Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) is not only one of the most prolific mainstream directors in Hollywood, but he’s also proven to be one of the most willing to buck trends and experiment with both form and release strategies. The fact that he is open to new ways of doing things and has never stubbornly defended the old theatrical model makes him an excellent candidate to talk about last week’s big news that Warner Bros. is releasing all of its 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. And in a recent interview when that topic was broached, he didn’t disappoint.
When Collider asked if the big news meant the end of movie theaters as we know them, Soderbergh had a more level head than most. “Not at all,” he answered. “[The streaming push is] just a reaction to an economic reality that I think everybody is going to have to acknowledge pretty soon, which is that even with a vaccine, the theatrical movie business won’t be robust enough in 2021 to justify the amount of [print and advertising money] you need to spend to put a movie into wide release. There’s no scenario in which a theater that is 50 percent full, or at least can’t be made 100 percent full, is a viable paradigm to put out a movie in. But that will change. We will reach a point where anybody who wants to go to a movie will feel safe going to a movie.”
When exactly that will happen, of course, is anybody’s guess. But Soderbergh does not seem to subscribe to Steven Spielberg’s old prediction that movie theaters will become highly specialized events which charge expensive prices only for the biggest blockbusters.
“I think somebody sat down and did a very clear-eyed analysis of what COVID is going to do in the next year, even with a potential vaccine, and said, I don’t see this as being workable in 2021. Because let’s be clear: there is no bonanza in the entertainment industry that is the equivalent of a movie that grosses a billion dollars or more theatrically. That is the holy grail. So the theatrical business is not going away. There are too many companies that have invested too much money in the prospect of putting out a movie that blows up in theaters—there’s nothing like it. It’s all going to come back. But I think Warners is saying: not as soon as you think.”
Soderbergh, who has worked in the traditional studio system, experimented with release techniques for smaller films like Logan Lucky, and has worked with streamers like Netflix and HBO Max, has seen the industry from nearly every conceivable angle, so his word carries a lot of weight. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be proven correct here, but we’re certainly heading into an interesting new era in which the future of entertainment hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, Soderbergh fans will be pleased to know that the director plans to release a box set of seven of his films sometime in 2021. “I’m hoping next year to put out a limited-edition box set of the seven titles that have reverted back to me, or that I have some control over. We’ve been remastering them and cleaning them up…it’ll be a collection of titles that weren’t made for studios, and in the case of Kafka, hasn’t been available for a long, long time” he said. For more on the changes he’s making to some of those films, click here.
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