Soderbergh does a DVD-theater release combo

Partnered with billionaire Mark Cuban, the art-house director takes on traditional Hollywood business practices.

A red carpet will roll out Thursday night in front of Parkersburg, W.Va.'s historic Smoot Theater for the official premiere of a movie that, according to backers, represents the future of the film industry.

The movie is Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble." But the persistent buzz around its release has less to do with the film's artistic merits than with the fact that it will be broadcast on the high-definition network HDNet the night of its full theatrical release, Jan. 27, and also made available on DVD just four days later.

For many in the movie business, this is heresy. Most of the big movie chains have refused to carry the film. Financed and distributed by former executives Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner and their Wagner/Cuban Companies, the film is a direct shot at Hollywood's traditional way of doing business.


What's new:
Steven Soderberg's small-budget film "Bubble" will be the first major movie whose release on DVD follows its release in theaters by only four days.

Bottom line:
The movie's backers, former executives Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, are betting that their release strategy will cut marketing expenses for the films they back and ultimately make more money for theater owners.

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"Mark and I sat down and said, 'Can we find a way to survive in an industry that has not been good for equity investors?'" Wagner said. "This is the only way that real entrepreneurs have a chance to have a shot in an industry run by huge studios."

"Bubble" is part of an early wave of experimentation with different release strategies that's disturbing business as usual in Hollywood and has put theater owners, already smarting from a decline in box office revenues, on the defensive.

Movies have long been released in "windows"--first to theaters, then to home video, and from there to TV, pay-per-view, video-on-demand, hotels, airlines and so on. By staggering the availability to each market, studios have hoped to tap the full potential of each, without simultaneous competition from other distribution platforms.

That model has been challenged in recent years, undermined both by new distribution technologies and growing levels of online piracy and counterfeit-DVD sales. Movies are now routinely available online even before their premiere, and can be found for sale on street corners for just a few dollars as the curtain goes up in theaters.

In recent months a few powerful Hollywood insiders, led by Disney chief Robert Iger, have been talking about the need for dramatic changes in the windowing system in order to respond to those challenges.

Last week, Twentieth Century Fox said it will begin releasing movies to video-on-demand services simultaneously with DVD releases, a goal long sought by online companies like MovieLink, which have complained that they get films too late to compete with ordinary video rentals.

But the "Bubble" experiment with unveiling DVDs at the same time as the theatrical release is an anomaly, and the big theater chains are trying to keep it that way. The biggest chains, including AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Entertainment and National Amusements, have said they have no interest in carrying a film with a model that could undercut their own business.

"We feel that day and date (for a DVD release) dilutes the theatrical release," said Terrell Falk, a Cinemark spokeswoman. "This wouldn't be something we would show."

The art-house director and the billionaires
Wagner first met Soderbergh, who won the 2001 Best Director Oscar for his film "Traffic," not long after he and Cuban had sold to Yahoo for more than $5 billion in 1999. The pair of newly wealthy entrepreneurs were interested in filmmaking, and Wagner was talking to everyone he could in Hollywood, trying to understand the business.

That first meeting, at a restaurant in Los Angeles, resulted in an agreement to help fund two of the director's films. Wagner came back to Soderbergh again 18 months ago, and explained the idea of "day-and-date" DVD releases over a lunch in New York City. An enthusiastic Soderbergh agreed to direct six films for the Wagner/Cuban Companies, and "Bubble" is the first of those to hit the screen.

For the director, this new way of releasing movies was part of a broader experimentation with new technologies, in hopes of shaking up Hollywood's typically risk-averse habits. He could not be reached for this article, but has discussed his thoughts in other recent interviews.

"Bubble" itself is an experiment in filmmaking as well as in distribution, shot on high-definition digital cameras, using nonprofessional actors drawn from the residents of Parkersburg and

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