People have been proclaiming the imminent death of theatrical motion pictures for just about as long as theatrical motion pictures have been around. The introduction of sound was supposed to kill the movies. TV was supposed to kill the movies. VCRs were supposed to kill the movies. Despite it all, theatrical motion pictures somehow managed to survive and even thrive through most of the 20th century. But as we approach 2006, movies are in a truly dire state. They may not be dead, but, to pinch a line from Monty Python, they was coughing up blood last night.
Pundits have speculated endlessly on what's behind the current box-office slump, blaming the surfeit of entertainment options now available (the internet, video games, etc.), or the lousy economy, or too many lousy movies. Whatever the case, while folks do still venture out to the theaters for the occasional event picture (your Harry Potters and your King Kongs), the rest of the time they increasingly hold out for the DVD release. Justifiably panicky theater owners have been struggling to compensate for the lost revenue by raising admission costs and showing even more commercials for cars and toothpaste before the main feature—all of which just annoys and alienates those who were still going to the theaters, making them less likely to return. Obviously, something has to change, and fast.
In a strange twist of fate, the future of moviegoing in America might just rest on the slender shoulders of former indie wunderkind Steven Soderbergh. Since his debut with 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh has enjoyed a remarkably shizophrenic career as a director, hopping back and forth between mainstream films (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven and Twelve) and weird little arthouse experiments (Kafka, Full Frontal). Next month, Soderbergh will debut his most unusual picture yet. Bubble is an ultra low-budget, high-definition video drama, set in an Ohio doll factory and featuring a cast of non-actors. The film itself is peculiar enough, but it's the way the film will be released that has all of Hollywood abuzz: Bubblewill hit theaters, DVD, and high-definition cable TV all at once. It will be the first of six films Soderbergh shot for the Dallas-based 2929 Entertainment, a company run by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, two guys who also own the Magnolia Pictures distribution company and the Landmark theater chain.
It's a bold plan, and it's met with bitter criticism from some of Soderbergh's peers.
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"It's heartless and soulless and disrespectful," snarled The Village director M. Night Shyamalan to the Chicago Tribune. "Of course, cable companies are behind it, and Internet companies. They need their product. But they have to wait their turn."
Soderbergh's response, meanwhile, has been alternately pragmatic ("[The days of conventional moviegoing] are gone. I wish it weren't so. Everything changes and evolves and we've got to get with it, embrace it and find a way to make it work.") and giddy ("I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, 'Here's version 2.0, recut, rescored.' The other version is still out there—people can see either or both.") With a budget that wouldn't have covered the catering expenses on Ocean's Twelve, Bubble is almost certain to turn a profit. But even if the film somehow bombs, Bubble's multi-platform release is surely the shape of cinematic things to come.
When Revenge of the Sith was released earlier this year, George Lucas speculated that we were entering the last days of the age of the blockbuster he helped introduce with the original Star Wars pictures. "The business is going to shrink," Lucas said, "and what's produced will be more like TV movies. They'll be low budget, and there won't be as many of them." Lucas and Soderbergh seem to agree that movies are due for downsizing, but where Lucas predicts that this will result in a lot of directorial hackwork ("When you're designing [for the small screen], you tend to end up with more close-ups, and your wide shots aren't so wide. I don't subscribe to that stylistic shift."), Soderbergh is more utopian, suggesting that this could lead to a rennaisance of the kind of restlessly innovative filmmaking that directors like Lucas, Altman and Scorsese were doing in the early '70s.
There's probably an element of truth in both ideas. Only time will tell.