Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), work together in a doll factory, in a small West Virginia town, providing one of the few places for steady employment. The work is dull and repetitive, but it helps them survive. Martha, a portly woman who also provides care for her elderly dad, is a good thirty years older than Kyle, but she has a crush. She gives him a ride to work every day and part of their routine includes stopping for doughnuts every morning. Then, after a few hours, they take lunch together, driving to nearby fast food places and bringing the food back to their communal, bright, and empty lunch room. After work, Martha even drives Kyle to his second night job before she returns home, to sew, and watch television with her father. Soon, the factory gets a new order and they hire Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), to help with the increased work. Much closer to Kyle's age, the two seem to bond, more out of boredom than anything else. Martha doesn't appreciate the intrusion.
Soderbergh is one of my favorite directors due in a large part to his constant experimentation, both in narrative and the technical aspects of his films. In previous films, he has experimented with shifting time; in a scene, we hear dialogue from the characters we are watching, as they finish eating, or fighting adding a level of urgency to an otherwise mundane scene; using monochromatic colors to create a modern form of Film Noir (see "The Limey", "The Underneath" and "Out of Sight"); more mainstream dramas, such as "King of the Hill", one of the most underrated films ever, and "Erin Brockovich", which was more mainstream but still contained variations of the previous elements. But Soderbergh got his start in Independent Film, so while he may make the occasional clunkers like "Full Frontal", one of the worst films I have ever seen, and a remake of "Solaris", starring George Clooney, he also makes films like "Bubble".
If you go into "Bubble" expecting the all-star casts of his current crop of films, you will be very disappointed. "Bubble" is the story of three people, and all three are played by unknowns. Their unfamiliarity helps to make the story and their situation much more believable. The film spends a lot of time setting up their lives, their personalities and how they fit together. Because of the relatively rural location of their lives, and the dullness of their existence, this doesn't take long. But it is important for us to see this, to get their situation, to understand and experience a portion of the mind-numbing boredom and loneliness they experience on a daily and hourly basis.
I would be very surprised if this film cost more than a million dollars and took more than a few weeks to shoot. Because the film follows the unknowns into their simple homes, and uneventful lives, the film has a unique feel, giving the audience the feeling we are eavesdropping. Adding to this illusion, Soderbergh rarely moves the camera. It sits and records these newcomers interacting, giving the film a unique `documentary-like' feel. In one scene, Kyle and Martha are sitting in the doughnut shop. Martha tells him she wants to take his picture, because he's such a good friend. He stands up, blocked from our view by a hanging plant.
"Bubble" is all about these three people and presents a unique character study. We understand why 50-something Martha, overweight Martha, would feel attracted to 20-something Kyle, skinny Kyle. Martha is so bored with her life, and has been bored for so long, she now accepts it. Martha is the type of person who becomes excited about a possible $50 bonus, Martha and Kyle are the type of people a $50 bonus would mean a lot to, as they are always dreaming of taking trips or saving up for new cars. Kyle is no great prize, as he spends little time outside of his two jobs or his bedroom where he smokes pot. When Rose enters the picture, she is new and exciting to Kyle (he actually smiles, but only briefly) and a threat to Martha.
The previous collaboration from director Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough was the dismal "Full Frontal", one of the worst films I have ever seen. "Bubble" is a far better film, which isn't saying a whole lot. This isn't a fast-moving film, but it presents a unique slice of life in a way that we really feel we get to know these people. And for that reason alone, it is worth watching.
Now, about the experiment...
"Bubble" is an experiment, of sorts, in distribution. I can see both benefits and problems to this experiment and I think the problems far outweigh the benefits.
The film was released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD and will play on some cable networks beginning a few days later.
From what I understand, this is the brainchild of Mark Cuban, the billionaire who owns the Landmark Theaters chain and also an independent film distribution company. Normally, an independent film will play in a handful of theaters in New York, Los Angeles, maybe San Francisco and Toronto. As they play in these large cities, the film would ideally build both word-of-mouth and critical praise. As momentum builds, the distributor can move the film into more theaters in more cities and states, gradually increasing the run. Sometimes, you have a breakout and the film begins playing in large multiplexes. More often than not, the film follows a set release pattern, playing many theaters, but in a slow, prearranged pattern. Some states and cities may never see the film, there just isn't enough interest.
Until the film is released on DVD. The revenue generated from DVD sales and rentals far outweigh the box office generated from any film. Now, a theatrical run is viewed as promotion for the inevitable DVD release. This is why a film like "The Legend of Zorro" takes a scant four months to reach DVD. Naturally, independent films take longer to reach DVD. The companies are smaller and they want the theatrical release to catch the attention of all of those mom and pop video store owners.
So how does releasing "Bubble" concurrently in theaters and on DVD, with a cable run close behind, benefit the film or the public? As mentioned, many people never have the opportunity to see an independent theater in a film in their community. Either the film is too small to play in the local theater, or there isn't enough interest. These people have to wait for the DVD. If the film is released on DVD on the same day it appears in theaters, they don't have to wait. But how will they know about the film? Will they even want to see the film before they have heard any comments about it? Will the Blockbuster in Pocatello, Idaho even bother to carry it? If the film receives a lot of pre-release publicity, they might know about it. But many independent films won't benefit from this. I can't imagine a lot of people running to the video store to rent "Junebug" on the day it opened. Because it was just beginning to receive a lot of critical praise and attention.
If a film is released on DVD the same day it begins playing in theaters, and you have access to both, why should you see it in the theater? A lot of independent theaters are small, boxlike environments which don't offer state of the art projection and sound. Thankfully, this is becoming rarer, but these theaters have a long way to go. When they depend on a new Woody Allen film or a new version of "Pride and Prejudice" to create a lot of box office, helping them stay open, what happens when people can watch these films at home, instead of spending a lot of money going to the movies? Clearly, the movie theaters lose and the viewers lose. As the audience decides to stay home, theaters lose money and there may end up being even fewer venues for some of these films to play. The audience loses as well. There is simply no substitute for watching a film in a theater with a bunch of other people. If you are watching a film at home, you aren't going to react the same way you would if there are a bunch of like-minded people ready to enjoy the experience with you. Check out the new DVD edition of "Sin City" for a great example of how this works.
The real key for this test will come with the first simultaneous release of a Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts film. I doubt this will ever happen. The movie studios aren't willing to risk losing the $100 million or so they generally get from films starring the A-List. Yes, the DVD revenues eclipse theatrical, but studios are almost guaranteed at least $100 million from a Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise film. Why would they give up $100 million and then additional money from future DVD, Cable and Television showings? They wouldn't. I wouldn't. I don't think you would either. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don't think I am.
From what I understand, "Bubble" is playing primarily at Landmark Theaters. This is the chain recently purchased by Mark Cuban. And many of these theaters are very nice. It seems a shame that he I willing to rob his own venues of potential revenue. But then again, he owns the company that produced and releases "Bubble". He doesn't seem to be losing anything. The audience is the only potential loser.