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Steven Soderbergh made headlines in 2011 when declaring he was retiring from filmmaking after an enviable two-decade run that began with his first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which helped spark the indie film revolution of the 1990s and in turn made Soderbergh the darling of the mainstream Hollywood studio system.
His “retirement” didn’t last long. Soderbergh, who has directed such studio blockbusters as Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s 11 franchise, is now back in the trenches with Logan Lucky, a star-studded heist film starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig that he made independently with the specific intention of controlling how the movie was both marketed and released.
In the weeks leading up the film’s opening over this past weekend, Soderbergh made in clear in several interviews that wanted Logan Lucky to challenge the system. But on Sunday, Soderbergh and his reps were mostly silent as the movie debuted to a disappointing $8.1 million from 3,301 theaters in North America — not the sort of revolution they were looking for. In an email to the New York Times, Soderbergh said that the results were “certainly frustrating” but he still hopes to change the ways movies are distributed.
Critics applauded Soderbergh’s film, but Logan Lucky, despite a 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was handily beaten by Lionsgate’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a run-of-the-mill genre action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, which arrived in the top spot with a domestic weekend gross of $21.6 million. More problematic, Logan Lucky earned a mediocre B CinemaScore from audiences, which could curb word-of-mouth.
Logan Lucky follows two brothers (Tatum and Driver) as they attempt to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race in Charlotte, North Carolina. Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes and Hilary Swank also star.
While the movie over-indexed in Charlotte and other NASCAR-centric markets, it still did minimal business in Middle America. (Over the past two years, NASCAR has seen a steep attendance and ratings decline.) Instead, seven of Logan Lucky‘s top 10 theaters were concentrated in Los Angeles, where Soderbergh is something akin to a national treasure. The top-grossing theater was the ArcLight Hollywood, followed by the Landmark.
Soderbergh is said to have relied primarily on foreign presales to finance Logan Lucky — a practice the indie world has relied on for decades, including such hits as Cinema Paradiso (1988) or The King’s Speech (2010). He then went about raising $20 million in marketing funds. That’s a fraction of what a major Hollywood studio would spend to trumpet a summer release, but Soderbergh contended that Hollywood traditionally spends too much to market movies. He took a targeted approach, waiting until the eleventh hour to unleash most of the television ads and concentrating outdoor billboards in the Midwest and South. He also didn’t test the trailers. Soderbergh will use the same approach when releasing his next film, Unsane, which he shot secretly in June using an iPhone. It stars Claire Foy and Jay Pharoah.
“Change is difficult, especially for the film industry, which at times seems built on archaic models. That said, distribution is a channel, navigated by slick sales forces and marketing teams that pigeonhole studio films with precision accuracy, and have done so for decades upon decades, selling films to consumers whether they want them or not,” said box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations.
“What we’ve seen over the course of Soderbergh’s career is that he certainly can work within the studio confines if he chooses to do so, but more often than not has his own sensibilities regarding the type of film he wants to spend his livelihood making. And those types of films, like Logan Lucky, are notoriously difficult to sell to mainstream audiences,” Bock continued.
The director’s last film, Side Effects, was likewise released independently by Open Road Films, although Soderbergh didn’t control the marketing. Side Effects opened to $9.3 million in February 2013.
This time out, Soderbergh’s new company, Fingerprint Releasing, hired Bleecker Street to distribute Logan Lucky in the U.S. He also relied on the advice of distribution guru Dan Fellman, who worked for years at Warner Bros., which made many of Soderbergh’s films. One thing going in Logan Lucky‘s favor is that the next two weekends are devoid of a lot of new product, although that could benefit Hitman’s Bodyguard as well.
“Though actually markedly different in almost every respect, Hitman’s Bodyguard and Logan Lucky were perceived among potential moviegoers to be similar enough — i.e., action movies with comedic elements — that audiences were forced to make a choice,” said comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “That ultimately fragmented the audience and favored one film over the other.”
Color By Numbers: Steven Soderbergh
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