Flying With Steven Soderbergh

When Steven Soderbergh is cruising at 32,000 feet, he gets philosophical.

That is one impression from his recent State of the Cinema address delivered April 25, 2013, as the keynote speech to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. The speech has become a must read, as it has made the rounds of blog sites and entertainment news reports. I think it has actually received more press than the Gettysburg Address in its day.

If you have not watched the tape or read the transcript (both are provided in the above link), then do so. Sure, its not going to be on the honor roll of rhetoric like the Gettysburg Address, but Soderbergh does make a series of important comments about the modern state of indie filmmaking. Especially once you get pass the first couple of paragraphs about jet travel (where Soderbergh sounds as if he is doing an opening bit for the Seinfeld show).

Soderbergh makes many solid points about the semi-sorry state of the modern industry. I don’t want to deal with his dividing line between film and cinema. That is really a whole another blog piece. But the rest is painfully valid and achingly precise.

For example, his take on the recent Nomura report on the current Hollywood industry. Obviously Soderbergh is on the right track (since I was saying much the same just last week). The major film companies have sharply reduced output while increasing production cost in order to focus on tent-pole movies that systematically consume the vast majority of available screen space while producing brief bursts of increased revenue to shareholders.

The trick is sort of working, though it is detrimental to indie movies (and many other things). The shareholders are largely happy. For now. You see the secret to this trick (which has been used in almost every other form of major American business) is that it is not designed to work for long and really doesn’t create self-sustaining, long-term enterprises. Instead, it is designed to squeeze out a fast short-term profit and then sell everything off and move on. Otherwise the whole thing inevitably goes bust and the shareholders become very unhappy. I have already witnessed this process in three other industries. I have a very unfortunate but pretty solid feel for the results. That is why I call it the Locust Theory, as in a locust swarm wiping out all the farm fields. In the end, only the locust is happy.

Meanwhile, the major companies are still tightly locked into a full-blinder mindset. Adam Goodman of Paramount recently expounded at the Variety Entertainment Technology Summit about the lasting nature of the theater experience while also talking excitedly about the possible first movie that will be made with the Google Glass. Goodman is totally convinced that people will not want to watch stuff on their cell phones while waiting at the bus stop. If he were given more time, he might also explain how vinyl has a better sound than CDs and gosh golly, but Betamax had a better picture. The brief history of the digital revolution has already produced a mammoth graveyard. I don’t want to dwell on the contradictions in Goodman’s presentation. But, at the start of the digital revolution, dailies made the same comments about newspapers Goodman is making about theaters. You know, the one about how people will never want to loose the pleasure of having an honest to goodness newspaper in their hands at the breakfast table. So be forewarned. As for Google Glass, he and the rest of Hollywood have more than just that gizmo coming their way and quite simply, they are not going to be the folks to benefit from all this stuff.

To be honest, Soderbergh has a touch of a similar problem. At the beginning of his speech, he goes into a whole story about the guy on the plane with him, who gets all settled into his seat with his iPad and starts watching a movie. What Soderbergh noticed was that the guy was really spending his time flipping through the movie. Skipping past narrative parts and playing and replaying action scenes. He was scanning the film, not watching it.

This observational experience sent Soderbergh spinning into various thoughts about the difference between film and cinema. What he observed he describes well,  but what he doesn’t quite grasp is the shift taking place. A massive shift. One that will soon result in enormous changes within the very foundation of the entire visual/narrative industry. The gentleman’s behavior is part of the rapidly emerging change in viewing experience evolving from the ever expanding forms of new technology. I’m not really criticizing Soderbergh. Basically, I agree with him on that whole film and cinema thing. A lot of that is generational (and since I am ten years older than Soderbergh, I should be the bigger stick in the mud). Unfortunately, I also sense – heck, it’s more than sense; I know – that it just doesn’t matter. Technologically speaking, the film era is over. Aesthetically speaking, the cinema age is ending. This change is happening. It is unstoppable. Its effect is going to be enormous upon the entire industry.

So everything Soderbergh said in this speech is true. And soon it will all be meaningless, as even more massive changes take place. I only hope that in the next couple of years Soderbergh will take some more flights. I can’t wait to hear what he thinks next.

Meanwhile, Goodman may want to invest in some really comfortable shoes. After all, it will be hard work pitching movies at the bus stop and you do have to go where the audience is located.