Bubble Economy: A New Era of Narrowing Release Windows

Steven Soderbergh's Bubble isn't going to change the way we see movies, but it's a tiny first step. After the digital film's premiere January 12 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where much of the story takes place, U.S. audiences have the option of never watching the existential murder mystery on the big screen again. And not because it's going straight to video—although it is, sort of.

As part of a plan to make six high-definition movies for billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner—who own distribution company Magnolia, the Landmark art-house chain, and digital cable networks HDNet and HDNet Movies—Soderbergh will see his film released on DVD four days after it opens in movie theaters (and airs on the HDNet Movies channel) on January 27. The near-simultaneous release is controversial, because it collapses the staggered distribution schedule for films as they hit theaters, then months later video, and finally other formats like pay-per-view and standard network television.

But "Collapsing the Distribution Window" —one of The New York Times' "Year in Ideas" highlights—is not going to live or die on Bubble's success or failure. A micro-budget feature with a nonprofessional cast going out in 25 cities, Bubble has little to do with the future of Hollywood. "It's the beginning of a very slow process," admits Wagner. "It's like throwing the first pitch in a nine-inning baseball game."

Since the Bubble announcement last April, more significant developments have taken place: Disney and Time Warner chief executives have said they are open to collapsing windows, while episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives are now available on iPods the day after broadcast. "Within the last three months," says Wagner, "I have felt more sea change in the industry than in the last five years."

Smaller companies are also experimenting with the approach: Rainbow Media and IFC Films announced plans to distribute films simultaneously in theaters and on video-on-demand, and Wellspring will hold midnight screenings in 15 cities next weekend for John Roecker's stop-motion Charles Manson flick Live Freaky! Die Freaky! with a DVD release the following Tuesday. "We decided to blast the country during the same weekend and release the DVD at the height of all the visibility," says Wellspring's Marie Therese Guirgis.

Big exhibition chains are boycotting Bubble's concurrent release plan, afraid that the practice will contribute further to dwindling ticket sales, but Cuban and Wagner are sweetening the deal by giving 1 percent of DVD sales back to theaters. (For the duration of the theatrical run, the DVDs will be higher priced.) In addition to their own Landmark Theatres, Wagner says Bubble will also be available in other independent art houses. But will anyone go?

Industry veteran Ray Price, now Landmark Theatres' marketing VP, sees a greater paradigm shift in the works. "All media as we know it is ending," he says. "Content is going to survive, but the vessels will change."

Wagner contends that each of their releases—about a half-dozen scheduled for this year—will ultimately survive in theaters, as well as other formats, based on quality. "If it's good, people will see it," says Wagner. "If it's bad, we could release it on everyone's cell phone the next morning, and no one would watch it."

 
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