Steven Soderbergh's new film, Bubble comes out this week in Atlanta and it's out on DVD next week, too. I'm a reluctant fan of Soderbergh's. When he's making smaller or more delicate films like Schizopolis or Kafka or Solaris, he's pretty tough to beat. His off-beat movies are usually pretty great, while his bigger budget, star's-name-above-the-title films like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven are usually expertly made if a little less than fulfilling. His new experiment, Bubble is something I want to see, but I can't decide if I should plop down for a ticket or just rent it next week.
This is Soderbergh's big gamble, and since this is a smaller, indie-type film with no real actors shot in digital video, it's not much of a gamble at all for a guy who can call up George Clooney to do a gangster crime caper any time he needs. Still, it's going to be interesting to watch how the reaction to this gets spun, especially by the box-office obsessed media and the piracy-obsessed studios.
After all, Soderbergh is gambling that a film like this can succeed with a simultaneous theatrical and DVD release: something that takes the already absurdly short window from theater screen to TV screen and makes it useless. It feels a lot like a 'what do we have to lose?' kind of moment, and that's admirable, but I wonder if there won't be some backlash. Afterall, to the Hollywood Insider's and Entertainment Tonight's of the world, Bubble is going to be a flop, regardless of the impact of the DVD. For the people who produce those shows and most of the people who watch them, Soderbergh is a director with the Ocean's franchise and some high-profile Julia Roberts flicks under his belt, and he's a guy who's made millions at the box office and won awards at the same time. A small film that's given the marketing budget equal to Clooney's catering bill isn't going to make a dent, and to the plasticine reporters on E! all that will matter is that this film didn't win the weekend. It'll be a disappointment by those standards, so the question will immediately become "did the simultaneous DVD release hurt the film at the box office?"
In this case, it's not even a fair question because the box office is completely not the point here. Soderbergh could dip in and plop out one of these movies every other year if he kept doing ensemble blockbusters at Christmas, so it's obviously not about the money. On the flip side, I'm not sure what Soderberg is hoping to prove, because he's chosen such a uniquely small film to test this process out on that the results of his experiment hardly apply to the film industry as a whole. If part of the equation here is that large metropolitan markets can get a film like Bubble on at least one screen where the folks in Topeka or Springfield will have to wait for a DVD anyway, then I guess it makes sense not to pretend that the film will open on 150 screens and spread out to 2,000 through word of mouth. Still, I would think the demand for a movie like this is also highest in places like Atlanta that will be showing one print of the film, but will have it available on DVD in half a dozen art and indie-oriented rental and retail stores, not to mention every big-box bookstore.
More than the movie itself, then, I'm waiting to see the fallout. I'm waiting to see what people in the trades say about Soderberg's new distribution experiment and how they will use this to prove their points either way, no matter how well the film performs and no matter what barometer is used to guage success. Personally, I think I'll probably rent it.