Oscar-winning director eschews studio backing for ‘Lucky Logan’
After a prolific career directing films, including “sex, lies and videotape,” “Traffic” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, Steven Soderbergh said in 2013 that he was quitting the feature film business. He complained of the lack of financial and creative control directors get in Hollywood.
Four years later, he’s back with “Logan Lucky,” a $29 million action-comedy that he’s releasing without the help of a traditional studio. The unconventional strategy is a bold experiment to shake up the system he has railed against for years. Variety reported an opening weekend box office of $8.1 million, a disappointing third place behind “Hitman’s Bodyguard” and “Annabelle: Creation.”
Soderbergh joins a long list of directors who have groused about the lack of creative freedom when working with the major studios. Some have been especially irked by the lack of influence over how their films are marketed.
Going it alone is a risky move. Movies released by studios and major distributors benefit from expensive TV ads, billboard campaigns and media junkets that generate hype long before a movie opens. Studios also have long-standing relationships with the major theater chains, a crucial asset for filmmakers who lack Soderbergh’s cachet in the industry.
“Logan Lucky,” about siblings (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver) who try to pull off a heist in North Carolina during a NASCAR race, was not expected to top the box-office charts this weekend, despite major stars and stellar reviews. But, if successful, it could pave the way for more filmmakers to eschew Hollywood’s long-entrenched system of releasing and promoting movies.
“You’ve got to admire him,” said Jeff Bock, analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “It’s admirable when you don’t have to kowtow to how the studio wants to market your film. He’s an auteur ... so he wants complete control.”
Soderbergh, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
To release “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh launched distribution company Fingerprint Releasing with the help of Dan Fellman, the former president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., who now runs a consulting operation. Fingerprint teamed with small New York distributor Bleecker Street to help with marketing and distribution, and funded the marketing budget by selling post-theatrical rights to other companies, including streaming giant Amazon.
A key part of the plan was to buffer the risk of going rogue by limiting the marketing costs, which add up to tens of millions of dollars per movie for the studios. They held back on TV advertising, saving 80 percent of their media buying budget until the last week of the marketing campaign, in contrast to studios that usually begin spending big money months in advance.
Instead of looking to Los Angeles and New York, they focused on courting audiences in the South and other regions, premiering the movie in Knoxville, Tenn., for a charity fundraiser with Regal Entertainment, and sending Tatum on a road trip through NASCAR country. During one stop in Statesville, N.C., the actor posted a video of himself dancing with an employee at a gas station.
“The key is, this is a marketing campaign that is not a big studio machine,” said Jack Foley, president of distribution at Bleecker Street.
Executives hope “Logan Lucky” will pick up steam as the ad campaign picks up. The film also has a chance to draw moviegoers this week and beyond because of strong reviews and a dearth of movie competition during a slow August at the multiplex.
“We’re looking at it based on our first 10 days,” Fellman said. “We have a movie people enjoy, and we didn’t spend at a level to create some giant opening.”
It’s a tough environment, especially for independent distributors. The box office is headed toward its worst summer in at least a decade, with sales since the first weekend of May falling 12 percent from the same period last year.
Still, Soderbergh has a long track record of making commercially viable films, including the three “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, which collected more than $1 billion in worldwide grosses. He won the 2001 directing Oscar for “Traffic,” which grossed about $125 million domestically. (He was nominated for box-office hit “Erin Brockovich” the same year.)
More recent efforts, “Side Effects” and “Haywire,” were duds. But 2012’s “Magic Mike,” about a crew of male strippers, grossed $114 million domestically off a $7 million production budget. “Magic Mike,” it’s worth noting, was released by Warner Bros.
It remains to be seen whether Soderbergh’s approach will take hold. Fellman said Fingerprint plans to make more movies with directors other than Soderbergh, and he’s already heard from filmmakers who may be interested in pursuing a similar path to the multiplex.
“This is our first attempt,” he said. “Many people out there are looking at this and rooting for us.”
Director Steven Soderbergh is releasing “Logan Lucky,” a $29 million action-comedy, without the help of a traditional studio. It’s opening weekend boxoffice take was $8.1 million.