Miércoles 30 de Noviembre de 2005, Ip nº 137

Moviegoing will change in this on-demand culture
Por Michael Phillips

It's not "Ocean's 13," but as the profoundly un-digital Steve Allen used to sing, it could be the start of something big.

Steven Soderbergh made his latest picture -- "Bubble," a small-town mystery shot with non-actors on crisp, bright high-definition video -- on a budget that wouldn't cover the cost of George Clooney's shirts on a Soderbergh "Ocean" picture. Years from now, however, when you're thrilling to the newest "Harry Potter" picture on its opening day without going anywhere near a multiplex, "Bubble" may be looked upon as a tiny, bubblelike portent of things to come.

Due in January, the high-def feature marks the first of six Soderbergh films shot on video for the Dallas-based 2929 Entertainment company run by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner. These guys have lots of money and, at their vertically integrated disposal, a distribution arm (Magnolia Pictures) and a well-known theater chain (Landmark Theatres).

They're also running HDNet Films and the HDNet Movie Channel. And next month, on the same weekend you can see "Bubble" at a Landmark theater the old-fashioned way, by getting your butt up off the sofa and mixing it up with other people in a movie theater, "Bubble" will be shown on HDNet, with a DVD release shortly afterward.

A brief run

The current and, many say, crumbling method of getting movies to your eyeballs goes like this. After playing in theaters, four months later, maybe three -- the gap is closing fast -- a film comes out on DVD and as a pay-per-view offering. To which the 2929 men say: Bah. Why not offer a film more than one way simultaneously?

They've tried this with the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "The War Within," both of which played theaters and on the subscription-based HDNet Movies. They're not alone. Rainbow Media's "American Gun," another independent picture, opens in January theatrically and via Rainbow's video-on-demand service.

"Bubble" is an interesting formalist experiment: It's arresting to see shlubby amateur performers treated to such epically still and vividly saturated digital high-def compositions. The film, which is a mystery but not a grabber, won't make a lot of money.

Effect on profits

But imagine if a more high-profile "little" film, such as "Good Night, and Good Luck," were to come out in the theaters on the same day pay-per-viewers and DVD renters had a crack at it. How would its multiple availability affect its own profits? Would the theaters owners take a beating? We don't know. But we will soon. Eventually a film on the order of "Good Night, and Good Luck" will try its luck.

And there will come a day when an event-type attraction -- a new "Harry Potter" -- will be downloadable for viewing opening day on your adorable little screen on your expensive new cell phone.

Such sugar-plum distribution visions are giving much of Hollywood a panic attack. While Disney chairman Bob Iger recently suggested that studios should consider releasing films in theaters and on DVD simultaneously, Sony Pictures Classics president Tom Bernard predicted such a move would spell "doom" for independents, which, he said, need time to build an audience more than they need to come out every which way at once.

Writer-director M Night Shyamalan has made millions giving moviegoers something to sweat about, in "The Sixth Sense" most vividly, and in "Signs" and "The Village" since then. His new film, "Lady in the Water," comes out next year. But he's the one doing the sweating. He's gone public with his disdain for the multiple-format release model.

"It's heartless and soulless and disrespectful," he told a captive audience of theater owners and managers and concession-stand stockers at the ShowEast convention in Orlando.

"Of course, cable companies are behind it, and Internet companies," he said. "They need their product. But they have to wait their turn."

I'm conflicted on all this. The way moviegoing habits are going, in a few years the word itself will probably change to "moviestaying," as in: Staying home to see a new film. In this on-demand, control-freakish culture it's inevitable.

But I like big screens and crowds. I don't have a home-entertainment center. I don't own a 62-inch high-definition anything. Whatever money I might spend on The Newest Television, offering fabulously detailed images beyond see-every-zit compare, is going instead either to our first mortgage, our second mortgage or to pay for our new roof. I don't have an iPod, either. I'm like my Los Angeles pal Eric Lindbom, one of my favorite people to talk movies with.

Back to the dinosaurs

"I feel like a dinosaur," Eric e-mailed me the other week. "The things I like to do -- read newspapers, listens to CDs, go to movies -- are all becoming obsolete. I hate all this interactivity/design-your-own-product stuff.

"And now," he continued, "more and more people -- even kids -- want to stay home and watch DVDs instead of going out." Twenty years ago we were that target demographic, the one the shuddering, scrambling film industry scrambles to please and caters to its every on-demand demand.

The battle comes down to the custodians of traditional moviegoing versus those investing in the future of moviestaying. As Eamonn Bowles, president of 2929's Magnolia Pictures division, said recently: "Hollywood is watching this with microscopic eyes."


  27/11/2005. Chicago Tribune.