Hollywood’s major studios might believe that the key to a movie’s financial success is a multi-million-dollar integrated marketing strategy, but for Steven Soderbergh, a two-and-a-half-minute clip of a bleach-blond Daniel Craig droning on in a Southern drawl while eating a boiled egg will suffice.
Soderbergh has a long history of clashing with studios over the manner in which his films are produced and marketed, and his latest picture, Logan Lucky (read our review), represents an unusual and highly intentional break from the traditional Hollywood approach to crafting a blockbuster. Six years after announcing his retirement from directing due to a lack of personal creative and financial control over his movies, Soderbergh is now making a bold return to filmmaking on his own terms.
The director has concocted a unique distribution plan for Logan Lucky that has allowed him to cut production and marketing costs, maintain creative control over the advertising materials, and keep most of the movie’s money closer to those who actually worked on the film, all without the involvement of a major Hollywood studio. It’s a strategy that many of Soderbergh’s fellow directors are warming up to, and if it succeeds, we may be looking at a fundamental change in the way blockbuster films are funded and marketed.
It seems only fitting that a film designed to buck the Hollywood studio system should offer a story rich in anti-corporate sentiment, and Logan Lucky doesn’t disappoint. The script follows a band of eccentric West Virginia losers who concoct a scheme to steal $14 million in cash from the Charlotte Motor Speedway during NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 after one of them has been laid off by the Speedway due to liability issues. Initially, Soderbergh was asked to read the script and recommend a director for the project, but he enjoyed the story so much that he decided to helm the film himself, recognizing a potential opportunity to try out an alternative distribution model.
After signing on an all-star cast including Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank, Adam Driver, Katie Holmes, and Seth MacFarlane, Soderbergh sold the film’s overseas distribution rights, raising the $29 million needed to fund production of the movie itself. From there, he had to handle the release of the film.
For the majority of blockbuster films matching Logan Lucky in scale, a major Hollywood studio would fund and orchestrate a $30-$40 million marketing campaign, determine where the movie would open (a standard wide release opening equates to a minimum of 2,500 North American locations), collect a percentage of total ticket sales, deduct its own expenses, and then leave the remaining profit to the filmmakers themselves.
In this situation, however, directors lose practically all control over the advertising for their film. The studio tests trailers and television spots with focus groups, using their reactions, rather than input from the filmmakers, to shape the content they are producing. For Soderbergh, that wasn’t going to cut it. So he connected with Dan Fellman, a former Warner Bros. executive who is now considered an expert on motion picture distribution.
Together, the two raised roughly $20 million for marketing in part by selling the movie’s streaming rights to Amazon. They then struck a deal with Bleecker Street Media, a small distributor known for handling indie films. Soderbergh would maintain total creative control over the marketing campaign Bleecker Street would execute, and the distributor would receive a small $1 million fee, plus a cut of ticket sales and some of the revenue from eventual DVD sales.
For the past several weeks, Soderbergh has been carefully allocating his marketing money, releasing unique trailers and television spots that were not tested with focus groups and are designed to capture the atmosphere of the film, rather than give away jokes and major plot points. One such ad featured little more than Daniel Craig delivering an extended monologue, followed by the title of the film.
Soderbergh then arranged for billboard ads to be displayed primarily in the South and the Midwest, where he feels audiences will connect most directly with the characters. And unlike major studios, which bombard consumers with marketing materials several weeks in advance of a blockbuster release in order to build hype, Soderbergh has chosen to hold off on unveiling most of his ads until immediately before Logan Lucky’s opening, believing that this will leave a stronger impression upon potential viewers.
Perhaps the most appealing part of this arrangement is that Logan Lucky had a much lower box office hurdle to clear than the standard blockbuster. Since much of the film’s expenses are prepaid, and Bleecker Street won’t be demanding sizable fees, the movie only had to make about $15 million in its opening weekend to be considered successful. Unfortunately, due to competition from fellow action comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Logan Lucky only brought in $8 million in its first weekend, but it will likely make up for its weak opening thanks to positive word-of-mouth and eventual DVD and streaming sales.
While Soderbergh is happy with his unorthodox model, Hollywood’s biggest studios are hoping that the film will continue to fail at the box office, as it poses a serious threat to their relevancy. In fact, Logan Lucky is just the latest in a string of recent attempts by prominent filmmakers to forego the major studio distribution model in favor of strategies that offer them increased control over their projects.
French director Luc Besson made headlines last month with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, his sci-fi passion project that cost a reported $180 million and featured A-list actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, yet was funded almost entirely independently through foreign presales. When Hollywood shied away from financing his film because it wasn’t based on an established intellectual property well known to American audiences (the movie was inspired by the French comic book series Valérian and Laureline), Besson decided to pitch his concept for the film to dozens of foreign distributors from more than 100 countries at Cannes.
His presentation was enthusiastically received, and ultimately about 96% of the film’s budget was covered through presales, leaving Besson’s independent studio EuropaCorp to foot only 4% of the bill. This meant that Valerian was an extraordinarily low-risk venture for the studio that technically produced it. Unfortunately, Besson’s strategy may not pay off. After a disappointing opening in the US last month, foreign distributors are hoping that Valerian’s upcoming release in China will prove more fruitful and salvage their investment.
Still, the movie represents an interesting alternative to the age-old Hollywood route, and the fact remains that Besson could never have brought his beloved comic book characters to life without producing the project as, reportedly, the most expensive indie film ever made.
Another curious experiment is South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s visual-effects-driven fantasy Okja, which was funded and distributed via Netflix. On the day it became available for instant streaming, the movie also strategically opened in just enough US theaters to be considered for awards. In many ways, the film has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, with a lovably adorable creature conjured through impressive visual effects, sweeping shots of the expansive Korean countryside, and a star-studded cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Lily Collins. Yet Bong maintains that the film was too strange to be viewed by major studios as a safe bet. Like Logan Lucky, it serves as a sharp critique of corporate greed, telling the story of a young girl who befriends a genetically-engineered Superpig and fights to protect the animal from the massive conglomerate that breeds the creatures for slaughter.
Bong has stated that he turned to Netflix for this project because the streaming service offers complete creative control. That was something he was adamant about, after studio executive Harvey Weinstein attempted to cut 20 minutes from his 2014 thriller Snowpiercer. Indeed, Okja features a disturbing sequence graphically depicting the slaughter of the Superpigs, something any major studio would surely have removed from the film before its release.
But Netflix has a well-publicized history of trusting and encouraging the creative sensibilities of influential filmmakers, and Bong, whose past work includes blockbuster horror film The Host, is known for his daring, sometimes shocking, creative choices. While many in the film industry have criticized Bong and others for turning to Netflix rather than supporting the traditional Hollywood model of theatrical wide release, it seems that Bong is satisfied with the creative freedom that accompanies a break from studio involvement.
Other directors have taken a similar path, electing to use streaming services as a means of funding and distributing their projects. Earlier this year, Netflix acquired Martin Scorsese’s next gangster film, a Robert De Niro vehicle called The Irishman, which begins production this month. And after partnering with Amazon to produce last year’s television series Crisis in Six Scenes, Woody Allen recently sold the rights to his next feature film, Wonder Wheel, to Amazon Studios. Amazon differs from Netflix in that it releases films in theaters before making them available on their streaming service, thus somewhat preserving the sanctity of the theatrical release. Wonder Wheel will be the first film released by Amazon Studios without support from a distribution partner, a notable sign of progress in the company’s filmmaking efforts.
As an increasing number of directors turn to alternate funding and distribution methods, Hollywood’s major studios are likely being forced to take a hard look in the mirror. This curious phenomenon, which has led to a number of engagingly unique films, only draws into even sharper relief the monotony of the formulaic movies and accompanying marketing campaigns that the studios tend to churn out.
Perhaps we are indeed entering an era of so-called indie blockbusters, where filmmakers will finally realize their dream of gaining full creative and financial control of their projects. If so, we could be looking at the slow, bittersweet death of the major studios and Hollywood’s age-old distribution model, but we may also be facing a period of unprecedented creative freedom in which directors, writers, and actors will be willing and able to take the sort of risks that can lead to breakthrough cinematic works of art. This statement might be a bit dramatic, and the studios will surely find a way to stagger on without completely crumbling in the immediate future. But in any case, if a bleach-blond, Southern-fried Daniel Craig is any indication of what is possible in this new age of experimental, independently-funded blockbusters, we could be in for a real treat.