How do you solve a problem like making a star-powered heist movie and retaining complete creative and economic control over the entire process? For Steven Soderbergh, the answer was simple: Release the darn thing yourself. When Logan Lucky — the director’s first feature in four years — premiered in theaters this past August, Soderbergh himself oversaw its marketing campaign and release strategy via an ambitious distribution plan that navigated around all of Hollywood’s major studios. It was the latest experiment for a filmmaker who has always sought ways to tinker with cinematic conventions both in front of and behind the camera, whether it’s making an entire film with nonactors (2005’s Bubble) or releasing a branching TV series via an app (this year’s Mosaic).
As it turns out, this particular experiment produced mixed results. While Logan Lucky scored critical raves, it only earned $27 million at the box office, $2 million less than it cost to make. Still, thanks to its breezy story and a stellar ensemble that includes Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, and Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator Channing Tatum, the film seems poised to enjoy a healthy afterlife on Blu-ray as well as streaming services. And Soderbergh tells Yahoo Entertainment that he plans to repeat the self-distribution experiment, albeit with a few tweaks, for his next movie, Unsane, which will open in theaters in March. We chatted with the director about movie marketing strategies, the legacy of Magic Mike XXL, and whether he’ll ever reveal the identity of Logan Lucky‘s mysterious screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt.
Yahoo Entertainment: Logan Lucky was one of several movies from this past year to use John Denver music in key sequences. Were you surprised to be part of that wave?
Steven Soderbergh: It’s so strange! The first draft of the script was written in 2014 and that song, “Country Roads,” obviously plays a big part in the narrative. Then I saw that Alien: Covenant was using it, and somebody told me that Kingsman: The Golden Circle was using it. It’s really odd that this artist, who normally doesn’t get that much attention, is suddenly showing up in three films within months of each other. The song is so specific to that state, and it had such a crucial role in the script that we didn’t really have any choice [but to use it].
The film was also an experiment in self-distribution for you. Looking back on the experience now, are you happy with the way things went?
It worked the way it was supposed to work. I think all of us wanted more people to see the film, but the model worked, and so what I’m trying to do now as we prepare Unsane for release is recalibrate in terms of the marketing. In retrospect, the approach that we took on Logan probably didn’t reach the people that we were trying to reach, which was the audience in the South and the Midwest. I know they saw the materials — that just didn’t translate into them turning up at the theater in the numbers that we wanted. We had a campaign that was tilted very, very heavily towards social media, and I think we should have tilted that toward television. The audience we wanted for the film pays more attention to television than it does to stuff that shows up on social media.
That’s interesting, because we hear a lot about the internet being important to movie marketing.
Well, every movie is different, but what I pulled out of this experience was that people who engage with social media do so as a discrete activity that has nothing to do with whether or not they’re gonna buy a movie ticket. It’s an activity in and of itself that they find pleasurable, and there is no Part 2. We created all this stuff [for the internet] and put it out there, and tons of eyeballs got on it, but it just didn’t translate into anybody buying a ticket. My sense is that, psychologically, if people don’t see ads for your movie on TV, it’s not real to them. As they say in Logan Lucky, I’ve done a total 360 on my views towards television, because I was very down on buying TV while putting together the marketing plan and now I think that was a mistake. Now, Unsane is a very different film and we’re going after a very different audience, so I want to be as careful as possible not to completely invert the marketing plan we had only to find out that people that see these kinds of films do hang out on social media and do buy tickets.
Has getting involved in marketing influenced the way you make creative decisions on your films?
No, it’s a different thing. Your process for creating the piece itself is separate from, “OK, now how do we sell this thing that we made?” But I enjoy it; I like learning new stuff, and part of the fun of doing Logan Lucky the way we did it was the ability to try some things and to learn some things. Coming out the other end of it, I’m very anxious now to recalibrate and try some new ideas, or some old ideas.
How do you approach your own social media presence? You have a really entertaining Twitter feed, for example.
It’s tricky because I don’t want it to turn into something typical and I don’t want it to turn into a tool of self-promotion. I want it to be a refuse bag of thoughts or facts that have some relevance to me. But I don’t have any real plan for it; I’ll go weeks without posting anything, and then sometimes it will be a couple things in a day or two.
Did you consider doing a day-and-date release where Logan Lucky premiered in theaters and VOD? You were part of the first wave of that distribution approach with Bubble back in 2005.
You just can’t get the screens from the larger chains. We were only able to do Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience the way we did it because Magnolia and HDNet and 2929 owned Landmark Theaters. Even though we offered to cut the chains in on some of the downstream revenue by allowing us to screen day-and-date, they wouldn’t do it. I think it’s what Netflix is discovering: You can only get a couple of screens when you go day-and-date. Also, the purpose of us going day-and-date was really just to not have to sell the film twice and to enable people who live in a town that doesn’t necessarily have a specialty screen to see the movie. Again, for the scale of that experiment, it worked — those movies were profitable. We just never got to test it the way I really wanted to test it, which was to go out in that case on 400 or 500 screens.
Directors like Christopher Nolan have been very vocal about their dislike for the Netflix model of curation. Do you have any particular feelings about the way they release films?
No, I’m not really an ideologue when it comes to that kind of stuff. I don’t think moviegoing is every gonna disappear. It’s still the No. 1 date destination. When I was growing up, TV was s***ty looking, so there was a big difference between watching something on your TV at home and going to a movie theater. Now you get the 4K HDR of Logan Lucky and watch it on your 4K screen at home, and it looks pretty great. There’s not as big of a gap anymore between what you see at home and what you see in the theater.
In order to give Logan Lucky a sense of a second life, did you consider providing a whole different experience for Blu-ray viewers? Like, “You’ve seen it one way — now see it again a whole new way.”
Again that would depend on the movie. Because Logan Lucky is a heist movie, it wouldn’t lend itself to another approach editorially. Going forward, it’s something I’ve thought about. At some point what I want to do — because you can do it now — is have a movie open on Friday and let people know that next Friday there’s gonna be a different version of the movie in this theater. If you want to see this version, go this week. If you want to see another version, wait until next week. There was a movie I produced called Keane that was written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan, who ended up doing The Girlfriend Experience TV show. When Lodge was almost done, I said, “Can I send you back a version of your movie that is cut completely differently?” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” So I sent it back to him, he goes, “That’s interesting, let’s put it on the DVD.” So on the Keane DVD there is Lodge’s cut and then there’s my completely different imagining of the same movie.
Would you turn your own movies over to someone else to recut them for DVD or TV?
I don’t know that I would ever task somebody with doing that! [Laughs] As somebody who has posted re-edits on my website, I’m assuming that at some point somebody’s gonna do something to one of my films, since I’ve been so cavalier with other people’s work. But I don’t think I would ever tell somebody, “This is your job, you have to go essentially rebuild this thing.” That doesn’t seem fair. I think this whole fan edit culture is really fascinating. I remember being in Rome when we were shooting Ocean’s Twelve and I got a message that Bravo was gonna run Full Frontal, but it needed to be five minutes shorter. I had a drive sent over and I cut five minutes out of it, and I thought, “That’s better, actually.” And the rights to Full Frontal have reverted back to me now, so when I remaster it, I’m going to pull the Bravo version and conform to that. I think that’s what the Coens did with the Blood Simple director’s cut — they made it shorter. I think that’s the way to go. I don’t understand all these movies from the ’70s where the directors went back and added stuff! In every case, I felt, “No, you made the right call then.”
I’ve enjoyed the afterlife that Magic Mike XXL has had, for example. That movie has been acknowledged as one of the best contemporary sequels. Was that a movie Channing Tatum pushed to be made?
It was built out of the rib of an idea from the first one that we couldn’t include. Channing had told us that story of the road trip that he took with his stripper pals to Myrtle Beach, and as he described it, I went, “OK, well that’s too big. That’s its own movie.” We kind of tabled it, and then when we talked about doing another one, we instantly said, “We gotta do the road trip — that’s a great story.” I was so pleased with what Greg [Jacobs, the director] did with the sequel. To me, if you’re a fan of Magic Mike and you go see that movie, how could you not be happy? There are more jokes, there’s more dancing, it’s just more of all the stuff that you like. I was really, really proud of it.
You served as the movie’s director of photography. Do you wish you had directed it?
No, not at all. I loved being Greg’s cinematographer and editor. I think there’s an assumption that I have more influence than I actually do in that situation, because I’m there to serve my director, and that’s Greg’s film. But there was no universe in which I was not gonna be a part of the band — I just didn’t want to play lead guitar.
You’ve had these intense periods of collaboration with specific actors — George Clooney in the past and now Channing Tatum. What is it about him that you see as a kindred spirit in the films you make together?
Channing’s got a very genuine everyman quality that I think is difficult to fake. He’s a good guy and, as you would imagine him to be, a lot of fun to hang out with and very loyal. If you’re his friend he’ll do anything for you. George is the same way. If you had 500 of these guys, you could take over a country. I think in this case it just kept evolving; we met on Haywire, obviously, and just started a conversation that continued, and so he just very quickly became one of those people that was a go-to for me.
Are we ever going to learn the identity of Rebecca Blunt?
Well, she’s enjoying all of this, and she’s writing something new right now. I’ve learned not to poke a working writer too much because you might get snapped at. What I’m hoping is that when she gets through this other project, that she’ll kind of emerge and tell her story, because I think she should. She’s talented and there’s gonna be more material coming from her, and I think she should be prepared to be out and about a little bit, and enjoy it. She got great notices for this film, but that’s totally her call. I’m hoping that with Logan Lucky, we’ll have a similar situation as we did with XXL, which did OK theatrically but really found its audience on streaming, DVD and television. I’m hoping that with Logan Lucky, people will go, “Look at that cast! How did I not see this when it was out in theaters?”
And learn all about this big new star named Daniel Craig.
Yeah, I’ve been telling people to keep an eye on this guy. He’s got some other project he’s working on [laughs].
Logan Lucky is available on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday. Watch the trailer:
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