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January 21, 2006

Bubble Screens

Via Atrios: Mark Cuban has a blog entry on Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, which will be released simultaneously to theaters, on DVD, and for two showings on HDNet TV on Friday, January 27. Part manifesto and part marketing ploy, Cuban's blog entry makes some intriguing arguments for radically changing the ways in which films are distributed.

By making Bubble available in all three formats, Cuban and Soderbergh are defying standard industry practice, and in part, Cuban is responding to head of the National Association of Theatre Owners John Fithian's fears that "day and date" release constitutes a "death threat" against movie theaters. I don't have time to work through Cuban's post in the detail it deserves (I'm actually planning to go down to one of Cuban's Landmark Theaters to see Transamerica), but a few points are worth noting.

First, I think Cuban is right that movie theaters will continue to be attractive destinations for people who want to get out of their homes for a few hours. The assumption that people will automatically choose to stay at home to watch a movie, if given the alternative to watch it at home, doesn't hold. In some cases, people will choose to stay at home rather than going to the theater, but that choice may have more to do with the theater experience than the availability of the film itself.

Here, I think Cuban is right to note that theaters, espeically mega-multiplexes, need to reconsider how they package the moviegoing experience (and I'll admit that I'm a sucker for Landmark's concessions). The main reason I see so few Hollywood films is precisely that multiplexes have managed to make the experience of seeing movies in their theaters so unpleasant (although I'm less bothered by kids chatting and texting on cellphones than the half-hour of commercials before the previews start, much less the film itself).

That being said, I'm not sure Cuban's comparison between movies and the Mavericks, Cuban's pro basketball team, holds entirely. Cuban argues that sports team owners once worried that showing too many of a team's games would negatively affect attendance. As Cuban points out, the opposite has proven true. The increased numebr of games on TV has been accompanied by record attendance. Two comments here: first, I'd be careful not to mistake causation and correlation when it comes to this phenomenon (increased attendance might also be due to better ballparks, more aggressive marketing, or any number of factors).

Second (and more importantly), I think it is significant that sporting events such as Cuban's Dallas Mavericks games are live, auratic events while movies are mechanically (or digitally) reproducible. Being present at a significant ballgame, such as the final game of a World Series, or a witness of a specific individual achievement is not the same as attending a film masterpiece, simply because the film can be repeated while the experience of being at the game or event cannot. For these reasons, I think Cuban's comparison needs to be complicated.

That being said, I'm enthusiastic about Cuban's proposal for several reasons. I do think it will democratize access, particulalry for the independents. I've missed several good indie films when they played in the theater and, as a result, had to wait six months until the DVD release to see the film (Tarnation is one recent example for me). I also think that "day and date" release could invigorate conversations about some important films, specifically documentaries or "topical" films that don't always get a national release (that being said, there are still countless good films that never find distrbution). All of that being said, I'm less concerned about how theaters and Hollywood studios create wealth than I am in how films can add to larger political and social conversations as they are mediated by popular culture.

Posted by chuck at January 21, 2006 5:33 PM

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