Peter Bart: Studios Won’t Be Wishing Soderbergh Much Luck As He Plans To Break Rules With New Film

Bleecker Street

The major studios quietly hope that Logan Lucky will instantly run out of luck when it opens next week. The reason: The movie is dedicated to the proposition that studios are expensive anachronisms.


The strategist behind Logan Lucky is filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who, having battled the majors on many issues over the years, decided to make a film that disdains their production funding as well as their machinery for distribution and marketing. Indeed, the marketing concept behind Logan Lucky totally contradicts that of the majors. But the film is not exactly an obscure indie, featuring the starring talents of Daniel Craig, Channing Tatum, Katie Holmes, Adam Driver, Hilary Swank and Seth MacFarlane — all of them cast as losers who are committed to a big-time heist.

The venture is intriguing at a moment when the corporate landscape is experiencing a wave of consolidation – witness the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Indie players also are reeling as giant entities such as Netflix and Amazon bid up the market for scripts and festival buys. Producers fret that every future studio project might have to run the gauntlet of corporate committees and register themselves as prospective international hits.

There are several elements in Logan Lucky that reflect an anti-corporate point of view. Its principal characters harbor a variety of grudges against “the big guys,” and they are far removed from the city slickers of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. They are in fact shit-kickers from West Virginia — classic Donald Trump voters who have become obsessed with the prospect of stealing $14 million from a motor speedway.

While neither the filmmaker nor his accomplices want to talk on the record about their plans, Soderbergh is known to have turned to Dan Fellman, the long-term Warner Bros. distribution guru, to mastermind the project. Production costs were covered by a patchwork of presales and foreign advances (the film reportedly cost under $30 million). After reviewing the records of several top indie distributors, Bleecker Street was selected to handle the film under a modest fee arrangement, providing an additional  percentage cut that rises relative to the escalating gross. Logan Lucky will open at 2,500 theaters, with a major presence in the South and Southwest, reflecting its setting. The movie will be screened in New York, but there will be no red carpet celebrations.

Bleecker Street

A key to the deal is that Soderbergh himself has creative approvals of the campaign and also the size of the ad spend. The filmmaker is a long-term skeptic about studio marketing strategies, believing that too much money is lavished on the frantic pursuit of giant opening grosses. Hence, modest funding was allocated to build “awareness” for Logan Lucky – the project has been all but invisible in major markets. The marketing allocation will be pumped up next week in preparation for the wide opening, but even so, the overall budget will be less than half that of a typical studio blockbuster. “Soderbergh and his partners will make more money on far smaller bets,” says one player close to the project. “This may redefine what it means to create a blockbuster.”

While his theories might be counterintuitive, Soderbergh has had success with a remarkably varied, occasionally bizarre, range of films — from Erin Brockovich and Traffic to Full Frontal to the Ocean’s pictures. His reputation as a studio rebel was underscored by his Magic Mike adventure, the Tatum-starring project that was turned down by Warner Bros and ended up being essentially self-financed by Soderbergh and his star. Even on that project, the filmmaker complained that the prints and advertising budget “sucked the air” out of participant profits.

For savvy Bleecker Street, Logan Lucky represents a welcome maverick enterprise. Headed by Andrew Karpen, the company has fielded a successfully eclectic slate – Captain Fantastic, Trumbo, Eye in the Sky – and just closed a deal for the thriller High Wire, starring Jon Hamm and  Rosamund Pike. Thus, Logan Lucky represents an intriguing shift into the realm of movie-star product.

So will Logan Lucky’s luck hold up?  If it does, it might stir studio tacticians to rethink their approaches to the economics of tentpole marketing. Spending less ultimately might yield a bigger payoff.

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