Thinking Outside the Box Office / interview with Steven Soderbergh
06-12-05 Crónicas del Carbono
When Steven Soderbergh releases his next film on January 27, it will have not only the critics squawking, but Hollywood studio execs, too. Bubble, an all-digital thriller, is set in an Ohio doll factory, and all of the actors are completely unknown. But that's not even the interesting part. The movie goes out to theaters, DVD, and high-definition cable TV - all on the same day. It's an experiment that threatens to uproot the film industry's long-standing "release window" formula, which staggers a picture's release on various platforms to maximize profits. Wired caught up with Soderbergh, director of sex, lies, and videotape, Traffic, and Ocean's Eleven, while he was in Los Angeles shooting The Good German, with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.
WIRED: Why did you decide to release Bubble in all formats at once?
SODERBERGH: Name any big-title movie that's come out in the last four years. It has been available in all formats on the day of release. It's called piracy. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, Ocean's Eleven, and Ocean's Twelve - I saw them on Canal Street on opening day. Simultaneous release is already here. We're just trying to gain control over it.
So this is a way to combat piracy?
It can be. Warner Bros. has talked about going out with low-cost DVDs simultaneously in China because piracy is so huge there. It will be a while before bigger movies go out in all formats; in five years, everything will.
Will people keep going to theaters?
Always. You're going to see attendance plateau a bit, but it's still the number one date destination. That's never going away.
Have you been to the movies recently?
I tried to go to a theater yesterday, but the fire alarm went off. The theater experience isn't always pleasant. Theater owners need to address that. There are often problems with projection; tickets and concessions are expensive; theaters aren't always clean; people talk during the movie. They're making it easy for people to stay home.
What's the reaction in Hollywood to your release experiment?
People are waiting to see what happens. A movie that costs only $1.6 million doesn't have to be a cultural event to turn a profit.
What's the biggest impact technology is having on filmmaking?
When the changeover from film to digital happens in theaters in five or 10 years, you're going to see name filmmakers self-distributing. Another thing that really excites me: I'd like to do multiple versions of the same film. I often do very radical cuts of my own films just to experiment, shake things up, and see if anything comes of it. I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, "Here's version 2.0, recut, rescored." The other version is still out there - people can see either or both. For instance, right now I know I could do two very different versions of The Good German.
Have you ever used BitTorrent or other software to download movies?
No. I know about it, but I haven't even downloaded music. I'm behind the curve.
Should hardware manufacturers be obligated to build copy protection into their devices?
It's a tricky question. I don't think somebody who creates something should have their rights violated. Yet we have a culture in which creating something like [Danger Mouse's] The Grey Album can get you thrown in jail. That's sad. It's an astonishing, amazing piece of work that should be heard.
Have you thought about making a mash-up?
I have ideas like that - video mash-ups. Some of them I've done privately. But there's no way for them to be seen legally. I wish we could come up with a system that allowed someone to do a Grey Album without having to pay millions of dollars for music rights. A system in which rights holders share profits of a new piece of work and people can access it without breaking the law.
Give me one idea for a video mash-up.
I was channel surfing the other night and Gus Van Sant's Psycho was on. It would be fascinating to do a mash-up of Gus' version with Hitchcock's version, because the whole thing with Gus' version was that he duplicated the original shot by shot.
I'd watch that!
Yeah! So right now, I could do that at home and give it to a friend, just as something for them to watch on a Friday night. But we don't live in a world where that can be made commercially available. So it goes underground. And underground is just a sexier word for illegal. It's frustrating.
You shot Bubble with the same kind of high-end digital cinema cameras that George Lucas used for Revenge of the Sith, but the results couldn't be more different. Instead of flashy effects, there's a stripped-down naturalism.
We wanted to do site-specific films. You hear that term used for other art forms, but not for cinema. The writer and I come up with a basic premise, go to a location, and the people fill it up. We interview people, incorporate their stories, try to make it as organic as possible. The cameras make that possible. You can shoot using available light. I sometimes ran two or three cameras at a time. In Full Frontal and K Street, I learned to take advantage of the mobility that digital provides. With Bubble, I wanted to go in the opposite direction and emphasize stillness. Because there isn't film running through the camera, you get an even more pronounced stillness. That's why you don't see much camera movement in the movie, just a lot of cuts.
With all this technology available, do you think the quality of movies is better today than 30 years ago?
I think it will be better. As technology gives filmmakers more freedom, you'll see them producing work that is more unique, less beholden to the mainstream film template. That means rethinking the economics. But I'm always willing to gamble.
How are you gambling with Bubble?
There are risks, and then there are risks. I'm not working in a coal mine. Still, everybody involved did it for scale pay, and everyone owns a piece of the profits.
Sounds like the financial model for a startup.
Exactly. I'd be thrilled if the model works well enough for me to do that all the time.