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February 2006

Of Bubbles and Mirrors...

Media Commentary by John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5The big news rattling the movie industry last weekend was the release of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental, low-budget movie Bubble. Not because the film itself represents a bold initiative, though it boasts no big-name celebrities and stars only “found” non-professional actors--the latest twist on the neo-realism of the 1960s. Instead, this movie has become a cause celebre because its distribution plan has been deemed revolutionary.

To wit, the typical 'window' between theatrical premiere and DVD release of a film is a bare six months. However, in the past few years, when faced with unsaleable big screen turkeys such as 2003's From Justin to Kelly, studios eager to make back their investment have squeezed that window. It’s been contracting to five months, sometimes even as few as three. For instance, the latter was the case of the box office failure, Serenity. The critically-lauded space opera was a big screen attraction in mid-September and a warp speed stocking stuffer by the Holidays.

However, with the advent of Bubble, the tradition of the “window” faces its greatest challenge. Bubble was released theatrically on Friday, January 27, 2006 and it premieres on DVD and Cable TV a scant five days later, on January 31st, 2006. That’s not a window; that’s not a bubble. That’s a fart.

Welcome to the future, and the latest spin on the instant gratification culture. Where you can have every entertainment any time you want it...and you don’t even have to get your behind off the sofa.

As I indicated above, Bubble’s distribution strategy is supposedly revolutionary, but what I didn’t note is that, in this particular case anyway, there isn’t exactly a whole lot at stake, either. It’s an experiment, but not necessarily the dawn of a new age.

Soderbergh’s film was cheaply produced, and so there isn’t that much dough on the line for the producers and studios. Probably nobody would have ever heard of Bubble in the first place if there hadn’t been this unique strategy pushing the film as a kind of “first timer.” The news story about Bubble and the collapsed release window is pushing more interest in the film than a traditional ad campaign would. Clever, studios, clever...

A genuine and important test of the “simultaneous” release strategy will involve not a small, personal film, but rather a blockbuster, King Kong, or to select an upcoming example, Superman Returns. In a case like either of those films, hundreds of million dollars are on the line. Prediction: I wager no studio will take the gamble on a simultaneous release.

Bubble’s release has already generated some controversy because a few theater-owners have stonewalled and refused to play it. Indeed, just consider the debate for a moment from their point of view. Why clog a valuable auditorium with a film that’s already stocking the shelves of your local Blockbuster? Or on Movies-on-Demand with a single tap of the remote control? Again, no studio is going to take this risk of alienating theater-owners when one-hundred million or more is at stake. Trust me, they’ll play nice.

Which means one of two things. First, that Bubble is precisely what its title indicates it is, a bubble destined to pop, not a trend.

Or, secondly: Hollywood--facing the new reality of simultaneous releases on multiple formats--will begin hedging its bets and start making movies a lot cheaper than Kong and the like. The blockbuster era will die for this reason alone.

The simultaneous release is problematic, if not disastrous for the film industry as a whole. If brick-and-mortar theaters don’t get a new film for a decreed length of time before ancillary releases on DVD and Cable, then they shall surely go the way of the Betamax, 8 tracks and VHS. Why? The simple answer is that movies are bloody expensive. Take a child and a spouse to see a movie and by the time one purchases popcorn and drinks, thirty five or forty dollars is down the toilet.

Now quick--riddle me this--how much does a DVD rental cost? It’s five dollars. If that. More like four and change. And in the case of a rental or a pay-per-view, one experiences the added convenience of stopping and starting the movie whenever it pleases (for the occasional potty break or meal). Concerns related to economics and practicality thus grant DVDs and cable TV the edge on this battlefront.

Which is why the theater owners are absolutely right to be concerned. True, they could revamp the movie experience: either make it a lot cheaper to go to these venues, or tart up auditoriums with wine bars, single “meet ups”, book stores, etcetera.

Of course, all that new stuff would surely call for a significant new financial investment...

I know I made the same conclusion last month, but if Hollywood really wants to have a better year at the box office than it did in 2005, studios need to stop conjuring inventive ways to void hopeless trash (like Underworld 2) into theaters and other venues. Forget obsessing on distribution strategies and focus instead on making movies that people actually care to see, and will actually pay money to see ahead of the DVD release. Good, well-written movies will get people off their butts and into theaters.

In 2005, the film that made people visit multiplexes was March of the Penguins; the year before that it was Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion. This year, it looks like Brokeback Mountain is the “it” movie that has people of all persuasions and political affiliations talking. In each of these cases, you may note, the films are intellectually challenging, not traditional “event” movies. Rather, they seem the result of a passionate creator (whether it be Michael Moore or Mel Gibson), and not the choice of a committee or an executive.

And therein lies the answer. Film is a business. I hear that refrain all too frequently when I interview folks in Los Angeles. Sorry, but that perspective is exactly the wrong one. Especially today, with so many entertainment options. Doing away with the theatrical release “window” is merely an inventive business strategy and nothing more. It won’t fix the industry, and it certainly won’t inspire audiences.

What will?

Good movies.

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