How One Director Is Bucking the Hollywood System

Steven Soderbergh is fighting failing distribution methods and plenty of stereotypes, too — will he win?

Frustrated by Hollywood’s current business model, one of the most acclaimed modern directors announced a retirement that was supposed to begin back in 2013.

Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Magic Mike”) swore off the movie business after his 2013 film “Side Effects,” claiming the town simply did not have a healthy business platform for creativity.

After a few years of diving into producing, painting, and television work, Soderbergh is back with a new film — and this time he’s doing it his way.

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“Logan Lucky,” opening today, may seem like a goofy heist movie starring Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum (pictured above with fellow cast-members Riley Keough and Adam Driver). Yet its release strategy makes it so much more.

Soderbergh agreed to come back to directing film only if he could have full control over the making of his movie and its distribution. That’s a big desire in today’s market, where big studios control most distribution and the business practices have been in place for decades.

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To accomplish his big goals, Soderbergh first sold off the foreign rights to his film based on the script and potential cast (standard for raising a budget for an independent film). He managed to scrape together $29 million for the production, as his ensemble of actors all agreed to work for scale (the union minimum an actor can get paid) in exchange for profit participation points.

The distribution was much harder. To gain a wide release in America (2,500 or more theaters), one typically needs to go through a big studio like Universal or Warner Bros. By doing so, a person typically hands over marketing rights to them. A studio will usually match or even double a production budget in marketing — which is why so few films turn a profit in theaters.

Once the box office total is in, the studio will take a fee (roughly 15 percent) and then deduct expenses, which will leave the actual filmmakers with next to nothing.

A studio will typically match or even double a production budget in marketing, which is why so few films turn a profit in theaters.

Soderbergh was not having any of this anymore. Just like true innovators and capitalists, he decided to reinvent the wheel and buck the system in favor of risking it all on his own. “You’re way too far away from your money,” Soderbergh told The New York Times about Hollywood’s current distribution system.

The director’s new model meant spending a fraction of the cost on marketing. Teaming with consultant Dan Fellman, formerly a Warner Brother executive, Soderbergh managed to raise $20 million to independently promote his film by selling off things like the streaming rights (to Amazon) for his project. By sacrificing some non-theatrical profits, he gained full control over how his movie was sold to audiences.

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For creating trailers and the campaign to sell “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh worked with Bleecker Street Media, a small company with a fraction (of a fraction) of the staff of a big studio. They worked together to cut trailers and market the movie for a low fee of $1 million plus bonuses if the movie reached certain box-office milestones.

This smaller model — with Soderbergh’s power over everything — has led to an interesting campaign. It’s had refreshing trailers that don’t spoil the entire movie (a growing criticism among film fans about trailers) and a campaign pushed in places Hollywood usually ignores, such as midwestern and southern states.

If this model works and “Logan Lucky” has a strong opening weekend ($15 million would be considered a success), one can expect a lot of change to come to Hollywood and the way it makes and releases movies.

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“We know that a lot of big-time filmmakers are watching this,” Fellman told The New York Times about the release of “Logan Lucky.” “We want this to be the beginning of a bunch of movies.”

Beyond its marketing innovation, there’s the actual story of “Logan Lucky” — which will truly prove it to be a success or failure with audiences. The film is about two brothers who team up with a not-entirely sane con (Craig) to rob a NASCAR track. It’s an oddball comedy that shows midwesterners as well-rounded, entertaining, and interesting characters — and smarter than their accents would allow them to be in other movies.

You can’t do something different in movies today without irking a few.

Typical Hollywood content paints Midwesterners and Southerners as either complete bumbling idiots or psychopathic serial killers. It’s partly why films aren’t marketed as heavily in “flyover” states. “Logan Lucky” is looking to change that.

Though it’s won critical praise thus far from critics (93 percent of reviews are positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes), some critics have taken issue with the way the movie treats its setting and characters.

“It’s a movie about a buncha good ol’ boys who decide to knock over a NASCAR speedway,” wrote a former film editor at the LA Times and the current “Castle Rock” television writer, Marc Bernardin, on Twitter. “And why do we think they can’t do it? Because they’re good ol’ boys. The enemy in the film is the audience’s prejudices against ‘rednecks.’ That’s the victory: These Logan boys looked like f*** ups, but they are smarter than we gave them credit for. And there’s something insidiously pandering, in today’s America, about that.”

Be ready for plenty more think pieces and critics to point out such things. You can’t do something different in movies today without irking a few, especially when you’re showing a highly vilified section of America in a positive light.

(photo credit, homepage image: Thore Siebrands, Flickr)

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