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Steven Soderbergh Says It’s Time To Tear The Streaming Model Down To The Studs

11:37 AM EDT on August 4, 2023

Steven Soderbergh has had a busy year. In February, the director released Magic Mike’s Last Dance, the third film in the male stripper franchise. In July, he premiered the Max series Full Circle, which he directed all six episodes of. And just as the streaming series was about to debut, Soderbergh announced another, more unusual project, coming just days later.

Command Z is a sci-fi comedy web series, self-funded and distributed through Soderbergh’s website, Extension 765, with proceeds going to Children's Aid and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Coming in at about 90 minutes, the series comprises eight episodes of varying lengths and tells an odd story about three people in an apocalyptic future who are given a mission by the ghost of a tech CEO, played by Michael Cera, who has uploaded his consciousness into a computer. Cera’s disembodied head tasks his three workers with going back in time, to the year 2023, to intervene in some small but important ways to shift the course of the future.

Developed with Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History author Kurt Andersen, the series tackles the problems of climate change, social media, political polarization and more. The three employees, played by Roy Wood Jr., Chloe Radcliffe, and JJ Maley, use a converted laundry machine, a weird juice concoction and the “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To),” from the bonkers Berry Gordy-directed Diana Ross movie, to enter the minds of people in the past in order to nudge them into taking a different path, resulting in percentages of positive change to the timeline. Liev Schreiber and Kevin Pollak also appear in the series, with Andersen, Wood and Radcliffe taking on writing duties along with Larry Doyle, Jiehae Park, Akilah Hughes, Emily Flake, and Nell Scovell.

Of course, this being Steven Soderbergh, when we spoke by Zoom for an hour a week after Command Z premiered, the conversation covered a wide range of subjects, from his vision for social change, to his opinions on AI, the future of the film industry post-Barbie and Oppenheimer, the need for data transparency in Hollywood, and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So what did this project look like the first time you shot it?

The first version of it was going to be TikTok stories from the future. These would be TikTok videos that were made in like 2036, and sort of deposited like leaflets in 2022, or 2023. So we pursued that for a while, we wrote a bunch of scripts, we shot some videos. And we looked at them and felt that TikTok was probably not a great place to put some of these ideas across, because of the rhythm of TikTok stories that get pushed by the algorithms. You have mere seconds to grab people before they move on. And I think the feeling was looking at these 17 or 18 TikTok videos that we made, was that nobody would watch these, and nobody would recommend them, and the algorithm wouldn't recommend them. The kind of storytelling that we have a facility for didn't really lend itself to that format.

So it was just that more dense storytelling not working with the algorithm?

Yeah, I don't know. They just, they didn't feel legit. They just didn't. They didn't feel like the best examples of things that I was watching on TikTok that really worked. It's a different way of approaching storytelling. And if you have a story that you're really trying to tell over the course of 90 minutes, it's just not a great format for that.

Do you see the medium as connected to film and television at all, or is it its own thing?

It feels like its own thing to me. I think if you develop a skill set with TikTok, that's exportable to movies and TV and long form. It's not clear to me that it works in the other direction.

You do deal with algorithms in Command Z.

I do. But it's not as harsh as it is in the TikTok context. People that are scrolling through and looking for stuff and watching stuff, I mean, it's gotta grab them immediately. It's just a different way of telling a story. So we moved on from that ... Now the thing to do would be to hire somebody who's fluent in TikTok to sort of deconstruct and rebuild Command Z as a series of TikTok videos, that would be interesting.

Is that the kind of thing that you'd be interested in pursuing?

I'm not interested in pursuing it, but I'd be interested to see it.

The series deals with a lot of serious problems facing society today, but the climate crisis definitely feels like the most apocalyptic of them. Was that the main motivator?

It certainly seemed to be the most obvious symptom of our real-world problem, which is what human beings have done to this planet and by extension to each other. What are the root causes of that? Even in the last few months, it's beginning to dawn on people that the trajectory of these problems is not linear. That this could all turn into Mad Max a lot faster than we think. That became even more concerning as we were finishing. Watching the news and looking around and realizing, Shit, this is moving really, really quickly. Soon we’re gonna be in a situation where these things aren't even seasonal. We're gonna be in a sort of permanent catastrophic weather state. It's pretty terrifying. The point being, how do you convince a young person to not give up and just slip into a state of apathy because it's all just so overwhelming?

That was one of the things that I found interesting in the series, that it is pushing people to get involved, and showing how small changes can have a ripple effect down the road, making a big difference. But it’s also quite clear-eyed about the obstacles standing in the way, the problems of wealth distribution and power that make change feel difficult or impossible. I was curious about your approach to balancing those two sides of it.

The balance that you're describing is something that we talked about a lot, because we felt it has to acknowledge that changes are often incremental and require the coordinated effort of a lot of people. Peace isn't sexy, you know, it's not exciting. When things are going wrong, there's a spectacle aspect to it that gets people kind of amped up. So trying to acknowledge, yeah, this isn't the sexy part, it's not the fun part, but it's worth doing. And you will often fail. And you will often feel like your contribution doesn't matter. But you have to play past that because it does matter. And you could end up being the catalyst for somebody else who goes on to make a huge impact, because at the end of the day, it is very personal. We're in Ukraine right now, because Vladimir Putin, an individual, has a very specific idea in his mind of his own country, and his role in it, and how people should behave. That's just one guy who, over the course of many decades, sitting in rooms with other people, sometimes with one other person, has managed to orchestrate the campaign that he's currently waging. Don't let your parents tell you that no one person matters. They really do. Some guy had a bomb in his shoes and now we're all taking our shoes off at the airport. You have to remember the inverse of that, which is that a good person can have that kind of impact as well. It's just harder.

The time-travel aspect of the film adds an interesting wrinkle to that, since in reality we don’t have that ability to know the future. Was that something you had to be mindful of in crafting the series? That maybe you were putting your thumb on the scale?

No, because I think that's kind of built into the premise a bit. If you accept the conceit, you also accept the extent to which you are kind of putting your thumb on the scale. But also the fun part of it is to explore the unintended consequences of going back and changing things. It would be interesting to trace the genealogy of stories in which people go back into the past to improve their current state or to improve the future. It'd be an interesting thing to trace where that started. Because it's a very human thing to fantasize about.

Time-travel stories are great that way in general, because they deal in that human relation to time, but also involve the systemic, because there’s always this notion that one change can have a huge effect. 

The only way for me to engage in this conceit is for it to be a comedy. Like, I could never do a serious time-travel film.

You don't think so?

No. To me, if you're going to sign on to time travel, it better be funny. It better be Bill and Ted, or better be Back to the Future. Because it's not possible, so you acknowledge that by making it funny.

There are a bunch of targets you’re hitting at in the series, and all of them connected, like dealing with the climate crisis is also related to political polarization, or derangement, frankly. How did you work out dividing each issue into separate segments? 

Well, we wanted to make sure that we were spreading the targets around, and that every group sort of had a moment of being skewered. I didn't want it to feel like a blatantly partisan piece. I mean, I do think we're being forced into a place of partisanship because of one party's slow-rolling, and then fast-rolling decision to attack certain basic principles and ideas that everybody used to feel there was an agreement on. So it becomes difficult not to declare yourself, when it comes to a simple thing like, what is a fact?

You know, when I was growing up there were two main political parties, and then a couple of little independent offshoots. But there was some basic agreement and understanding of things like facts. What those facts meant was often open for interpretation, but the facts themselves were not open for interpretation. So that's a new thing, and not a good thing. It's not even a good thing for the people who are attacking the idea of facts, but they haven't gamed that out for themselves yet, that'll probably come later. The question is, we may not have time for them to figure that out. So on the one hand, I know it sounds a little bit like "You started it," but when people started attacking what's true and what's not true, things that are provable? Yeah, you are picking a fight. And I think at that point, we're beyond labels. We're in real dangerous territory here that has to be sorted out. We're not going to solve anything if you can't get people to agree on what's empirically true.

Since the time that you shot the series, in July 2022, one major issue that’s risen to the fore is AI. Almost every month it seems to get bigger and bigger. AI isn’t dealt with too directly in the series, but has all of that changed your view on where things are headed? 

I'm not worried about AI in the context of my day job. It is, like every tool, something that can be extraordinarily helpful, especially in a diagnostic context. If somebody is reading, you know, an MRI of my brain, I would rather have an AI that has seen every MRI of every brain that's ever been taken than a radiologist who's just seen what they've seen. You know what I mean? That's a context where all of that data is incredibly helpful. But in a creative environment, it can't get you into the end zone. It just can’t. But it's really fun to play with, it's especially fun to fuck with. It's incredibly easy to sort of make it do stupid party tricks.

I've got a project I'm working on right now, where I'm trying to put together a gallery of images—because it takes place in a world that's our world, but a slightly different version of it—so I'm trying to generate images for the production designer and the costume designer, about what I'm thinking. Like, I'm thinking it should look like this. And the ability to say, "a man or a woman on the street in this city, in this year, wearing these clothes,” then being able to choose the kind of shirt and the kind of hat and the kind of jacket and the glasses, and quickly just generate an image and send it to them? And go, "I think it looks something like this?" That's fantastic, you know? Sure. But can it do anything else? It's not clear.

With the strikes going on, AI has become a concern. Replacing actors, but also for the writers, having a studio hand them an AI-generated treatment or script to edit. The WGA has been pretty adamant about wanting the right to at least refuse to work on a script like that. It raises issues of ownership and pay.

I just think overall, it nets out, in the sense that there's just as much chance that the creative community is going to abuse AI as there is that the studios are going to abuse AI. People are people. It is my impression of the executives that I'm working with, or was working with, that they don't need any more work. That they are overwhelmed. And the idea of riding herd over a department that's going to generate new material, based on their ideas through AI, that will then have to be curated and made better by humans? I wouldn't do it. I just don't think we can be replaced like that. I just don't. There are other very serious issues that need to be addressed. This is a serious issue. It's just not the one that keeps me up at night. Data transparency is the one that keeps me up at night.

I was going to ask you about that. You had mentioned it in your Reddit AMA as well. If I recall correctly, you were experimenting with stuff related to data transparency on Logan Lucky?

On Logan Lucky and Unsane we were experimenting with some distribution models to see if you could put a movie into wide release without spending $30 to $40 million. And it turns out, you cannot.

After that you had been working with HBO Max, or Max now. Did you see any data while you were working with them?

No.

Was it just like, “No way”?

I was given adjectives. “We feel good about these numbers.” “The comps are right in line with what we were hoping for.”

And does that get in the way of your work?

Well, it's just, there are two potential reasons that we're not getting all of the information. One is that they're all making a lot more money than anybody knows and that they're willing to tell us. The other is they're making a lot less money than anybody knows. And they don't want Wall Street to look under the hood of this thing in any significant way because there'll be a reckoning that will be quite unpleasant. It's one of those two. My attitude is, I'd rather work in a version of the business where I know what's going on. And if I have to take a haircut, to work in that business, and bet on myself more and take less upfront, which I've done a lot, then I'll do that. That could, though, mean, potentially, a drastic reduction in the amount of things that get made. If we tear this thing down to the studs, and find out that the math is funky, it's going to be quite a transformation. And so my feeling—and I'm operating from a place of real privilege—is the sooner we find out the better, because one way or another, it's gotta get rebuilt, you might as well start now.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck started their production company. I don't know that it's related to data transparency so much, but the idea of sharing in the profits. Do you see that as kind of a potential future? Because that seems like, if it works, it might hedge against some of what you’re talking about?

Absolutely. It's kind of a nuclear-ized version of something that I've done before on Unsane or Let Them All Talk. They've just blown it up into like life-size scale. But the idea is, you put the thing together yourself and everybody who works on it is part of the profit pool. And you make it as tightly as you can, and then you sell it for as much as you can. And you give all the money to everybody who worked on it. It's pretty straightforward. Nobody's attempted to do it quite on this scale over and over again, which is what they want to do. So I hope it works. It worked on Air for sure. I know they've got a couple of other projects that are on pause. But I like the idea of it.

Yeah, I mean, it has kind of a co-operative feel. Not quite a co-op, but it has a bit of that element about it.

Yeah. It's more egalitarian than the typical structure for sure.

You've experimented with both your filmmaking and distribution methods. Are you working towards an answer to some of this stuff? Or is it just like, let's try something and see how it goes?

A little bit of both? I mean, the ultimate goal is getting people back in theaters. Now, we just had a spectacularly successful movie-going weekend. That's great. How do we sustain that? Especially when it comes to movies that are not at that scale. How do we convince moviegoers to go see things that they (currently) feel like, Well, I could have sat at home and watched that—a drama, a mid-level-budgeted adult drama—how do we get them to come out for that? That's the trick. Because that's the audience that is most resistant to go into the theater right now, and being serviced very well by series, and some movies, being made for platforms.

Most of your recent output has been for streaming. What do you see as the importance of the theatrical business?

I certainly think in cultural terms it's necessary. It's a good thing. It's a good thing for people to go out and see movies together. I think it's a collective good. For people to go out and experience art together in numbers, I think is a good thing. It also provides a potential windfall that doesn't exist in the streaming world, which is you make a movie, and it blows up the way these two movies just blew up over the weekend. It's great that Stranger Things blows up, and it means people are on Netflix instead of somewhere else, and it may result in some signups, but it doesn't bring the kind of pure cash windfall that a movie that makes a billion-and-a-half-dollars does. And so that's the problem. If you're a streamer, you have a show that hit; once everybody has seen it, it's just sitting there. It's not throwing off any more revenue because you're not selling it to anybody else anymore. That is a sort of mathematical chink in the streaming platform economic model. And the same goes for a hit TV show. The inability to really monetize your monster successes, I think is a problem.

And did you see Barbie and Oppenheimer?

I couldn't get in! Because the neighborhood I'm in, where I go to the theater, they were sold out 10 days ago, and they're sold out for the next 10 days. I don't know where I'm going to see them.

That's pretty amazing. You haven't seen the films, but do you see any lessons in the success of those?

All the lessons are good. You have two filmmakers who came out of the independent world, making movies that everybody in the world is going to see this week. That's a huge plus that will have a real trickle-down effect for the next independent-minded filmmaker who wants those kinds of resources. I couldn't be happier. In my mind, there's no difference to what Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are doing with Barbie and I was doing remaking Ocean's 11. It's the same thing to me. At the end of the day, it's just, is it any good? It doesn't matter what it was built from. It matters what it is.

And it appears these two films, because they’re actually good, drew people in.

I think if it wasn't those two filmmakers, you don't get this result.

Right.

That plays into my whole theory of horses, not races. Both Greta and Chris had built up a sort of standard of quality, that when combined with the subject matter that they've both chosen makes people really interested. They're like, I want to see what she does with that idea. And if you're a Chris Nolan fan, you're like, Yeah, I want to see Chris Nolan make a movie about how they built the bomb. Like, he's the guy. Part of it is filmmakers being smart about that as well. Filmmakers adapting to what's possible, and what's working. The trick is to work at using the momentum that comes out of successes like that, and channeling it toward, like I said, a space where they don't have to be spectacles that cost over $100 million to get a lot of people to show up. That we gradually start to create this idea that filmmaker and story and basic concept alone can be enough.

And the visuals, of course.

Yeah, I mean, it should feel like a movie. It should have cinema in it. The movies I made my career on, things like Erin Brockovich and Traffic, if they're getting made at all, they're getting made for a platform. And if you made them as movies and put them out as movies now, there's no way that Erin and Traffic do $100 million. Not today.

It’s funny to think that Oppenheimer, with something around a $100 million budget, almost seems small-budget compared to all the blockbusters getting released. Have you had any interest in getting into that higher-budget space? Maybe not $300 million, but in that upper range?

It would have to be something that I felt I deeply understood, that I had a very specific take on, and in order for the idea to be executed properly, those resources were necessary. It would have to check a lot of boxes. The first Ocean's film was $89 million. And the second two were both, like $112, $113 million, something like that. I like to be efficient, but it's more just a matter of me feeling like I'm the right person to do this thing and that's what I want to do. Now, as it turns out, I've got two things in front of me, two movies in front of me, that I want to do. One is very small, and the other is mid-range. They both seem potentially to me like theatrical films because of their genres. They're both genre pieces, but two different genres. When they're ready to be seen or ready to be sold, the market will tell me whether I'm right or I'm wrong.

I know with genre, horror in particular seems to consistently put butts in seats. Is genre the answer to where theatrical could be headed?

Genre’s a really efficient delivery system for all kinds of ideas. It gives the audience a sort of handrail, and a feeling of comfort that is very valuable. Everything I've done, in my mind, since Che has been a genre film of one kind or another. And so I'm a big believer in it. Get Out is a perfect example of that. It's using a genre to get at something that would have been less resonant had it not been wrapped inside of this Trojan horse of a horror movie. I would argue it ended up generating more conversation about its subject matter than if it had been a straight historical drama.

You can turn it around and challenge an audience. You’ve hopped around genres quite a bit, do you find there are ones that keep pulling you back?

Well, I've made a lot of heist movies. Which I still can't figure out the genesis of that, because it's not like I grew up around thieves. Heist movies are just fun. And their connection to the process of putting a movie together is pretty obvious, so maybe that's it. But other than that, the only one you'll never get me anywhere near is a western.

That's funny. Most directors seem to be like, I really want to do a Western. Why not?

Terrified of horses. Not going to happen. I was a producer on Godless, and I told Scott Frank, I'm not coming. It worked out fine.

One of the films I was thinking of while watching Command Z was How to Blow Up a Pipeline. That’s a film by young filmmakers. Are you seeing something in the way younger filmmakers are tackling pressing issues? 

It's hard to say, because I don't know if I'm seeing enough new work to sense if there's a wave or a trend or if there's something in the air that people are picking up on. Certainly, as time goes on, I think everybody feels more urgency about all of these issues. And I think if I were coming up now, if I was 40 years younger, the world around me would be more on my mind than it was when I was 20. I read a lot and was interested in things and all that, but it's fairly normal that early in your career, most of your stories tend to revolve around your personal experience somehow. It takes a while to develop and evolve past that. Now, I would think if you're a 20-year-old aspiring filmmaker, it'd be really hard, even if you want to make genre films, not to incorporate some aspects of what's really going on in the world into your movie.

And then, at the same time, we've seen that people really need and want pockets of time in their lives where they can forget about what's happening in the world. They need a vacation from it for two hours. And that's a legitimate thing. Making people laugh, I think, is a public service. Anybody making comedy is doing a good thing for the world.

To get back to where we started, a few years ago I was working on a project that never came to fruition. We called it “The Brain Movie.” It involved some issues about cognition, and how people make decisions and take on beliefs. So we were talking to people that worked in this field, neurology and cognition. One of the things that we would always ask them is, in what state is somebody most likely to change a deeply held belief? And all of them said, “When they're laughing.” That something that happens when you laugh, it's a surprise, you've been surprised. And you have respect for somebody that surprised you. Because you think, you can't surprise me. And then they do. And you're like, OK, you're smart. So now I'm going to listen a little differently than I was listening before.

Followed very closely, they said, by music, which lights up your brain in a totally unique way, unlike anything we experience. That's where the riff that Michael Cera goes on about karaoke came from. Because I've experienced that. The funny thing is, it happened so by accident, and it was so obvious. It was the wrap party for the Contagion shoot that took place in Hong Kong. There was a big karaoke venue that our Hong Kong producers rented out, it had instruments and stuff. So you've got 60 people who have flown to Hong Kong to work on the movie, and then you've got another 60 to 90 people who are local film industry people who worked on the movie. You know, language barrier, like very few bilingual people in that space. And in a matter of four minutes, that whole room was blended as though we were one organism. It took two songs before the fact that people couldn't speak the same language became completely irrelevant. And people were just having the best time they'd ever had for three hours. It was incredible to watch.

Speaking of music, I did want to ask about the “Theme from Mahogany,” because it's such a funny choice to me. I just saw the movie for the first time a few months ago, when it was screened here in Toronto on a 35mm print. It's such a wild movie, and I was so curious as to how you landed on that song of all songs.

I was reacquainted with it when I was working as a producer on the Elvis Mitchell documentary, Is That Black Enough For You? Early on, a clip of that came up. And I was like, Shit I need to watch that movie again, I haven't seen it since it came out. I mean, David Watkin shot it, like, I've got to watch it. So I watched it again, and what an incredible earworm that song is. I knew I wanted some piece of music to go along with the juice and the dryer, to get you into the past. That song jumped out at me because the lyrics are so perfect. They're kind of perfect for anything, but they really fit this well.

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