Cinema Jackpots is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.
THE CONTESTANT: sex, lies, & videotape
THE ODDS: It’s hard to imagine celebrated veteran filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, he of Out Of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean’s 11-12-13 fame, as a newbie who ever had to struggle for his big break. Yet that’s exactly what he was in the early-to-mid-80s. By 1986, he had moved from Baton Rouge to San Francisco to Los Angeles and back to Baton Rouge, a bit discouraged by the “one step forward, four steps back” nature of business in Hollywood.
Still, he eventually moved back to L.A. to give it another go, armed with his latest script. The idea for it kept nagging at him, distracting him from rewrite jobs that had been keeping him afloat. The title would eventually become sex, lies, & videotape. Its premise: a drifter with intimacy issues and a penchant for videotaping women’s intimate confessions for his own pleasure disrupts the lives of a college pal, the pal’s wife, and the wife’s sister.
It was challenging getting funding for the film. When the money was finally secured the next issue to face Soderbergh was casting. While many were impressed by sex, lies, & videotape, just as many found it weird, off-putting, and talky. Some agents refused to show it to their clients. Even with these hurdles, Soderbergh wound up with a principal cast he was happy with: stars James Spader and Peter Gallagher, model-turned-actress Andie MacDowell, and newcomer Laura San Giacomo.
Then Soderbergh lost his funding when the film company suddenly backed out. He eventually realized he needed to make concessions to his vision – and decided to nix shooting the film in black and white (a major reservation for many potential funders). Columbia Pictures picked up the project and committed just over a $1 million to make sex, lies, & videotape. Filming began in the summer of 1988 with an eye for a debut at the 1989 U.S. Film Festival (which would later be renamed the Sundance Film Festival). Time would tell if sex, lies, & videotape’s winding journey to the big screen would end happily.
THE GAME: January 1989. sex, lies, & videotape quickly proved to be a popular hit at the U.S Film Festival in Colorado. It garnered glowing reviews and went on to snag the coveted Audience Award. With this auspicious debut, the path was further paved by additional acclaim from other quarters. Eventually, Soderbergh’s film found itself at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May 1989. Even more accolades awaited the film, its cast, and director in France…
James Spader won the Best Actor Award for his turn as sex, lies, & videotape’s damaged but somehow still noble male lead. Even more remarkable was Soderbergh’s claiming of the Palme d’Or Award, which is essentially the Best Picture Oscar equivalent at Cannes. Soderbergh could not have dreamt up a more dazzling fairy tale outcome for his debut film. Unsurprisingly, all the acclaim heaped on sex, lies, & videotape prior to its national release helped it later at the box office.
The film scored an impressive take of about $150,000 from just four screens on its opening weekend in August 1989. As more positive reviews and word-of-mouth spread, the film expanded to more screens. By the time it finished its North American theatrical run, the film had scored just over $24 million (off a $1 million budget) – despite never being released on more than 534 screens during its entire run. Needless to say, sex, lies, & videotape was an unqualified critical and commercial smash.
THE VICTORY: The unexpected success of sex, lies, & videotape didn’t just launch Steven Soderbergh’s career – it also brought about something of a sea change in independent film and how they were viewed by Hollywood and audiences. It also helped turn the Sundance Film Festival (renamed in 1991) into more than just a cozy little venue for low-budget, non-studio films to be screened in and recognized – into a high-stakes showroom that could really open career doors for its participants.
sex, lies, & videotape was an auspicious event for pretty much everyone involved. It strengthened James Spader and Peter Gallagher’s existing careers, launched Laura San Giacomo’s, and saved Andie MacDowell’s after an inauspicious start in 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan where her lead performance was dubbed by Glenn Close. In fact, Soderbergh was reportedly skeptical about MacDowell’s ability based on her previous work – until she dazzled everyone at her auditions. Indeed, MacDowell’s subtle, layered performance is what keeps sex, lies, & videotape centered and genuine – even more than James Spader’s, really.
As for Soderbergh, his initial explosion was followed by less success than you would expect. Subsequent films like Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath, and Schizopolis were met with much less acclaim. It wasn’t until 1998’s stunning romantic-comedy/thriller Out of Sight that Soderbergh knocked one out of the park again, critically and commercially. Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s trilogy, Full Frontal, and later fare like Contagion, Side Effects, and The Knick would further cement Soderbergh’s success and versatility – fulfilling the promise that began in 1989 with sex, lies, & videotape.
NEXT CONTESTANT: Four Weddings And A Funeral – “He’s Engaging. She’s Otherwise Engaged.”
In 1994, Andie MacDowell appeared in another indie. It was a low-budget British flick with a bumpy start: the already tight budget was slashed even more, original leading lady Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct, The Firm) dropped out unexpectedly (MacDowell stepped in at the last minute), and the leading man (some guy named Hugh Grant) was an untested romantic comedy lead. However, Four Weddings And A Funeral would go on to become the most commercially-successful British movie up until that point in time – and launch Grant to global stardom.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.