Friday, February 03, 2006

The Bubble "Revolution"

The big news in film this week was the release of Steven Soderbergh's new film, Bubble, in the theater, on TV and on DVD at the same time. For some, this is a harbinger to the apocalypse, signalling the potential end of film viewing as we know it. If Revenge of the Sith, or even something like Fantastic Four, was released in this pattern, it's quite possible that we would be looking at a potnetial major seismic shift. However, Bubble isn't the sort of film that would be seen by a lot of people anyway, so it's not going to change the way the major studios do business.

For the major studio releases, there's really no incentive to get this direct DVD format going. They are still making a good chunk of money off of the theatrical release, and I would agree with people that with a small number of exceptional films, releasing the movie on DVD simultaneously would effectively kill the theatrical market. It's already hurting it with the reduced DVD window. I know in my case there's movies that in the VHS era I would have gone to see in a theater, however, now I wait a couple of months and I can buy a movie for what it would have cost to see it in the theater. This is particularly the case with arty movies that only get released in New York City, it's cheaper for me to buy the DVD when it comes out than pay the train and ticket.

I feel bad about not supporting smaller movies in the theater, because that does mean that a lot of really good movies end up not getting released here, however it's tough. First of all, a lot of the stuff I really want to see, I import. I saw 2046 in January 2005, it wasn't actually released here until August, and I've had Clean and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance for a while now, and neither of those have been released here. So, the really devoted foreign film audience, the people who would see these movies in the theater, are ahead of the studios. This means they need to adjust their release patterns and get these films out faster.

But, it's also pretty clear that with a few exceptions, most foreign films do very badly. I consider this a chicken and the egg thing. Martial arts movies have made money in the past, so the studios give them a bigger push and they end up making more money. I think Oldboy could have gone over as well as Hero, yet it was only released in a couple of theaters in the whole country. It's a film that's got a lot of cult acclaim, and with a proper release, I think it could have gotten at least a $20-$30 million gross.

But, what this reflects is the changing marketplace for art films. Because it's so difficult to see art films in the theater, the entire market has shifted towards the DVD. So, the grosses for even really acclaimed films, like 3-Iron, are laughable, and I'd imagine many more people have seen the film on DVD than did in the theater.

This change in film viewing is something that's been moving forward my entire life. I was born right as the VCR was becoming commonplace, and it's actually hard for me to imagine a world before the VCR. You can't expect the theatrical marketplace to be as vibrant as it was pre-VCR because back then, it was either see the film in the theater or never see it. Once it's gone, it's likely you'll never get a chance to see the movie again. So, if you were sick the week that Casablanca played at your local theater back in 1942, you would have missed it, and barring a revival, that's it. You've missed arguably the greatest film in existence at that point in time.

TV changes things in the 50s, but commercials change the experience, and even with the VCR, there's the pan and scan, only with DVD does the home experience become arguably superior to the theatrical. So, that leaves theaters with the advantage that they show the movie first.

This journey through history leads us to Friday and the simultaneous release of Bubble. This is something I'm very supportive of, and think is worthwhile, even it may hurt theatrical film viewing. The reason for that is the fact that the simultaneous release plan makes it possible for an art film to return to the status of cultural event. When a major studio films comes out, there's the buildup, articles on the making of it, ads and reviews, all centered around the film's opening weekend. So, by the time we get there, I'm really psyched to see the film. It's a part of the cultural dialogue for that weekend, and once you've seen it, you can be part of that cultural dialogue.

With artier movies that only get a limited release, you read the articles and revie, and then have to wait a month or so for the film to come out, such that by the time the film actually makes it to the theaters nearby, it feels like its moment has passed and the cultural dialogue has moved on. There's some exceptions, the big Oscar contenders continue to be culturally relevant, but with films that don't have that buzz, they just disappear from the cultural radar.

On the whole, we've been moving away from shared cultural events. People are tivoing TV shows, or just waiting for the DVD, rather than watching them as broadcast. In music, albums are leaking and being heard before they're "released." In movies, more people are seeing a film on DVD than in the theater, which means that there's no moment when a film is in the cultural spotlight, it's a gradual roll out.

I would argue that the Bubble release pattern, rather than expediting these trends, actually returns a film to a cultural event. As I mentioned before, the typical art film rollout means that you have to go through a lot of trouble to actually see these acclaimed films, and if you live outside of New York or LA, you're basically out of luck. So, what releasing things in the Bubble pattern does is make it possible for everyone to participate in the cultural dialogue surrounding the film. Rather than going to the theater with a bunch of friends, chip in $5 each and buy the DVD, or rent it. Then, it's possible for everyone who wants to to see the film at the same time, and participate in the cultural dialogue surrounding said film.

I'm not sure if this true or not, but I get the sense that back in the 70s, foreign and art films were much more culturally significant, and it's possible that this release pattern would bring back some of this love of artier films and perhaps even start a new Hollywood Renaissance.

Is something lost from this? Yes. As a filmmaker, I loved getting my stuff shown in a big cinema with a large audience, but at the same time, I'd rather have something on DVD for everyone to see than showing in one theater in Manhattan.

In the short term, I don't think Bubble is going to cause a major change. It's likely that the same audience that would seek out the film in the theater got the DVD. But if Soderbergh were to get some of his more famous friends involved in one of these simultaneous release films and make something as good as The Limey or Traffic, we could be looking at a major change. In the not too distant future, a studio is going to try this release plan with a major blockbuster, and I think it'll end up being successful.

Now, in the long term, will this be good for the art? I'im not sure, I don't want to see theatrical venues disappear, nor see them reduced to merely mainstream stuff. But if it's a choice between paying $25 to travel to New York City and see the film, or to get the DVD for that same price, I'd get the DVD.

In the followup to this article, I'm going to discuss the ways in which simultaneous release could improve the way we write about film, as well as have some pretentious discussion of my own goals with this site. So, prepare for that tomorrow.

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