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The 'Bubble' boys' gamble

January 29, 2006

THE POSTER FOR THE NEW MOVIE "Bubble" features a large box of disembodied doll heads, hairless and happy. The image is both mischievous and vaguely sinister -- perfect adjectives for a production that toys with several of Hollywood's sacred cows.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who has worked with such Hollywood luminaries as Julia Roberts and George Clooney, handed the roles in the new movie to amateurs. His production and distribution partners, Internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, are releasing it in an unconventional way too.

Hours after the movie made its theatrical debut Friday afternoon, "Bubble" aired on Cuban's pay-TV channel -- in high definition, no less. And dispensing with the usual four-month delay, the group plans to release the DVD version of "Bubble" on Tuesday.

The idea of giving people a choice between seeing a movie in a theater or watching it at home is so abhorrent to some theater chains that they refuse to carry any film that is available on disc or on TV. Numerous filmmakers are similarly protective of the theatrical "window," arguing that their works are best seen on large screens by groups of people. Studio executives, meanwhile, argue that the publicity generated by a theatrical release helps boost demand for the DVD and other versions of the movie.

Cuban says that it's "moronic" to think that giving theaters an exclusive "window" to show a film is what keeps people going to the movies, and he has a point. Of course the industry wants to wring as much revenue as possible from each film, but giving theaters a head start on a movie hasn't exactly caused a stampede to the cineplex.

Ticket sales dropped in 2005 for the second year in a row, and box-office revenue in the United States and Canada was down about 5% too. There are other important factors keeping people away -- the cost, for starters. At the same time, there are plenty of reasons people may choose to see a film on the big screen instead of watching it on their living-room TV.

The backers of "Bubble" argue that giving people more ways to view the movie while it's new will lead to more overall revenue, not less. It's an idea worth testing, although "Bubble" may not be the right vehicle. The $1.7-million production is getting minimal marketing and is being shown in only 39 theaters, nearly half of them part of the Landmark chain owned by Cuban. And the quirky film has generated wildly mixed reviews.

Soderbergh and Cuban plan at least five more experiments, so a future effort may be more revealing. A real test, though, would require a movie with mass-market appeal and a multimillion-dollar marketing budget -- a film with so much potential that theaters couldn't afford to snub it. Maybe Soderbergh can persuade Clooney or Roberts to take part in the next installment.

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