'Bubble' May Be Blown Out of Proportion

If you’re a film buff, you've heard all the chatter surrounding Friday's release of the uber-indie, uber-low-budget flick "Bubble," which is coming out in five dozen theaters and on cable at the same time — and on DVD a few days later. It is the first movie ever to be released in several forms at once.

You may even be sick of all the hype, not to mention the puns about whether “Bubble” will burst the film industry, yadayadayada.

But even if you don’t follow movies closely, it’s hard to have missed seeing at least one of the reams of pages devoted to director Steven Soderbergh’s experiment, which he will repeat with five other films after this one.

"I don’t think we should be trying to control how people experience art," Soderbergh told a recent press roundtable. "They can see it on a screen or on a T-shirt. If you’ve got something that’s interesting, it just really doesn’t matter how they’re seeing it."

The media, FOXNews.com included, have been reporting that studios and theaters are on the edge of their seats over the “Bubble” test — and they are, sort of. But, truth be told (another bad pun coming shortly), some may be blowing “Bubble” out of proportion.

The narrowing of the time between a movie’s theatrical and DVD release and its DVD and cable premiere is a serious issue for the industry and is a strategy being explored not only by Soderbergh but by studios including Disney and Twentieth Century Fox.

The so-called shrinking window could potentially be damaging to already-strapped theaters — since they make only a slim margin of the profits they split with studios in the early days and weeks of a film’s showing and none of the revenues from DVD sales.

Many studios also bristle at the simultaneous release idea because they fear the majority of viewers will choose the least expensive or free way to watch the movie and films won't have the same legitimacy as they do when they open solely in theaters. Both potential consequences of the shrinking window could mean a shrinking bottom line for them, too.

"To collapse the video window would be devastating not only to the theater industry, but to the movie industry in general," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. "The most problematic thing facing theater owners today is the shrinking window."

Other industry observers say theaters and studios need to pay attention to the ways entertainment is evolving and adapt accordingly, or it could be disastrous for them.

"Theater owners have to manage their holdings ... and recognize that the world is changing rapidly in terms of the way people are consuming media," said Dade Hayes, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. "There's a way for them to continue to be an essential part of the mix, but they do risk being made irrelevant if they don't change their ways."

But “Bubble” isn’t exactly a force to be reckoned with. It’s coming out in only 60 — count them, 60 — theaters across the country, all of them under the Landmark name, since the chain’s owners are financing the six-film Soderbergh project. By the way, that’s out of a total of about 6,000 theaters in the United States.

All other theaters have refused to screen it, citing policies they have about not showing films that are out on video or TV at the same time.

And on cable, the movie won’t be out on TBS, HBO or another station with heavy viewership but on HDNet Movies — also the property of the film's producers and a channel requiring High Definition TV that's not even available on basic cable lineups.

Those facts aside, while the 72-minute, $1.6 million movie is interesting, it isn’t likely to be classified as a creative masterpiece or a must-see, with all due respect to the talented Soderbergh (“Traffic,” "Ocean's Eleven," “sex, lies and videotape”).

It stars non-actors, as was the fad some years ago, but none of them gives a particularly winning performance. The characters and their relationships aren’t fully formed. The dialogue, which was unscripted à la "The Blair Witch Project," is mundane and stilted at best.

The plot — the boring lives of two Midwestern doll-factory workers and friends are disrupted when a shady-but-attractive new employee is hired, goes on a date with the male friend, makes the female friend jealous and then turns up murdered — is slow to develop and not the least bit believable.

And the attempts to be dark, eerie and arthouse — with the jarring cuts between plastic doll body parts and scary-looking doll-making machines that could be anything to most viewers — seem contrived.

In short, “Bubble” looks a lot like what it is: a movie that’s going straight to video — well, almost straight to video — on Jan. 31. And so all the talk about whether it’s going to shake up the entire film-viewing experience as we know it seems exaggerated and a wee bit premature.

"This is a movie that critics may admire for audacity, but which will be a huge bore to most civilians," predicted the New York Daily News. "For the first two-thirds of the movie, which drew yawns at its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, we are either watching a trio of co-workers paint and assemble latex dolls or listening to their insufferably banal conversations in the factory lunchroom.

"The only way to watch 'Bubble' — if you must — is on TV, where it's free," the News concludes.

That said, "Bubble" has gotten mixed reviews, meaning some of them have been positively glowing (Ebert and Roeper even gave it two thumbs up).

Moreover, this is a multi-technology, consumer-driven, on-demand age. One in which consumers not only want choices, they expect them.

So it's entirely possible that this small experimental film will make big waves for the future of the way the public sees movies and the level of choice involved in the process.

"To me, this is all about listening to the consumer," co-producer and co-financier Todd Wagner told a press roundtable. "This is about the reality that the world has changed, that it is a digital world and we want to be the ones responding to those changes in how we do things.

"This is the natural progression of things when you are up-ending an apple cart that frankly deserves to be up-ended."

As far as theaters' fears about the shrinking release window go, Wagner says his 2929 Productions has promised a 1 percent cut of all DVD sales to the theaters showing "Bubble" and believes that is a good way to ensure cinemas don't crash and burn when the release window is closed.

"While you may say that's not a big number, if you do the math with me ... believe me, it's big," said Wagner. "It's helpful to an industry that has razor-thin margins. The exhibition industry is a horribly tough industry."

He also said this new strategy's impact will be nothing compared to the punch films took when television came down the pike.

On that point, at least, there is agreement in the mainstream theater business.

"DVDs and home entertainment sales are not going to kill us if TV isn't going to kill us," said Kendrick Macdowell, general counsel of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). "Did it kill us? No. Did we take a hit? Yes. This whole experience is good for us. We're going to survive and thrive."