Sex, lies, and videotape may not have invented the independent film genre, but it certainly revolutionized it. Before the movie’s 1989 release, American independent cinema was largely defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t concerned with big budget aesthetics, it didn’t conform to narrative convention, and it definitely wasn’t tied to the commercial whims of Hollywood’s studio system. John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch, and the rest of the movement’s outlaw-auteurs operated on the fringes, safely removed from the interests of industry execs and the clutches of box office-fueled tastemaking.
These indie forerunners enjoyed critical acclaim and niche audiences, but few, if any, were able to translate this reception into commercial success. Hollywood, it seemed, was in one corner; independent cinema in another. And never the twain shall meet.
These sands began to shift, however, with Steven Soderbergh’s feature film debut. When it premiered at the 1989 US Film Festival (now known as Sundance), sex, lies, and videotape captured the attention of one Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the then-fledgling Miramax. Weinstein won a bidding war for the title, and deftly maneuvered it into the main competition at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Incredibly enough, the film went on to win the Palme d’Or, beating out stiff competition from the likes of Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing, and making Soderbergh the youngest director to ever receive the prestigious prize. More important, though, is what Soderbergh’s victory meant for the future of independent cinema.
In taking home top honors at Cannes, sex, lies, and videotape inadvertently proved that the gulf separating the independent from the mainstream wasn’t quite as large as it once seemed. In fact, it was completely bridgeable. “Indie” was no longer synonymous with “commercial failure,” and “art house” was no longer box office poison.
It’s a paradigm shift that would forever define the future of Miramax, and American cinema itself. As jury president Wim Wenders said following Soderbergh’s Cannes breakthrough, sex, lies, and videotape “gave us confidence in the future of cinema.”