Sex, Lies and Videotape Turns 30: The Film That Changed Independent Cinema Forever

Abhishek Srivastava - 57 weeks ago

When Sex, Lies and Videotape had its first screening at Sundance in 1989, minutes into the screening, fellow audience could hear a loud snoozing voice coming from one corner of the theatre. It was only after twenty minutes that the film picked up pace and ensured that those gathered were invested in the film till the very end.

(A behind the scene still from Sex, Lies and Videotape featuring Peter Gallagher and Steven Soderbergh)

The film heralded the advent of a talented director who later was to establish himself firmly on the industry map of Hollywood. Sex, Lies and Videotape changed the fortunes of its distributor, Miramax. The film successfully helped Sundance Institute establish as the cradle of indie gems and with the film winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes also gave a fillip to indie films. While accepting the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh in his speech had joked to those present that after Sex, Lies and Videotape, it would all be downhill from here. Several years later it seems the joke has turned out to be true because in his three-decade career, he is still to surpass the acclaim and accolades of his debut film despite having delivered blockbusters like the Ocean series and Traffic

(Steven Soderbergh with his Palme d'Or at 1989 Cannes Film Festival)

Soderbergh wrote the first draft of his debut film about a sexually impotent man at various hotels he stayed in during a cross country trip he had undertaken in 1988. The money to shoot the film came primarily from Columbia Home Video who had paid advance money in lieu of the film’s home video rights. Once he received the finances from Columbia Home video, he ensured that no time was wasted shooting the film and he canned it the next year. The era around late 80s was ripe for indie films and Sex, Lies and Videotape changed the entire grammar of films which had no studio involvement. It was also the first time that Harvey and Bob Weinstein emboldened by the success of the film at Cannes Film Festival, decided to pump in $2.5 million just for print and advertising budget of the film and widen its release. The film was released in close to 600 screens – an unprecedented move for an indie film at that time. The positive word of mouth about the film also coincided perfectly with a positive review in Variety which helped it successfully breach the $25 million barrier. The final earning was more than $50 million for a film which was made in a budget of $1.2 million. The film had beaten Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at Cannes and won the Audience Award at Sundance. At the age of 26, Soderbergh was also the youngest director to ever win the Palme d’Or. The film also fetched its lead actor James Spader, the best actor trophy at the film festival. The film deals with a sexually impotent young man who derives gratification by recording women saying things about their sex lives. At the festival he admitted that the film was not autobiographical and has never been a sexual interrogator. 

(Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher in a still from Sex, Lies, and Videotape)

It was seven days after his 26th birthday that Soderbergh landed at the Salt Lake City airport at Utah and was carrying the print of Sex, Lies and Videotape in his hand. The print of the film was delivered to him the same morning by a LA based lab. 1989 was a phase when Sundance was in a repair mode and they had taken over the ailing US Film Festival few years back. Sundance was known for development process of filmmaking and rest of the peripherals of filmmaking were alien to them. They had no clue that Sex, Lies and Videotape was about to change the entire trajectory of the festival and marketing, distribution and exhibition were soon to become integral part of the festival. It was also a phase for Sundance when only few films got exhibited and fewer scripts got made eventually. Till 1987 Sundance was dubbed as a place good only for ‘parties and skiing’. Soderbergh’s debut film screening at Sundance was courtesy Skouras Pictures who few years back had screened Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog. Nancy Tenenbaum was one of the producers of Sex, Lies and Videotape and when Soderbergh approached her, she agreed to help him getting finances for the film. In Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, she recalls that she faced a lot of trouble raising money for the film which had an impotent guy at the center listening to sexual experiences of women. “Sex, Lies and Videotape was passed on by just about everyone out there. A lot of people thought that it was perverted. One friend of mine found it vile. She said to me, ‘It’s pretty disgusting, Nancy, what are you doing getting involved in a movie like that?” recalls Nancy in the book. 

The film saw its premier on 22nd January 1989, at a small theatre located few miles away from the city. When the film started one man could be heard snoozing in one corner of the theatre. But after twenty minutes, the film picked up pace and ensured audience were invested in the film till the very end. Edward Norton called the film as The Graduate of his generation. The film successfully hit a raw nerve with the audience and cinema mandarins alike during its second screening at Sundance. The movie should also be thankful to Ira Deutchman, who was one of the founding fathers of Cinecom, the independent film company founded in 1982. While travelling in a cab from the airport he enquired from the driver about the mood of the festival and which films were being talked about. The driver mentioned about Sex, Lies and Videotape. The very next day he went for its screening and there chanced upon Newmyer, one of the producers of the film. He offered him a deal that he would look for a distributor of the film and also push for its marketing. The eventual search for a distributor ended at Miramax’s office. 


Steven Soderbergh / Miramax / Sundance / Palme d’Or / Cannes Film Festival / Audience Prize / Indie Films

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