For most of his career, Steven Soderbergh has tried desperately to stay out of the movie studio machine.
Though his biggest financial successes have come from Hollywood — like the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise or “Erin Brockovich,” for which he was also nominated for a best director Oscar — he’s been most comfortable being an independent.
He won his best director Oscar for “Traffic,” through the now-defunct USA Films, after the big studios declined to make a movie about the drug war. IFC Films allowed him to make two separate movies for his Che Guevara biopic, “Che.” And then there’s his classics like “sex, lies and videotape” through Miramax, “The Limey” by Artisan, and “The Girlfriend Experience” with Magnolia.
But Soderbergh craved more control as the years went on, and frustrated he couldn’t get it, he retired in 2013.
Four years later he has returned with a movie and has full control over it.
“Logan Lucky” opens on Friday and masterfully shows off Soderbergh’s talents. The story of two brothers trying to pull a heist at a NASCAR race has the mainstream appeal of an “Ocean’s” movie with a hint of the eclectic style found in his indie work.
All of that has led to one of the most anticipated movies to end the summer, and it wasn’t done with the help of a studio’s test groups and millions of advertising dollars. Instead, Soderbergh launched his own company, Fingerprint Releasing, where he oversees the entire marketing and release of “Logan Lucky.” If the movie performs well when it opens on August 18, it could be a model other auteurs like Soderbergh could follow from now on, and never have to deal with a studio again.
If Soderbergh went with a studio to release “Logan Lucky,” like he did with 2012’s “Magic Mike” through Warner Bros., the director would have been looking at a $US40 million marketing campaign for the $US29 million-budgeted “Lucky,” in which the studio would collect around 15% of total ticket sales. Any remaining profits would go to the owners of the movie.
“You’re way too far away from your money,” Soderbergh told The New York Times about going the studio route.
So, Soderbergh teamed with former Warner Bros. executive Dan Fellman and sold portions of the movie’s non-theatrical rights (Amazon took the streaming rights) to raise a $US20 million marketing budget. Then Soderbergh hired on indie distributor Bleecker Street to market and release the movie theatrically in the US for a $US1 million fee.
Soderbergh now has full control over the release strategy and marketing campaign of the movie, the first time he’s ever had that. Bleecker will receive a cut of the ticket sales and other revenue streams, according to the New York Times story.
“Logan Lucky” will be released wide, but Soderbergh has stated that because of how the movie is being marketed (ignoring the expensive New York and LA markets and focused on the south and midwest), even a modest opening like $US15 million is a success.
But is this a model that can be replicated by other directors who have the notoriety of Soderbergh (and the relationship with big name movie stars)?
Business Insider spoke to numerous sources within the independent film space and though they commend Soderbergh’s hustle, they don’t believe he’s reinventing the wheel.
For some, the model sounds like a form of a “service deal,” where a producer hires a distributor on a flat fee to market and release a movie, and the distributor takes a cut of the box office. This method has become more popular since the emergence of streaming giants Netflix and Amazon, which make service deals when doing theatrical releases of their titles. But the practice itself has been going on for decades. George Lucas didn’t want to relinquish the rights to “Star Wars” back in 1977, so he just licensed it and the two sequels that followed to 20th Century Fox.
And Kevin Smith has gone down the service deal route for recent films “Red State,” “Tusk,” and “Yoga Hosers,” through his company SModcast Pictures.
Then there are others who believe this auteur DIY model won’t be that popular, because most filmmakers aren’t up for “getting their hands dirty” in the distribution phase of a movie’s life like Soderbergh is.
There’s also the question of the kind of movie you’re making. A $US29 million heist movie where movie stars don’t take their usual asking fee is one thing. It becomes more of a challenge if a director wants to make a big-budget epic, and can’t find the financing through independent sources. That’s when the studio becomes you’re only hope.
But one aspect that seems to be universally agreed upon is that Soderbergh is smart to keep his marketing budget low (he told the New York Times he’s only spent 15% of it three weeks out from the movie opening).
Hollywood studios have budgets that match or sometimes double a production budget because having big marketing dollars leads to more box office, and more money in studio executives’ pockets.
“Studios will spend $US1,000 to make an extra $US25,” said one source.
But when you are doing it all under one roof, like Soderbergh is doing, the low marketing costs means he will be seeing more money come back to him at the end of the day.
Soderbergh’s model may not lead to a revolt of studio moviemaking, but it’s becoming clear he’s found a way to no longer need its services.
“Logan Lucky” opens in theatres August 18.
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