought all the non-theatrical rights — that I can open up this path for a certain kind of filmmaker who wants to make a certain kind of film to reach a wide audience. There are plenty of good, small, independent distributors out there. This model is designed for wide release movies. 

On this release model vs. a studio system:

I've had the luxury, since the beginning of my career, to be able to control the content of the films I've made. Even when I haven't contractually had those rights, I've been protected by producers. I've never had a battle about the cut of one of my own films. But I've had a lot of discussions and debates about how films are distributed and promoted. This is an opportunity to test a couple of theories and also to take advantage of some technology that didn't exist even four years ago, in terms of targeting people with specific types of advertising. When you spend a lot of money spraying out some advertising ... probably a significant percentage of the people that you're reaching really don't have any interest in your movie and never are going to. So, I've always wondered: Can't we figure out a way to stop reaching people who don't want to hear from us? And now with the sort of data-mining you can do, you can start to get more surgical.

Director Steven Soderbergh (left) and actor Channing Tatum at the premiere of "Magic Mike" during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. Channing also stars in Soderbergh's new film, "Logan Lucky."
Director Steven Soderbergh (left) and actor Channing Tatum at the premiere of "Magic Mike" during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. Channing also stars in Soderbergh's new film, "Logan Lucky." Kevin Winter/Getty Images

On pre-selling the film, to avoid box office lulls:

This is a model that's been around for a long time ... this independent model of pre-selling to cover the negative, and in this case, selling the non-theatrical rights to cover the costs [of advertising and making prints]. The only thing at risk for any of us is the time it took to make the film because everybody worked for scale. But there's nothing to recoup, we're zeroed out when the movie opens.

On tracking the film's profits:

It's very transparent. The money goes right from the theaters into an account that everybody will have a log-in and a password. You can literally watch whatever money goes from the theaters into this account. It's completely clear and simple. That's the way I think it should work. Compared to most businesses of its size, Hollywood's actually remarkably transparent. And the amount of data that they turn over to the guilds every year is significant and very granular. The interesting thing about the guilds is, since the studios don't share information with each other, we get all the information from all the studios. We have a snapshot of the entire industry that even the studios don't have. So it's actually, I believe, a fairly straightforward, economic engine.

 

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