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Bubble Bursting Film Release Mould

US studio executives and theatre owners are watching the new Steven Soderbergh film Bubble carefully, to see how it fares with simultaneous release on DVD and aired on cable TV - on the same day it screens simultaneously in several theatres owned by the film’s producers.

Bubble will not be bursting onto the big screen in New Jersey, Virginia or Nevada. It won't be screening there or in more than a dozen other states, because big US theatre chains object to it being sold on DVD and shown on cable TV the same day it debuts in theatres.

Producers are calling this a “day and date” release strategy, but according to John Fithian, president of the NationalAssociation of Theatre Owners, it could damage his members’ business. "It's the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today," Fithian says.

New technology is now giving consumers faster access to music, movies, TV shows and other content via multiple devices, including laptop computers, portable video screens, even mobile phones. Theatre owners faced challenges from technology in the past, like TV and VCR. Now though major studios have, for the first time, contemplated releasing films in competing formats simultaneously.

Low-budget "Bubble," is a murder mystery set in a doll factory. It opens  on 27th Jan, the first of six films to be produced under a partnership between Soderbergh and 2929 Entertainment. Founded by millionaire maverick producers Wagner and Cuban, the company owns Magnolia Pictures, which will distribute "Bubble" in partnership with Landmark Theaters and HDNet Movies, the cable TV channel airing the film.

All six films to be produced by the partnership will release simultaneously on DVD, television and in theatres. "Bubble" will appear on DVD a few days after theatre and cable release.

Normally, studios carefully control the release of features to maximise profits, screening first in theatres, then on pay per view, home video, pay cable networks such as HBO, and finally on broadcast TV.

 But the time between those windows has been shrinking. In 1994, the average time between a movie opening in theatres and its home video debut was about six months. In 2004, that span had fallen to just four months, with some studios releasing films on DVD even sooner.

Revenue shares are also changing. A film now earns only about 25 percent of its gross income from theatres. Half of its revenue will come from home video, with the remainder from sales to cable and broadcast TV. Releasing DVDs sooner would allow  studios greater mileage from the millions of dollars spent on marketing new movies.
US theatre owners argue that people are already staying away from cinemas because they don't have to wait long for the DVD. Releasing disks the same day a movie debuts in multiplexes will squeeze already thin profit margins for theatres, even if consumers pay a price premium for the simultaneously released DVD. There are concerns in the exhibition industry that as more “day and date” releases come along, a spate of bankruptcies could follow.

 Media producers say they must adapt to the changing demands of consumers, who want to download entertainment from iTunes and other online services. Many TV shows are now sold online the day after they air. Recently, Peter Chernin, President and Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, who own 20th Century Fox, said his company would soon start releasing films in high-definition formats 60 days after theatrical release, but had not yet decided if the high-def releases will be via cable, satellite or on a disk.

Last week, Tom Staggs, finance chief of The Walt Disney Co., restated Disney’s position that all options are on the table when it comes to the traditional window release strategy.

Staggs said Disney still respects the role of theatres but went on to say "We're not predicting 'day and date' is going to happen tomorrow for a majority of films or even pushing for that to happen, but what we will do is experiment with what works for consumers."

Big event movies like "King Kong" may work best on the big screen, but simultaneous release could help small, independent films that often struggle to ever get to an audience while blockbusters effectively hog theatre screens.

Rainbow Media, a division of Cablevision say they have plans to release 18 to 24 films a year via video-on-demand on cable TV systems at the same time they open in theatres. Rainbow executives say this would create a "virtual art house" at a time when the theatrical market for smaller films is shrinking.

The company is not out to create waves, according to Joshua Sapan CEO of Rainbow Media. "For us, it's not meant to make trouble. We think (the films) will do better in the theatres if there is more buzz around it, even if it's available on television."