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'Bubble' Bursts Film Tradition

Soderbergh's mystery closes the gap between theater, cable and DVD releases, but widens a rift within the industry.

January 22, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood is abuzz over "Bubble."

It's not that Steven Soderbergh's new art house movie is expected to break any box office records when it opens Friday. A low-budget murder mystery set in a doll factory and made with non-actors, it's hardly blockbuster material.

But because it's the first feature by an Oscar-winning director ("Traffic") to be released in theaters, on cable television and on DVD in a four-day span, "Bubble" is forcing everyone in town to wrestle with this question: Is the great American tradition of going out to the movies on its way out?

Already, Soderbergh's push to close the months-long window that traditionally separates a film's debut in theaters and its availability in other formats has triggered heated debate in the industry's creative and business communities.

Several veteran directors interviewed for this article said that although they understand that movie studios face increasing pressures from consumers who want to be able to choose when and how they view entertainment, Soderbergh is nevertheless on dangerous ground.

"Would I rather see 'Munich' in the comfort of my home? Hell, no!" said Jonathan Demme, whose credits include such hits as "Philadelphia" and "The Silence of the Lambs." "Doesn't it seem like the movie business is devouring itself because it can't wait to get to home video?"

Tim Burton, director of last year's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the animated "Corpse Bride," called the notion of simultaneous release absurd. Obviously, he said, cinema is a business, "but everything should be done to treat it as an art form -- it's a visceral medium."

Ron Howard, whose latest release is "Cinderella Man," agreed. "Viewing in a theater is the optimum experience," he said. "It needs to be preserved.... But, at the end of the day, technology and viewers are going to tell us what they really want."

Similar discussions -- and arguments -- are raging inside Hollywood's executive suites. Although Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger and Time Warner's Dick Parsons have publicly suggested that the simultaneous release of films across multiple formats is inevitable, their own movie studio chiefs are cautioning that preserving the communal moviegoing experience is vital not just to the culture but to the bottom line.

"As to our corporate bosses in New York, it's not my place to say their view is incorrect," Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros., said of his colleagues at Time Warner. "But ... while we embrace new technologies, we do so with deliberation, caution and forethought."

Although last year's industry-wide domestic box office receipts were down about 5% and attendance dropped about 8%, Horn says releasing a movie in a theater "does more than prime the pump" for its release in DVD and beyond. In 2005, Warner's movies generated $3.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

"That's real money," Horn said.

Traditionally, studios have culled hefty profits from various distribution outlets by delaying the so-called ancillary markets -- DVD, pay cable (such as HBO) and free TV -- until after a theatrical run.

Those who argue to toss out this traditional approach believe it may be more lucrative to give consumers the choice of seeing movies however, whenever and wherever they want. Because at least half a film's revenue today comes from DVD sales, executives ask, why not make discs available at a premium price right away?

But for every media mogul who sees simultaneous release as a way for studios to increase profits (by stemming piracy and consolidating marketing campaigns, among other things), there's another who disagrees.

Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Jeff Blake is among the skeptics: "I don't think anyone has shown how you can keep up the level of revenue we have now, much less make more money."

Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, agreed. He said the tiered system that has been in place since home video emerged 25 years ago "is not random. It's not accidental. There's logic to it." What advocates of simultaneous release are proposing "makes no sense."

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook also defended the sanctity of the theatrical window. He finds himself engaged in "a constant dialogue" about the future of release windows with his Disney colleagues, including Iger, his boss.

It was Iger who broke the issue wide open last summer when he told a conference of investors and media analysts that simultaneous release was no longer "out of the question."

Echoing Soderbergh, who just a few months earlier had called Hollywood's existing economic model outdated, Iger said that just as the rules of consumption had changed, so should old distribution patterns be "called into question."

Theater owners, who fear such a shift would kill their already profit-challenged business, went nuts. John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, shot back that Iger should know better than to tell consumers "they can have it all, everywhere, at the same time."

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