R Colin Tait. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1: Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
In 2004, a major controversy erupted in Hollywood after filmmaker Steven Soderbergh signed a six-picture deal with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s HDNet films. The project involved Soderbergh making low-budget movies exclusively with high-definition (HD) technology that would enjoy simultaneous release in theaters on DVD and were available to download via the Internet, thus entirely eliminating the exhibition window for a film’s theatrical release. This gesture not only leveled a flurry of criticism at the filmmaker as well as Cuban, but their enterprise ultimately met with mixed results, barely making a dent at the box office and hardly registering in Soderbergh’s canon.
The controversy surrounding Bubble (2006) raises several questions. The first of these relates to why studios and exhibitors were so violently opposed to a shift in exhibition paradigms and went as far as to rally Hollywood executives and prominent filmmakers (such as M. Night Shyamalan) to denounce Cuban and Soderbergh’s enterprise. Furthermore, is it possible that the film’s slow roll-out over several film festivals, in addition to the negative publicity it garnered along the way, largely influenced the way that the experiment was received and largely factored into its commercial reception? Finally, despite the film’s status as a “failed experiment,” it is nevertheless crucial that we situate Bubble as a properly historical document and examine the film’s resonance not only to contemporary film culture but to the future industrial trends it anticipates and likely embodies.
At the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, the unlikely trio of billionaire Mark Cuban, his business partner Todd Wagner, and filmmaker Seven Soderbergh held a press conference to announce their new enterprise together. That there was another announcement at North America’s leading business festival—where more films are bought and sold than any other—was not surprising, but the content of the announcement was. It sent reverberations of fear and uncertainty through the industry for the next several years. Cuban and Wagner had signed Steven Soderbergh to a long-term deal in order to secure his services for the launch of several related enterprises: the Landmark theater chain, recently acquired by Cuban; the HDNet television channel; and Magnolia pictures. Soderbergh’s Bubble would effectively brand the venture, bringing his high-profile status to the mixture of independently financed HD filmmaking (as opposed to studio projects such as Michael Mann’s Miami Vice or Brian Singer’s Superman Returns, both shot in HD and both costing $135 million and $270 million, respectively) along with an appropriately smaller scale of artistic ambition and distribution model. The three figures shared the belief that the contemporary industry structure was broken beyond repair by excessive overhead costs, piracy, and consumer demand for instantaneous content, particularly on the lower-end and independent side of the distribution equation. Day-and-date release, then, offering the consumer the ultimate choice of venue, was their unique solution to this problem. What they could not have predicted was the overwhelming and virulent resistance to their scheme—the uniformity of objection related to the absolute collapse of the exhibition window—as Bubble would be released simultaneously in Cuban’s theaters, be made available on DVD through his nascent video exhibition arm Magnolia Pictures, and also available for download in the coming days by way of the Internet.
The idea created a firestorm of industry resistance before the project was even underway and mostly from the exhibition side of the equation. M. Night Shyamalan helped inspire a negative buzz for Bubble, first denouncing the film at the 2005 Director’s Guild of America Feature Director’s night dinner and raising the stakes even higher when he followed up these comments as the invited speaker for the 2006 ShowWest convention for exhibitors. Here, Shyamalan defended the studios and exhibitors’ position, stating:
We have these business guys coming in, many of whom haven’t been part of the industry, saying, “This is how it’s gonna be.” And then you had a few (directors’) voices in support of the experiment. And I went “whoa, whoa, whoa—this is sacred to me. I’m not gonna let the theatrical experience just go away like this.” I made it clear that night that we’re all losing faith and that we don’t have to stand by and let this art form be rolled over.
Shyamalan’s stance was obviously echoed by the American exhibitors, who presumably had the most to lose with any shift in distribution patterns. As exhibition revenue relies almost solely on filling seats for high-profile blockbusters and selling consumers popcorn, this was obviously the most resistant faction that day-and-date release offended. In response, the larger exhibition chains such as Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Theatres, Loews Cineplex, and Cinemark USA boycotted 2929 and Magnolia products (also owned by Cuban and Wagner) adopting a “zero-tolerance” stance on Cuban and Wagner’s releases. On the studio side, other executives lined up to denounce the idea, including those who had worked with Soderbergh at Warner Brothers.
Throughout the movie industry, CEOs and filmmakers criticized Soderbergh and his backers by wholly objecting to their new scheme. At the heart of the issue was the fact that the movie, along with the industrial formulation that it represented, had the potential to disrupt the business model that had been operating for years, in effect undermining the entrenched system. The studios, slow to accept any deviation from the industry norms—as exemplified from their slow acceptance of sound technology in the days of early cinema through to today’s new technological rollouts, which include video game consoles such as Microsoft’s X-Box 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, not to mention the effect of viewership lost to iPod technologies and bittorrent software—retrenched themselves and brought the full force of their media and industry control to bear on the trio. In other words, it may be that the industry resistance played itself out through its ancillary industries, particularly in the media outlets owned by the larger studios, which essentially created the consensus view of Soderbergh’s, Cuban’s, and Wagner’s enterprise before anyone had even seen the film.
Though the connections between Cuban, the rogue billionaire and flamboyant owner of the Dallas Mavericks who established his fortunes during the high-tech boom of the 1990s, and Steven Soderbergh, the man who became independent cinema’s de facto poster boy, were not initially clear; the two figures shared similar outsider statuses, affording them to be innovators, while at the same time becoming fixtures on the contemporary business and film scenes, respectively.
Cuban and Wagner surely fit the criteria of Shyamalan’s description of “business guys.” Though Cuban’s entrepreneurship extended to many different avenues—sports teams among other enterprises—it wasn’t until he created the TV station HDNet and bought the boutique Landmark theater chain that he entertained the idea of making movies through his production house, 2929 Pictures then HDNet films. At that point Cuban and Wagner had secured a vertically integrated exhibition and distribution wing for themselves, whose ability to broadcast in the HD format required a great deal of area bandwidth but, more importantly, demanded that a certain amount of guaranteed content was available for broadcast at a given time. With the advent of extremely high-quality home entertainment equipment, including 5.1 Surround Sound and widescreen home theater technology, the industry was slow to answer the demand for high-resolution products—best exemplified by the all-out format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray technologies—and there was a huge opportunity to be seized by someone who could recognize the new shifts in the system, particularly when it came to content provision via the Internet. At the time, however, their problem was that aside from sports programming, there was not a great deal of original material that was available for broadcast in the HD format. They would simply have to create it in order to be successful. This is precisely what Cuban and Wagner were attempting, while at the same time seeking to associate themselves with like-minded artistic figures such as Soderbergh, Hal Hartley, and, eventually, Brian De Palma instead of strictly “independent” artists. The venture, therefore, would attempt to bring industry-wide acceptance of low-key filmmaking by leading directors, while at the same time bringing high exposure to the creative possibilities of the HD medium.
One of the great advantages that HD affords a potential filmmaker and ultimately the exhibitor is the ability to reduce the costs of manufacturing 35 mm prints in addition to streamlining the filmmaking process. According to independent producer James Schamus, the profitability of any independent film is entirely dependent on how well a producer is able to sidestep the ancillary costs of a film’s release. The brunt of these costs come from the elusively titled print and advertising (P&A), which Schamus describes as “cover[ing] anything from the design and printing of posters … the striking and shipment of release prints, the cost of print, radio and TV advertising, the care and feeding of stars and other talent as they travel promoting the film, and the various other costs.” In our present environment, a film’s P&A is known to effectively double the budget of most mainstream releases, making even a typical Hollywood product extremely difficult to recoup its costs. For a film such as Spider Man 3, whose final production budget was $258 million, the film must ultimately make approximately $600 million if the film is to even come close to breaking even. Wagner has cited figures that negative costs and P&A have jumped up to 85 percent and 110 percent, respectively, making the prospect of moviemaking an extremely risky venture even in the optimal of circumstances. For the purposes of independent or digital filmmakers then, reduction of the initial investment costs provides a decided advantage in the marketplace, affording the production team to effectively sidestep most of the obstacles to a film’s profitability and allowing a direct conduit to immediately recoup their costs with day-and-date release. In the case of Bubble, the film’s initial roll-out over festivals cost next to nothing to advertise, save for Soderbergh’s various appearances with the work, and avoided the cost of having to manufacture a master print, as most festival theaters are now equipped to show digital works. The film’s instantaneous release and exhibition not only allowed the film to travel but reduced the expense of having to spend unnecessary funds on advertising. Using Cuban, Wagner, and Soderbergh’s model, a film is able to effectively avoid one-half of the overall cost of filmmaking and exhibiting, making it an extremely streamlined and cost-efficient means of production, particularly for independent and digital filmmaking.
Cuban and Wagner’s solution to the earlier problems—lack of content and printing costs—was simply to set themselves up as producers and become directly responsible for creating their own products, while at the same time affording artists absolute freedom to express themselves with the cost-efficient, high-quality recording and distribution technologies. Soderbergh was a natural choice, if only because he was known as the premier filmmaker for doing things on the cheap and consistently under budget—something that obviously appealed to two businessmen in their first foray into the emerging business of HD digital filmmaking.
At the same time, Soderbergh was extremely interested in altering the industry model, particularly as it related to smaller, more esoteric films such as his recent digital projects Full Frontal (2002), K-Street (2004), and his other collaboration with George Clooney on the HBO series Unscripted (2005). What the television, pay-per-view, DVD, and Internet content provision afforded was the opportunity for smaller audiences to find his films outside of the theaters, as the larger chains rarely carried these more “artistic” works to begin with. What was at stake, therefore, was the opportunity for digital and predominantly HD works to find audiences through emerging new venues, echoing the new emphasis on content and programming rather than films in and of themselves. The key factor missing from the arguments against the enterprise was that the films that Soderbergh, Cuban, and Wagner championed were precisely the films that were generally left out of the distribution part of the equation, so the exhibitors and studios’ resistance was largely disproportionate when considering Bubble’s scale. The intense animosity toward Soderbergh and his backers was grossly overstated, particularly when considering the fact that the scale of his film—a $1.4 million on-location set with no stars—was a far cry from the Hollywood blockbuster. In today’s figures, $1.4 million is a paltry sum for a feature film of any standard but even more so when considering Soderbergh’s pedigree, which includes a 2001 Academy Award win for Best Director.
For Soderbergh, it was important that the work emerge from two particular factors: It needed to be both site and medium specific. Soderbergh had found his experiences working with nonactors James Carville and Mary Matalin in K-Street invigorating and was looking to find an excuse to combine these elements. Bubble’s setting, a doll-factory in Ohio, served as the synthesis of all of these artistic choices, and the filmmaker cast his leads from the town in order to reinforce the verisimilitude of the film. Finally, Soderbergh knew that the HD format was the perfect medium for this kind of industrial and artistic experiment, stating, “I was interested in this because I knew that creatively […] this was the only way to get a film like ‘Bubble’ made, period.” At the same time, the film represented a continuation of the run-and-gun style that had characterized the filmmaker’s evolution since his debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. After initially becoming the poster boy for the independent film moment with his explosive debut, Soderbergh’s career went through several phases that were a direct result of the way his films were initially received and also the way in which Soderbergh wanted to make his films. This created the reputation of the filmmaker being a cold technician rather than an engaged “auteur” personality, which eventually factored into the critical reception of most of his films from his debut onward. Sex, Lies, and Videotape seemed to capture the zeitgeist of post-Reagan America, along with the new tone of Generation-X brand angst; after the film’s high prominence at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, it seemed that the filmmaker would be able to write his own ticket. However, when he won the Palme D’ Or at Cannes he stated that it “was all downhill” from there and ended up forgetting the award under his seat. Beginning with Kafka in 1991 and leading to the universally panned Schizopolis in 1996, Soderbergh made a series of films that diverged widely from the model that critics and industry would likely have set out for him. After the critical and commercial failures of his post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape period—beginning with the box-office failure of Kafka (1991) through to the release of Schizopolis (1996)—Soderbergh re-entered the mainstream and displayed remarkable business acumen from that point forward, beginning with Out of Sight in 1997. Central to his success was not only his profitable partnership with A-List star George Clooney and their production company Section Eight Pictures but also his incredible ability to deliver high-quality product at a budget that was far below the cost of other filmmakers. At a time when most films as banal as Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour 3 (2007) cost in excess of $140 million, Soderbergh was still capable of making movies for less than $50 million. Full Frontal (2002), for instance, only cost Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax $1 million, despite the fact that it featured A-list actors such as Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. To put this figure in context, this is often what a script or even a development deal would cost in contemporary Hollywood figures. Soderbergh’s technical savvy made him a rarity in Hollywood and had made him a virtual vertically integrated industry in and of himself, producing, writing, directing, editing, and manning his own cameras as cinematographer. When he beat himself for the Best Director Academy Award—for Traffic rather than Erin Brockovich—he further solidified his reputation within the Hollywood community by also becoming anactor’s director, a fact that both Julia Roberts’ Best Actress win as well as Benecio del Toro’s Best Supporting Actor win attested to. With Traffic, despite the fact that the film was easily the most visually stunning of the year, Soderbergh invalidated himself from competition in the best cinematographer award, due to his desire to add the credit “Directed and Photographed by Steven Soderbergh,” as the writer’s union would not allow this title to supersede writer Steven Gaghan’s own. Eventually he went with the pseudonym Peter Andrews to display his displeasure with the union, a practice that he continues to this day. With 2002’s release of Ocean’s 11, the filmmaker afforded himself the possibility to become a self-financing entity, as exhibited by the fact that he (as well as the actors on the film) made more money from the film’s phenomenal success than with anything that they had made previous to Ocean’s. This is also true of partner George Clooney, who bought his mansion in Italy’s exclusive and expensive Lake Como with his portion of Ocean’s’ profits. The success of Ocean’s set the course of Soderbergh’s career for the next several years as it not only afforded him the ability to take risks in his filmmaking practices (as exhibited by his collaboration with James Cameron in Solaris, 2002) but also allowed him to help out friends he admired within the industry, including Christopher Nolan, Todd Haynes, and Richard Linklater, in addition to financing George Clooney’s directorial efforts in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) as their executive producer. Thus, Soderbergh provided himself with the rare opportunity to exist as both an insider and an outsider—outside the critical and academic community while at the same time standing at the center of the industry as the Vice President of the Director’s Guild of America. Though many of Soderbergh’s films were often perceived by critics as “interesting failures” as well as being “cold” and “impenetrable” to audiences, the director was a rarity in Hollywood, a figure who allowed himself to work in every possible genre in stylistically innovative ways, while at the same time providing himself with a stable financial model to fund these pet projects through his efforts with Clooney. Interestingly, this nonmainstream fare has most often served as prime fodder for critics who have seemingly relegated Soderbergh’s experimental (and independent) work as too intellectual. The best example of this negative critical reception includes the response to Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Solaris, and, most recently, The Good German. Because he never behaved in the manner that critics would have him make films, Soderbergh has often been accused of being out of step with his audiences, despite the fact that his films stand up and certainly reward extra viewings. In all cases, the filmmaker has been accused of attempting to talk down to his audience with these experiments or, in the case of the lighter Full Frontal, telling a joke that only he and his friends enjoyed. On the other hand, the more artistic films that Soderbergh executive produced during this period, ranging from Pleasant ville (Gary Ross, 1998); Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002); Good Night, and Good Luck; and Syriana (Steven Gaghan, 2005) to Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007), have all been extremely well-regarded by critics even though they paradoxically exhibit stylistic traits that can all be traced back to the director’s influence. Soderbergh has always implemented new technologies into the Hollywood filmmaking process, as demonstrated by his Dogme-inspired film Full Frontal, his hybridized docu-drama K-Street for HBO, and his important cinematographic innovations with tinting film stocks beginning with The Underneath (1995), in addition to his inclusion of different mediums (including full-frame video on screen) into the mainstream. Indeed, many of today’s aesthetic and technical hallmarks—including the handheld cinema verité cinematography, and bleached films stocks found in Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995) and even Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998)—can be at least in part attributed to the influence of Soderbergh’s revolutionary technical, cinematographic, and stylistic contributions. Finally, as an executive producer with as many producing credits to his name as he does for direction, Soderbergh was acutely aware that the industry model was in need of repair, if not a complete overhaul.
Ultimately what Cuban and Wagner received in collaboration was a third interested partner who was immersed in the culture and who was also seen as enough of a Hollywood outsider to be able to pull it off, and who was a director whose efforts always came in under schedule and under budget. Soderbergh was respected enough within the industry to act as a lightning rod for other interested directors to participate, as evidenced by Brian De Palma’s eventual signing with HDNet for 2007s Redacted, shot in Iraq, in addition to filmmakers such as David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola adopting HD and digital formats with Inland Empire (2006) and Youth Without Youth (2007), respectively, though not for HDNet films.
Though the studios were loath to admit it at the time, from the vantage point of 2004, the industry was facing a huge crisis, not only of leadership but due to the old studio model losing billions of dollars to piracy, bootlegging, and illegal downloading of its films. According to Steven Daly, Internet piracy, including peer-to-peer file sharing via platforms such as bittorrent software, cost the studios at least $7 billion in 2005. From 2003 to 2005, studios were presented with three consecutive years of declining box-office totals, descending by 3.4 percent for 2003, 0.4 percent for 2004, and 8.9 percent for 2005 for a total of 12.7 percent for the three-year period. These figures are particularly vivid when put in relation to the huge takes of the previous years, particularly those ushered in by Spider Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), which grossed $821,708,551 worldwide. Though the movie industry was hemorrhaging dollars in excess of those of the music conglomerates (in the billions), nevertheless, there was ample cause to find, or at least to propose, alternatives to the Hollywood model of production and distribution. What seems to be at the heart of the piracy issue, as proven by the success of iTunes amongst other new music distribution and technological shifts in the industry, is ultimately the question of instant access and availability—an issue that Cuban, Wagner, and Soderbergh’s proposal sought to remedy. Their rationale was that if people wanted to watch the film at home, in theaters or vice versa, it didn’t matter to them, provided that people ended up watching the film, period. Soderbergh commented, “I wanted them to sell the DVD in the lobby of the theatres,” which they actually did in Cuban’s Landmark Theater chain.
The main problem was that the current industry model relies heavily on the sale of DVDs and the films acting as advertisements to draw people in. Adam Liepzig reports that the major studios derive most of their profits not from the theatrical release of a film but ultimately from consumers’ adding it to their DVD collections.
Since few movies earn that much [200 million at the box-office], the studios have increasingly relied on the home-video market, where the equation is much more in their favour, to help recover losses and to make a profit. For example, a DVD costs about $2 to manufacture and $2 to market. It is then sold wholesale to retailers at $16 a unit, amounting to a $12 profit. Since manufacturers’ suggested retail prices are usually $20 to $30 a DVD (typically discounted by 20 percent), a DVD can return tens of millions of dollars in profit to the studio.
Unlike the production of the film, which currently runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, DVDs are relatively inexpensive to manufacture ($2) and can be sold for $20 plus upon their release. Exhibitors and theater owners are also in need of products, which in Hollywood are ultimately interchangeable but at the same time are still extremely necessary for putting people in seats. Producer James Schamus describes this phenomenon quite succinctly when he explains exhibitors, ironically, don’t make their make their money from exhibition but by selling moviegoers heavily marked-up popcorn and pop before the shows. With this in mind, we can see why the exhibitors had some pronounced reservations to the idea. On the other hand, we can also see the prevalent attitude on the consumer end against what can be seen as double-, triple-, and quadruple-dipping on the part of the movie industry. Resistance to this industry-wide practice can be seen as motivating the more illegal end of Internet piracy, perhaps justified by pirates as a rebellious gesture against the industry’s constant reselling of its catalog to the same consumers, particularly with the release and re-release of special editions on DVD. A prime example of this phenomenon can be found in the constant opening and closing of the prestigious “Disney Vault,” whose scarcity spurs consumers into buying and rebuying movies that they have bought several times over in order to own the latest digitally remastered version. We might, therefore, possibly see a move by consumers toward ownership, or at least possession, but we should also measure the fact that that they may not necessarily be willing to pay repeatedly for the same experience, especially if they have seen the film in the theaters first then paid several times over to own the DVD. Day-and-date release partially solves this consumer quandary, nipping the idea of instantaneous access in the bud, while at the same time providing a series of formats for the consumer to “own” the experience—something that appeals to the collector as well as the casual viewer.
The idea of digital projection, as found in Cuban’s Landmark Cinema chain, has only recently met with some malleability from the exhibitor community as well. A case in point occurred in 2002, when George Lucas attempted to retrofit theaters with digital projectors in order that his Star Wars (particularly Attack of the Clones, 2002) films could be shown in their proper HD format rather than be transferred to film and projected via a 35 mm print. As he had done earlier, with the advent of THX sound, Lucas actually offered to pay for the theaters’ purchasing digital projectors in order to ensure that his films could be seen in what he viewed as the most appropriate manner. Then as now, any suggestion of change to the contemporary industrial models was met with a great deal of resistance, despite the fact that in the long run, HD digital projection eventually became a reality for many theater chains, though, admittedly, this is still the exception and not the rule.
At the same time, the movie industry of the past 30 years has been refashioned to the point where a film is only one stop in Hollywood’s recovery of profits. The movie, as viewed in theaters, more often than not only serves as a larger advertisement for the ancillary products the home conglomerate can shill. Star Wars is the ultimate example of the shifts within the industry, as the films spawned hundreds of micro-industries in their wake, ranging from lunch boxes to action figures to books to a lucrative video game industry, all inspired by the series. The average cost of today’s Hollywood blockbuster exceeds $150 million and poses huge problems for studios, who now rely almost solely on the ancillary industries (such as soundtracks and spin-offs) and foreign box-office figures to recover their investment in a film. In this vein, we should recall that according to Laura M. Holson, foreign advertising figures have become staggering, to the point where Sony Pictures reportedly spent upwards of $70 million (roughly 70 times Bubble’s entire budget) to promote The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006) in Europe alone. When taken in relation to a film’s total cost we can see that the P&A effectively doubles a studio’s initial outlay of capital to the point where a film must make approximately twice its weight in rentals if a film is to turn a profit. At this point in history, this often means that a Hollywood Blockbuster must make at least half a billion dollars before it starts to make money. This is where DVD sales enter the equation, as the system has shifted inevitably to the foreign box office and to DVD to recover their investments. The relative success or failure of a DVD, like the film itself, can be easily measured by sophisticated computer tracking systems, such as the one employed by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest DVD merchant, which accounts for 50 percent of the entire DVD market. DVD sales can be tracked and further copies manufactured by individual title, making the profit margins even more effective by way of the instantaneous systematic assessment of supply and demand. It seems necessary to iterate that the window of a DVDs success or failure already operates on such razor-thin margins of profit.
The issue of release windows from exhibition to DVD sales, then, is an extremely volatile one, ultimately complicating the issue even further when adding the overall effect of piracy to the equation. This is just as true for filmmakers and may help to explain M. Night Shyamalan’s resistance to the idea, as he has stated that The Sixth Sense DVD paid for the whole cost of his house. Since the initial run of a film will likely anticipate the manufacture and sale of its DVD equivalent, any shrinking window will not only diminish the effectiveness of this strategy but likely ease the ultimate demand for the DVD sale. The additional market of the HD TV industry further problematizes the issue as consumers are now capable of watching similar quality fare in their homes through video-on-demand technologies, which potentially bypass the theater and the video store and go directly to the consumer’s home. Finally, the rise in illegal movie downloading via the Internet, where the same peer-to-peer file sharing technologies that devastated the music business could potentially divert further profits from Hollywood, causes another problem because newly bootlegged Hollywood films are often available by a film’s first weekend release in high quality forms on the Internet, which can be easily viewed on domestic home theater systems.
In the minds of Soderbergh, Cuban, and Wagner, then, the system was already broken. Their partial solution to this problem was the day-and-date release strategy that Bubble would be the first to exploit. By releasing Bubble in theaters and on DVD and making it available (and cost-effective) over the Internet, they effectively solved the problem by giving the consumer instant access to the product that they wanted to watch. In their mind, the question of choice and format—in other words, the idea that consumers want to watch films the way that they want to, whether on home video, via their computers, or in the theaters—lies at the heart of the illegal activity of movie downloading. In the music industry, iTunes has at least provided a stopgap measure (and industry alternative) to illegal file sharing, as it provides a venue for the instantaneous access to newly released content and has diverted some illegal traffic to ensure the recovery of profits. The day-and-date release strategy, at the very least, can be seen as a viable alternative to the ultimate loss that a newly released blockbuster film will likely face in the longer term. Thus, Cuban and Wagner’s plan ultimately helps to stem the diversionary tide of profits by allowing the consumer their respective choice of format and by providing the immediate access that consumers crave. Predictably, the idea met with a great deal of resistance throughout the industry.
We can look at the reception of Bubble in two waves because it was largely received in the popular press in two corresponding phases. These phases roughly responded to the manner in which the idea of the film was received in the year anticipating its release, followed by generally warm reviews of the film upon its theatrical run. In articles that responded to the idea of the film, these sources were further split, on the one hand representing industry retrenchment against the idea and generally denouncing the idea in the popular press. On the other hand, articles in favor of the idea also provided a great deal of ancillary information about how the current industry model operated, using Soderbergh’s film as a launching pad to discuss what the day-and-date release meant or could mean to the industry.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis was among the first mainstream critic to comment on the film’s potential in a feature piece in 2005. The timing of this article coincided with the Bubble’s release throughout the festival season and features the director speaking on the behalf of the new enterprise. In a contemporary article written from the film’s debut at the earlier Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Borrelli wonders if the film’s mandate, to show ordinary people in their environments, is relayed with any sense of condescension; he eventually comes to the opposite conclusion. Both pieces concentrate on the filmmaking process—the 18-day shoot, the use of nonactors, and the implementation of HD technologies to the industry model—and additionally to Bubble’s low-key aesthetic.
While the film received admiration and intrigue on the one side of the equation, on the other hand, industry sources began denouncing the project before it even began. This includes the reportage of industry-wide resistance to the HD format, as reflected in Scott Kirsner’s piece on the infiltration of digital cinematography in mainstream Hollywood fare, in addition to his initial interview with M. Night Shymalan, which brought the industrial debate into the mainstream. Adam Liepzig uses Bubble and the industry model that it could potentially disrupt to discuss the larger issue of the DVD market. When the film was finally released on 32 screens on January 27, 2006, it was generally quite well-regarded by critics, who found it an extremely engaging return to form for the filmmaker, with Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Glieberman calling it “devious and fascinating,” Roger Ebert calling it “hypnotic,” and Lou Lemenick characterizing it as a “deadpan commentary on the emptiness of middle-American life,” which Soderbergh managed “to pull off … without condescending to the characters.” Ironically enough, and despite the industry’s resistance, Bubble was one of Soderbergh’s best-reviewed films in years and did not face the same tone of negative criticism that accompanied some of his other, more esoteric works. Most critics agreed that the film was a return to form for the director, with Ebert calling it “brilliant.” Many reviewers seemed swayed by the film’s potential to change the industry model, with many centering on the “experimental” nature of its low-key aesthetic. In this regard, The Boston Globes reviewer Ty Burr calls the film an “experiment worth seeing,” while Dargis’ review calls the film a “wilfully perverse excursion into experimentation.” Critics on the negative side seem to have really hated the film, with comments such as “staggeringly clueless” and “[b]oring as [s]h∗t.” The most intelligent negativity came from Marjorie Baumgarten, who remarked that the film would more likely be remembered for “its method of manufacture and release than for any inherent qualities of its own.”
Despite the overall critical consensus that the film was a good one, the film’s release was tempered by its lack of access to screens overall, and it played for under a month in Cuban’s Landmark chain until February. Regardless of the profit-sharing incentives that Cuban and Wagner offered to theaters willing to carry the film, the overall resistance on the exhibition side doomed the film to a poor box-office total and virtual invisibility in the video stores. Its lackluster box-office performance seemingly buoyed National Theatre Owner’s President John Fithian’s victory over Cuban, and he was able to conclude that the exhibition window should not shrink accordingly. Here, he was able to restate his earlier opinion, calling the film a “radical” and misguided “experiment.” At the same time, even Fithian agreed that the film eventually “caused studios and exhibitors to sit down and talk with the creative community about this issue,” and that it “got us all together.” Cuban, on the other hand, reported that Bubble exceeded even his modest expectations, and the higher profile that the film garnered as a result of the related controversy resulted in it grossing “approximately $5 million in total returns, including box office, DVD pre-orders and ‘other revenues’ (presumably meaning pay-per-view receipts), which approximated a viewership of 500,000 people.” This would seem to indicate that the “radical” and “misguided” experiment served its purpose by overperforming in its new venues (DVD, theater, and pay-per-view) by expanding the exhibition venues horizontally, by way of Internet and cable delivery systems.
HDNet films released other films between 2005 and 2007, including Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim (2006), Broken English (Zoe Cassavettes, 2007), and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005). Ironically, among these works it was the documentary that was the most profitable, and the exhibitors that showed the film were offered back-end revenue in order to show it, as Cuban “kept writing them cheques.” With the release of Brian De Pal-ma’s high-profile Iraq drama, Redacted, it seemed as though the enterprise—including the overall controversy that the trio courted—was on the cusp of success. However, despite the overall positive reviews of the film, the HDNet experiment may have reached the end of its course. Though Cuban and Wagner are experimenting further with the industry model, possibly making Redacted available in what they call “Ultra HD Video-on-Demand,” they moved the filmmaking end of their business from HDNet to 2929 Productions ultimately ending their role as producers.34 Their rationale was that “three years on to the project, they no longer saw the need to convince people to produce in HD.” Furthermore, “[n]ow that people have accepted that digital technology can create wonderful artistic works, it is now but one more choice available to the independent artist choosing to work in film.” It is unclear whether this will mean a contractual renegotiation between Cuban, Wagner, and Soderbergh, though it is rumored that his upcoming film on Spalding Gray, Life, Interrupted, will still be produced through HDNet films. Regardless, since Bubble’s release and the industry’s resistance to it, the structure is already in the process of changing, particularly when it comes to online and video-on-demand delivery. The overall effect can already be seen in Wal-Mart and Amazon.com’s competition to provide high-speed delivery of movies online, in addition to the recent announcement that iTunes will now make Disney films available for download on its Quicktime player. In this sense, aside from the controversy that surrounded it, we should see Bubble as a properly historical document, perhaps going as far as to distinguish the film as the zero-moment of the coming digital era and the moment that the industry realized it had to change in order to ensure its long-term survival.