| Soderbergh: Big gamble
London, Jan. 22: A crowd of tourists is sheltering from the drizzle underneath the awning of a multiplex cinema. It is Friday night in Leicester Square, central London, and the billboards above their heads are flashing with tantalising promises of films “coming soon”.
Inside, a member of staff stands in front of a row of shelves stacked with sweets and popcorn. The ticket seller sits gloomily in a glass-fronted booth, idly flicking through a magazine.
The rain eases off and the tourists move away. It seems that no one wants to go to the cinema tonight.
Nor, if the industry figures are to be believed, does anyone want to go to the cinema much any more. Figures released last week showed that audiences across Europe and America declined sharply in 2005.
On Friday, the cinema industry faces its biggest challenge yet: simultaneous release.
Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of films such as Erin Brokovich and Traffic, is to distribute his new film in cinemas and on DVD within a week.
Bubble, a digitally shot film about a murder in a toy factory, is to be released in American cinemas on January 27. The DVD will arrive in shops four days later.
It might not sound like much of a revolution, but media commentators predict that the simultaneous release will prove “the death spiral of Hollywood”.
“It’s the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today,” said John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners in America.
The threat is heightened by the film’s inversion of all the Hollywood norms.
Not only are the release dates almost simultaneous, but Bubble was filmed without any major stars on a shoestring budget of '905,000.
To compare, the budget for the recent blockbuster King Kong was '117 million. If Bubble proves popular, Hollywood’s film-making orthodoxy will have been turned inside out.
So perhaps it is not surprising that several cinema chains have pulled out of showing Soderbergh’s film, claiming that releasing the DVD within such a short space of time would cut into their profits and make it financially unviable.
Traditionally, there has been a several-month delay, or “window”, separating a cinematic release from the release of the video or DVD. But that has been shortened. According to Soderbergh, the simultaneous release is a creative solution to this overlap.
“The technology is there. I think the desire on the part of consumers is there,” he says.
“It will teach us about how people make their choices, about what they want to see and what format they want to see it in. It’s a scary idea for the studios and for cinema owners, but instead of worrying about it you’ve got to go.”
As Soderbergh points out, the opportunity to watch a version of a newly released film in your home already exists: it is called piracy.
“Name any big-title movie in the last four years. It has been available in all formats on the day of release,” he said. “Simultaneous release is already here. We’re just trying to gain control over it.”
It remains to be seen whether that hard-won control will breathe new life into cinema audiences or whether it will end up bursting Hollywood’s bubble.