A bold new distribution strategy: Steven Soderberghs new film Bubble, starring untrained actors like Dustin James Ashley, above, will open in theaters and on cable TV simultaneously this weekend, followed by the DVD next week.
Waiting for Bubble to burst
By Steven Snyder
In many ways, the concept behind Steven Soderberghs new film Bubble begins with the assumption that the bubble has already burst that is, mainstream cinema has already reached a breaking point with its big-budget films and measly box office sales. Which is why, this weekend, Soderbergh will test an entirely new distribution strategy for the first time.
Unlike most major releases, which open the same day on three to four thousand screens or several hundred in the case of a limited release, then run for three to six weeks before appearing months later on DVD and on cable a few months after that until it finally reaches broadcast TV, Bubble will be released on the big screen, DVD, and on cable TV simultaneouslymore or less. This Friday it opens in over 40 theaters across the country and on the HDNet Movies cable network (available on Time Warner, DIRECTV and DISH network) and next Tuesday it will be released on DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment. If successful, this simultaneous release will be music to the ears of major movie studios and a nightmare for every major theater chain.
Though one would think that releasing the film so early on DVD would harm Bubbles theater attendance, there is a method to this mad distribution strategy. Lest we forget, there are people who favor seeing a film in the theater over cable and DVDs. And since this is essentially an art house film about working-class, middle America, its unlikely that it will ever appeal to a big-screen crowd, which is why it makes sense to try to reach the biggest possible audience.
During a recent visit to New York City, Soderbergh contemplated the impact of his impending, wide-scale release.
Are people like this underrepresented in movies because nobody wants to see them, or because there havent been enough made to generate interest for people to see them? Soderbergh pondered. If more movies like this [were] made, would people whose lives are like that say, Oh I really enjoyed that, or do they go to the movies and say, I dont want to see that, I got that at home?
I dont know I guess were going to find out.
Given the experimental nature of Bubble, which stars non-professional actors, a sparing script, and a drab digital gloss more appropriate for a minimalist, Dogme 95 vehicle, this may be the wrong film to test his hypothesis, since it is destined to be embraced by a niche, not a mass, audience.
Based in and around a small Ohio town, Bubble is about three lower-class workers in a doll factory who form a rather bizarre love triangle: Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), who never finished high school and still lives with his mom; Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a single mother and newcomer to the factory; and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a lonely and overweight middle-aged woman, who watches their budding love affair with a hint of envy and despair. She lives with her father, whom she cares for, and considers Kyle her best friend, at least until Rose showed up. The results to be expected when jealousy and despair mix are tragic.
While not entirely successful, the film is still a remarkable examination of the daily struggles of the forgotten working class. Still, the big question in the minds of Soderbergh and HDNet Films, which commissioned the director to make six films under this innovative model, is how this series will be received at home both on cable and DVD. In the best-case scenario, Soderbergh and HDNet may prove that releasing Bubble on multiple platforms does not cannibalize its own audience. If so, the experiment could help more independent films get major distribution deals, both in and out of theaters. But in the worst of scenarios, this experiment could be the beginning of the end for theatrical exhibition as we know it.
The movie studios have long fought to shrink the window between a movies release in theaters and on DVDs. It is common knowledge that the majority of a films profits are now generated from sales of DVDs, not movie tickets, and if Bubble and its anticipated imitators succeed, the industry will drift even more quickly towards a new, DVD-dominated model. Though there will always be amorous teenagers and cineastes, and thus a need for movie theaters in some form indefinitely, the question instead becomes: What will the common moviegoing experience be in, say, 2010?
You could take the view that this is all an example of how people are disconnecting and theyre staying home and theyre not having communal experiences, and maybe thats true, Soderbergh said. But as long as its legal, I dont know how youre going to stop it.
I dont think we should be trying to control how people experience art. If youve got something thats interesting, it really doesnt matter how theyre seeing it. Im not precious that way, he said.
But what Soderbergh so quickly dismisses as precious others see as the pure experience of the art form, and what may be viewed as a small financial experiment by an independent movie studio will no doubt have implications that reach further than they, or the industry, likely imagines. Only time will tell if Bubble will burst, or explode.