• “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989) - Steven Soderbergh

    “sex, lies, and videotape” more than a highly accomplished debut film – it is quite simply a remarkably accomplished film.

    In portraying a budding relationship between a man who is impotent, except when watching his own video interviews with women on sexual topics, and a woman who finds that her husband and sister are having an affair behind her back, the writer/ director [Steven Soderbergh] manages to create neither low farce nor soap-operatic psychodrama. Actually, the film is rather touchingly romantic, in a witty, gentle, unsoppy sort of way. (Joseph Milicia, Filmdirectorssite.com)


    larry_estes_135wLarry Estes (Producer of  SMOKE SIGNALS, THE MATING HABITS OF THE EARTHBOUND HUMAN, and COLDBLOODED and Studio Exec on THE WATERDANCE, GAS FOOD LODGING, CITY OF HOPE, and 57 others),  former “acquisitions person” for Columbia Pictures discusses the history of “sex, lies, and videotape”  … 


    Regarding sex, lies and videotape,

    Before it was, Y’know, “sex, lies and videotape”


    In 1988, the home video business – that is, marketing VHS videocassettes for rental at private homes – was still only a few years old.  The number of American households with VCRs (capable of recording broadcast TV programs and playing back pre-recorded cassettes from the studios and various independent distributors of movies) was still on the rise after a phenomenal growth followed the fairly rapid lowering of the retail cost of the pricey machines.  DVD was still about ten years away from upsetting that tape marketplace.


    While the studios hungrily assessed, prioritized, and released hundreds of their library titles and brand-new theatrical releases, they also competed with other companies to license, exclusively, independently financed movies that were newly made and especially about-to-be-made.  American VCR owners were overwhelmed with choices at their local video store.


    The formula was relatively easy to follow – actors with big names, or at least familiar names, some sex and/or some violence, and a fairly professional look (though the TV screens that the vast majority of VCR owners used was far less impressive than what we enjoy today).


    Each studio and independent distributor of videocassettes (and, OK, of 12” laserdiscs, to a much, much smaller extent) had a person or persons whose primary job was to seek out and license exclusive rights from the ever-expanding world of independent movies that would sell thousands of cassettes to the thousands of video rental stores throughout the country (and The World, should such rights be available as well).


    From 1984 to 1993, I was the guy at Columbia Pictures who had that job.


    It was not as if the “acquisitions person” had to do a lot of research in those mid 80’s days – producers looking for money to make their indie movies contacted all of us throughout the business, all day long, letting us know what their plans were, who their stars were, and how many theaters in which cities would be playing their movie when it was finished.  All they wanted from us was cash – between 50% and 100% of their budgets. 


    Buying the home video rights to “actioners,” “erotic thrillers,” and “stalker/slasher” horror movies was the no-brainer of the day.  If a company could license a movie for $500,000, and the genre fell within those three areas of viewer interest, a home video company would keep about $40 per cassette after selling to regional distributors for about $60.  Using that math, for every 25,000 tapes sold, the company would retain $1 million.  And that was below average for a sales number in the late 80’s.  Seemingly a license to print money.


    Now as all no-brainer stories usually go, many others jump on the bus of success and before the public knows it, there are far too many mediocre movies out there on video, muddying up and bloating the lists of new releases of the week.  So by 1989 and 1990, the business was shifting to great success only in for a limited number of “exciting” new movies each month while many of the leftover new releases saw their sales numbers slip away.


    It was in this climate that an early version of the script of “sex, lies, and videotape” was sent to me by my one-time colleague at Columbia Pictures Bobby Newmyer who had just started his own independent production company in Los Angeles – Outlaw Pictures.  He was looking for Outlaw’s first movie project and the plan was for me to finance the production cost with an expanded home video license deal where RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video (now called Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) would pick up the entire cost of the film in exchange for 50% ownership in all rights to the movie including the valuable US home video rights. 


    Patti Rocks MPW-42664His pitch was simply “how would you like to make a movie like PATTI ROCKS for around half a million bucks?”




    Okay, so PATTI ROCKS is this wonderful tiny movie made the year earlier, directed by David Burton Morris and stars the incredible Chris Mulkey as the most hopeless chauvinist dope ever to grace a one-sheet poster in his boxer shorts.  Really — that was the key art for the theatrical release.  A very unconventional story — funny, sexy, politically incorrect, and dripping with cringe-worthy dialogue, which was a fairly new thing at that time. 


    eating_raoul_01An  indie director friend, the late Paul Bartel, who made some pretty provocative small movies himself – most notably EATING RAOUL — brought PATTI ROCKS to my attention with some excitement after he had seen a private screening or at a festival.  He was sure that I would love it and he was right.


    Bobby Newmyer shared my respect for the PATTI ROCKS and knew that this was good bait for his pitch.  I had recently read another script by the same writer, one “Steve” Soderbergh, born in my hometown of Atlanta, GA.  That one was a clever film noir parody that was fun to read, but not immediately workable as an acquisition opportunity.  The new script, “sex, lies, and videotape,” Bobby noted, was “much more interesting” and I promised to read it that night.


    My heavy schedule forced me to sit and read quietly in my bedroom after my wife and 2 young daughters had gone to bed.  I was less than halfway through the screenplay when I determined that I was likely to make this deal and make it soon.  More than anything else, I just wanted to see the movie that I was reading.  And that was a darker version of the finished film, with a particularly bleak ending. 


    charley_varrickA meeting with Bobby and young Mr. Soderbergh was quickly arranged at my office in Burbank.  Steven and I got along nicely – his taste in movies was remarkable given the fact that he loved movies that I loved when I was in college – a time when he would have been 9 or 10 years old.  We particularly bonded on Don Siegel’s masterpiece CHARLEY VARRICK, of which I thought only a handful of people had seen. 


    We both were in favor of black-and-white cinematography and especially in favor of videotape masters that displayed the widescreen aspect ratio of the original theatrical presentation by shrinking the wide picture down to fit within the square-ish 4×3 television screen of the day.  Both were conditions upon which he insisted for whomever ended up financing his movie, “sex, lies, and videotape.”  I told him that even though I was definitely in favor of both elements, at that time there was a strong preference against both in the still-young home video business.  I was fairly sure that the odds were against someone else granting those requests, and we agreed that I wanted to finance the film, but would step aside should he find another company that would agree to the b/w cinematography and the letterboxed video release.  We shook on that and several days later he found someone else who would, at least, go for the black-and-white, reportedly stockpiling b/w film stock for that very purpose.  I was surprised and disappointed, but had nowhere to turn at RCA/Columbia, so I congratulated Bobby and Steve and wished them well.


    Coming soon, “Part 2: As it turned out, no one would do it in black and white after all” …


    Note:  Larry Estes is a member of the Rikaroo Advisory Board.








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    Categories: Drama