The latest film from Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh seeks not to break box-office records, earn countless awards or chronicle what's next for Danny Ocean and his band of merry thieves. No, all it wants to do is change the way Hollywood makes movies. Forever.
Bubble, starring absolutely no one you have heard of unless, per chance, you are a resident of Parkersburg, W. Va., or Belpre, Ohio presents the story of two doll-factory drones whose very, very quiet world is turned upside down by a shocking murder. Sounds good and typically art-housey so far, right? But the reason all eyes in Hollywood are on this little film that could made for a pittance of $1.6 million is that Bubble will be released in theaters and on cable (via HDNet Movies) today, and will then become available on DVD on Tuesday.
Called a "day-and-date" release, the brand-new practice has met with loud rebuffs from some movie-biz bigwigs (not to mention theater owners) claiming that it will rob film lovers of the moviegoing experience. But more to the heart of the matter, the concern is that Big Cinema is going to reap far less money. Soderbergh, the director of such critical favorites as Out of Sight, Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven, however, sees the current business model as the problem. "The risk-reward ratio, how people are compensated up front, how people are compensated in the back [end], all of this needs to be redesigned," insists the filmmaker. "It's in bad shape, and somebody needs to sit down and sort it out."
Chief among Soderbergh's proposed remedies: a salary cap for actors, similar to what professional athletes have. (That sound you hear is the collective gasp of dozens of very pretty and well-paid SAG members.) "I don't have a problem with artists making money," he clarifies. "I'm talking about up-front salary caps. In the back end, if the movie makes a billion dollars and you took a small fee up front, you should get [what you deserve]."
The almost sacrilegious suggestion would actually energize the film industry, says Soderbergh, by improving the quality of releases. How, you ask? "Let's say you had a salary cap of $5 million," he illustrates. "You then find yourself in a situation because a lot of people could potentially come up with that amount to pay an A-lister where the actor's decision will have to be based on, 'What's the best of these scripts?' The problem now is somebody is always going to have more [money to offer], and that will always sway the actor's decision. But if you level that playing field, the decision becomes based on the best material, and then you're going to see better movies."
Make no mistake, nobody on the Bubble cast earned $5 million. Not close to it. It's kind of hard to merit such a payday when, after all, you are an entirely untrained actor plucked from the film shoot's environs to star in this simmering murder mystery. Comparing the experience of directing the likes of Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley and Misty Dawn Wilkins (as Bubble's Martha, Kyle and Rose) to working with the Clooneys, Robertses and Zeta-Joneses of this world, Soderbergh says, "What it all comes down to [is that] they're not worried. There's a lack of pretense to the performance that is compelling to me. When you're watching, like, Debbie, especially at the end, you try to imagine an actor doing that and you know it wouldn't be the same. To watch them was really fascinating."
But why not grab an actual actor or two to boost Bubble's chances of making a good showing? Soderbergh dismisses the suggestion that no "name" dared attach him or herself to this speculative endeavor for fear of being "blacklisted" by traditionalist studio execs. "No, not at all. [Casting unknowns] was just always part of the design of how I wanted to do this cycle of six [films]."
That's right, Bubble is the launch point for a hexology of day-and-date releases on Soderbergh's drawing board. "They're all going to be different," he says, "but the method they'll all share is a basic story idea, then us going to the place we want to set it, casting the film and building the area into the film. My goal is to have six films that take place in wildly different areas of the country, with different social strata, and just come up with a little 'box' or 'snapshot' of movies."
Ironically (or not, depending on how you see it), a "little" film like Bubble, if released in the traditional manner, would seldom see the light of day in either of the two tiny towns in which it filmed. And that is an essential point of the day-and-date approach. "A movie will open, it will get reviewed and there will be articles about it, but most of the country doesn't have access to an art-house theater. [Doing it this way] I like that they can read about it and then go get it."
As mentioned earlier, some filmmakers have been vocal with their criticism of this strategy, including, Soderbergh shares, his "very upset" pal, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. "This is the analogy I use: Let's say there's this amazing art exhibit in a museum where I don't live, that I'm not going to get to go and see. When the big coffee-table book comes out, am I supposed not to buy it because I didn't get to see it in the museum? I would like to see those paintings, knowing that I may never see them in a museum, so I'd like to buy the coffee-table book. Is that so wrong?"
The biggest hurdle facing Soderbergh (and executive producers for HDNet Films' Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban) is not how well Bubble performs, but finding a way to actually assess how it performs. "How do we quantify the success or nonsuccess of this experiment?" he asks. "In the case of HDNet, is there going to be a way to figure out if they did have a spike in subscriptions during this period? Or is that not the way their business really works, because they're not dealing with HBO-type numbers? I don't know. That's a question I've got to ask. If 100,000 people call up [at release time] and order HDNet, that would tell us something, but I have the feeling it's not going to be that dramatic."
But should the experiment be a winner, now or in the end run, you could be looking at a whole new Hollywood business model. "If we do Ocean's Thirteen" the script for which Soderbergh has just taken a first glance at "I will be talking to Warner Bros. about going out simultaneously," he declares. "Why not?"