On the Circuit
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies
Episode 1: Sex, Lies and Videotape - Steven Soderbergh

Episode 1: Sex, Lies and Videotape - Steven Soderbergh

Sundance Film Festival

Welcome to A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies.  I’m excited to share our first episode - Episode 1 - Sex, Lies and Videotape, directed by Steven Soderbergh. You can hear the 26 minute podcast above, or read the transcript below).

If you ask industry professionals, like myself, who’ve been in the business for 35 years or more, they will agree this film may have had the greatest impact on the state of independent film, when it hit the festival circuit in 1989. We’re going to explore how and why in this episode.

The story of how this movie had such an influence is forever linked to the film festival world itself, and two of it’s top events.  Cannes and Sundance (which kicks off in Park City today) . 

Podcast Overview

The goal of this podcast is to present a history of visionary filmmakers who’ve had a profound impact on film festivals, Hollywood as a business, and the emerging filmmakers who would participate.  Like many art forms, filmmakers are influenced by the works that came before.  The styles, techniques, narrative structure, storytelling.  All of it.  

The hope is that we these histories as opportunities to retrace the steps, the work and the career trajectories, not just of the filmmaker featured in each of the episode, but the filmmakers, media, and industry that LED to the featured movie.  For filmmakers, you can’t help but gain from any new information, or by experiencing films you may not have seen. For film fans, hopefully, these ideas and histories will enrich future movie experiences.  Or offer insights, and opportunities to discover great films you may have missed.

Episode 1 - Sex, Lies and Videotape

In 1989,  Sex, Lies and Videotape, played the US Film Festival (which would add Sundance to its name the following year).  It would become, arguably, the most important year in their history.  This was just a few months before I would graduate from UCSB with my film degree.  And I was paying attention.

The Origins of Sundance

Before we share more background on Steven, let’s start with Sundance.

The Film Festival began in September 1978 in Salt Lake City, Utah, under the name Utah/United States Film Festival. The idea was launched by the Utah Film Commission as a means to promote independent film and to bring the state of Utah to the attention of filmmakers. Actor and director Robert Redford, who lived in Utah, was appointed the first chairman of the Festival board, and his involvement helped raise awareness and funds for the new festival.

It was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen, head of Robert Redford's company Wildwood Enterprises, Inc, John Earle and Cirina Hampton-Catania of the Utah Film Commission.

The Festival kicked off in Salt Lake City in September with an impressive retrospective of classic films, including Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Sweet Smell of Success

In addition to these high-profile movies, eight independent features from largely unknown filmmakers were screened in the inaugural competition: 

In 1981, the festival moved to Park City, Utah, and changed the dates from September to January. Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, a friend of Redford’s, suggested that running a film festival in a ski resort during winter would draw more attention from Hollywood.  We’ll come back to the Festival in a few. 

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh spent much of his adolescence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father was a professor and administrator at Louisiana State University

In the tradition of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick and later, Quentin Tarantino, Soderbergh never bothered to go to college. By the time he was in high school, he knew that he wanted to make movies for a living, and his parents, including his father, who was then the Dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University, didn't try to stop him.

Soderbergh enrolled in a film animation course at the university while still a high school student, and it was then that he began making short films. After graduating from high school he moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter, but his efforts were met with rejection. 

A year later he returned to Baton Rouge, where he worked at a video arcade while continuing to write and shoot low-budget short films.

A change of fortune came in 1986 when Soderbergh was asked to develop one such project into a full-length promotional film for the rock band Yes. This relatively small beginning inspired him to set out for Hollywood once more.  The 1 hour and 7 minute documentary was nominated for a Grammy. You can see a clip here. To see the music video for Owner of the Lonely Heart - their first and only #1 hit song, click here.

Blood Simple

Meanwhile, back at Sundance…In 1985, The Sundance Institute assumed control of the U.S. Film Festival, expanded it to 10 days, and showcased American independent and international films, including: John Schlesinger ’s The Falcon and the Snowman, Robert Rosenberg and Greta Schiller’s Before Stonewall, William Duke ’s The Killing Floor, John Sayle’s Brother from Another Planet, Roland Joffé ’s The Killing Fields

But, most importantly, two of the Award-winning films included the Coen brothers’ debut film Blood Simple and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise

Blood Simple was also the feature-film debut of Francis McDormand, who would marry Joel Cohen later that same year.  They met in the casting sessions.

The film's title derives from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest (1929), in which the term "blood simple" describes the addled, fearful mind-set of people after prolonged immersion in violent situations.

After completing the trailer, the Coens began exhibiting it with the hope of persuading investors to help fund the full-length feature film. Daniel Bacaner was one of the first people to invest money in the project. He also became its executive producer and introduced the Coens to other potential backers. The entire process of raising the necessary $1.5 million took a year.  Production took 8 weeks.

The film would win the Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival. And tied with Martin Scorsese for After Hours) at the1st Independent Spirit Awards.

In this clip – A Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya) is looking at pictures of his wife with another man, taken by a private detective, played by M. Emmet Walsh.  Fun fact, that the Coen brothers wrote the part for Walsh.

Stranger Than Paradise

The other big discovery in 1985 was writer/director Jim Jarmusch.  He had shot his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) as his final thesis at New York University's film school and spent the next four years making Stranger than Paradise. At NYU, he studied under director Nicholas Ray, who had brought him along as his personal assistant for the production of Lightning over Water, by Wim Wenders. Wenders gave Jarmusch the remaining film stock from his subsequent film, Der Stand der Dinge (1982), enabling the young director to shoot the 30-minute short that became. It was released as a standalone film in 1982, and shown as Stranger Than Paradise at the 1983 International Film Festival Rotterdam. When it was later expanded into a three-act feature, the name was appropriated for the feature itself, and the initial segment was renamed "The New World".

The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d'Or award for debut films. It also won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival, and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Shot in Black and White. There was a unique approach to the narrative structure in Paradise: the sixty-seven single-shot “scenes” separated by black film, as well as the division of the story into three titled chapters. Here is the trailer.

At the same time, Steven was working on his craft, studying his influences.  One of his top 10 picks has always been The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola, which was nominated for Best Picture, the same time as Godfather Part II (1975).  

In this clip You can hear and see the characters on screen, played back from a tape recording device, though the action is past.  It’s being manipulated by the hero Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, who is having a dramatic conversation of his own, in real time with his business partner.

The narrative structure and recording aesthetic of  The Conversation clearly influenced Steven and his Sex, Lies and Videotape.  And his creative juxtaposition of images, live and recorded.

Both The Conversation and Godfather Part II were also nominated in their respective Screenplay categories.  The Conversation lost to Chinatown, one of the best screenplays ever written.  Coppola won Directing honors for Godfather Part II.

Ironically, Steven would find himself in a similar situation years later with Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2001, Both movies were nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Gladiator.  He was nominated as Director for both projects.  He won the Directing Prize for Traffic.  

Back to 1986, and Steven’s forward progress.  He made a short called Winston,

"It is very much a warm-up for 'sex, lies,' It's about a woman who concocts rather complex lies to keep her suitors at arm's length, but it's very, very similar in style and tone to 'Sex, Lies.' I look at it now and see that I was getting ready at some subconscious level,"  Steven says of the short.

It came to him in eight days, mostly during a drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. At night he stopped in motels and wrote out the screenplay to Sex, lies, and Videotape in longhand. "It was like taking dictation," 

 Steven continues, “I was involved in a relationship with a woman in which I was deceptive and mentally manipulative, I got involved with a number of other women simultaneously. Boy I was wriggling. I was wriggling. I could backpedal like you wouldn’t believe. I sold everything I had, I except my books, put some belongings in a car and decided to give Los Angeles another shot.”

The script centered on four characters: Graham, a drifter with a mysterious past and a sexual dysfunction that he satisfies by videotaping women talking about sex. John, his old college buddy, who has become a successful lawyer. John’s wife Ann, fascinated by Graham but conflicted by his tapes. And Ann’s sister Cynthia, who is having an affair with John. 

Soderbergh banged out the script in just eight days but was concerned it may not sell, that it seemed too personal.

The short was shown to producers to sell his Sex, lies, and Videotape screenplay.  Ultimately, the movie was financed by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, at a cost of 1.2 million.  At that time, movies made for a price, would have a chance to recoup through home video sales, especially if there was any kind of theatrical release. 

They had just one week of rehearsal and a month-long shoot in August 1988.  It was finished and shown at Park City just over a year after Soderbergh speed-wrote the script on the road. 

Sex, Lies and Videotape Wins at Sundance and Cannes

He was excited to be in park city even if the Festival had not yet really shifted into higher gear.  Audiences loved it and the film won an Audience Award.

He was approached by representatives for Redford, director Sidney Pollack, and producer Mark Johnson (who’d just won an Oscar for Rain Man). All would ultimately vie to produce his next project.

At Cannes, jury president Wim Wenders, the director of Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, said that Sex, Lies, and Videotape was chosen for the Palme d'Or and not just the Camera d'Or for best first-time directing, because it was "a film that gave us great joy, that surprised us all and gave us confidence in the future of cinema." At 26, he was the youngest director to take home the prize alone.


The Weinsteins went to RCA/Columbia Home Video and made an impassioned pitch for the movie, promising to best any other offer by $100K, bringing mock-up posters and doing a full presentation.

The foreign theatrical rights were sold to Virgin Vision for $575,000, meaning Soderbergh’s investors would make all of their money back before the movie even opened.

So Sex, lies, and Videotape opened, as was the custom, on four screens in New York and Los Angeles on August 4, 1989. But when it began expanding two weeks later, it didn’t just go to the art houses in Chicago and San Francisco. Its theatrical run, which would ultimately find the film playing on over 500 screens nationwide, went beyond the usual destinations, and even made it all the way to the multiplex at the mall.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape opened in a limited release on August 4, 1989, in 4 theaters and grossed $155,982, with an average of 30 patrons per showing in the first 2–3 weeks; the studio released the film nationwide. The widest release for the film was 534 theaters and it ended up earning $24,741,667 in the United States, and around $36.74 million worldwide.

Soderbergh would have limited financial success after sex, lies, with a series of uncommercial follow-ups that failed to connect with critics or audiences. Thankfully, he came back strong with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight, beginning a period of incredible productivity and quality, balancing a number of crowd-pleasing movies, with experimental independent films.

The Oceans 11 franchise was a box office smash. Erin Brockovich & Traffic were both nominated for Best Picture in the same year, with Steven taking home the Best Director Oscar for Traffic.

Steven also directed two indies, that would play Slamdance, another story we will get to in a later podcast.

Sundance Is Forever Changed

For Sundance, The Sundance name, of course, is a nod to Robert Redford's eponymous role in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The name would change in 1990

The trip to Park City would become a yearly exodus for agents, distributors, and press, all looking to anoint the Next Big Thing. Miramax would use its coffers, full of sex, lies money, to buy up more indies from here and abroad, gradually increasing its dominance in the industry and experimenting with its strategies for opening pictures and winning awards. And five years after Sex, Lies took Cannes by storm and confounded commercial success, the Weinsteins would use the same strategy again, with even grander results; Miramax opened that year’s Palme d’Or winner, Pulp Fiction, on over 1,300 screens, where it won the weekend box office and ultimately grossed over $100 million in the United States alone.

Everyone was now looking for the next Sex, lies, and videotape” and its $60 million worldwide return on a $1.2 million investment.

“It was a sleepy gathering, not yet the make-or-break event for filmmakers that it would soon become,” writes Peter Biskind in his ‘90s indie chronicle, Down and Dirty Pictures. The films that screened in Park City were rarely even distributed; they were well-intentioned, “socially responsible” movies. “No agents showed up, few publicists, and fewer press. Then came sex, lies & videotape, the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” writes author Peter Biskind.

It’s hard to think of a more influential indie than Soderbergh’s first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, one of the most stunning debuts in American film history. The film forever changed the public perception of independent movies—and of the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. It also established Soderbergh as the most promising director of his generation—a poster child for indie filmmaking.” Emmanuel Levy - Cinema of Outsiders

“Spike Mike Slackers & Dykes,” John Pierson titled a chapter, “1989: The Year It All Changed.”

In 2006, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was added to the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry, deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Sundance continued to thrive in the 90s, breaking a number of filmmakers who would go on to have great careers.  Over the next 5-6 years, more hits would emerge:

  • 1990 Hal Hartley with The Unbelievable Truth and Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, which would become one of  the most successful documentaries ever.

  • 1991 Richard Linklater breaks in with Slacker

  • 1992 Quentin Tarantino makes his mark with Reservoir Dogs

  • 1993 Robert Rodriguez makes splash with his $13,000 El Mariachi

  • 1994 Kevin Smith dazzles with Clerks, made for under 30k; and Hoop Dreams becomes a documentary hit

  • 1995 was another big year, as Bryan Singer scores with The Usual Suspects, The Brothers McMullen wins the Grand Jury Prize and makes a big sale. Greg Araki presents The Doom Generation and Todd Haynes first collaboration with Julianne Moore with Safe

1995 also happens to the year Slamdance joined the dance party. Anarchy in Utah was our slogan. and we’ll get to this renegade fest in a later episode.   Two years later, I would meet Steven Soderbergh and invite him to bring two of his latest indies to the Festival (Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy). As a co-founder of Slamdance, I’ll look forward to sharing more in that episode.

Coming full circle with Steven, and Sex, Lies and Videotape, we hear he wrote a sequel to the movie during covid.  It's about the two sisters 30 years later, and finds Cynthia trying to reconnect with her daughter, who is about to get married. Evidently, he got MacDowell and San Giacomo to agree to be in the movie. 

In Steven’s acceptance speech after receiving the Palm d’Orr  in Cannes he said,

“I guess it’s all downhill from here.”

It wasn’t.  He went on to inspire and support many filmmakers, entertain audiences, and even win Oscars   

He’s now back at Sundance in 2024, with a new thriller, Presence, 35 years after triggering the independent revolution with Sex, Lies and Videotape.  As one would expect, it’s generating a lot of buzz.

And that’s a wrap on this first edition of A History of Film Festivals, in 100 movies.


Criterion Collection
The Most Popular Directors
The 10 most influential movie directors working today
Sundance History
“Down and Dirty Pictures,” Peter Biskind (Simon and Schuster, 2004)
“Cinema of Outsiders,” Emmanuel Levy (NYU Press, 1999, 2001, 2011)
“Spike Mike Slackers & Dykes,” John Pierson (Hyperion, 1995)

On the Circuit
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies will share the backgrounds, the stories and the filmmakers that have influenced the fest circuit and the business of movies. Covering the films and players that helped shape the landscape, the podcast will include the backstories, quotes, box office totals and career trajectories for the filmmakers that helped define this industry.