In 2005, director Steven Soderbergh released a small indie movie called "Bubble." The film was executive produced by billionaire Mark Cuban, who heralded it as the future of the filmmaking business. What was different about "Bubble" was that it was released in theaters, on DVD, and on pay-per-view all on the same day. It was Cuban’s belief that the traditional system of releasing a movie in theaters, then releasing it on DVD four months later, then going to pay-per-view a month after that would soon be a thing of the past. An on-demand world would see to the end of movies playing exclusively in theaters.
Cut to 2009. DVD sales are waning, and another film, "Avatar," has come to supposedly change movies forever. But the promise of "Avatar," which unlike "Bubble" cost roughly $400 trillion, is the exact OPPOSITE of what Cuban predicted. Instead of collapsing the old rollout model for movies, "Avatar" could end up extending it indefinitely.
Already, those who have seen "Avatar" are calling it one of the most immersive movie-going experiences ever, due to its deployment of 3D and motion capture technology. You don’t need to see "Avatar" to know that 3D is slowly taking over your local multiplex. Notable movies like "Monsters vs. Aliens" have already been released to theaters and designed specifically to be watched in 3D.
If you’ve seen a movie in digital 3D lately, you know it’s something to behold. I saw "Coraline" in 3D earlier this year (I took my three-year-old, which makes me a horrible person), and the difference was obvious. Unlike old 3D techniques, in which certain things in the movie reached out into the audience, the new style of 3D allows the viewer to see deeper INTO the film. When Coraline opens a door and a paper tunnel extends in front of her, the 3D effect makes that tunnel feel like it’s really there, extending out in front of you and into the distance.
That’s the potential of 3D. It turns the movie screen into a diorama: a window that allows you to view a world that has, to the eye, the same depth as the world outside your door. It’s almost as if the movie you’re watching is taking place on a stage.
And THAT feeling is what may have the movie industry jumping for joy in a time of economic hardship. A movie experience like "Coraline" in 3D, or "Avatar" in 3D on a giant IMAX screen, cannot be duplicated at home, unless you are rich, which no American is anymore. You HAVE to get up and go see "Avatar" at the theater if you really want to SEE it. Seeing James Cameron’s movie in 2D at home on your TV (or a digital copy you stole online and watched on your laptop) means you aren’t watching the same movie. And most people are probably willing to pay the difference.
After all, going to a movie is still much cheaper than going to a Broadway show. A movie like "Avatar" could, in theory, play in 3D theaters for an incredibly long run, into March and beyond (the last movie to do that was, of course, "Titanic"). Rather than collapse the DVD release process, you could make the case that something like "Avatar" should NEVER released in a home-viewing format. Why, the film could have its OWN theaters! There could be groupies who make the pilgrimage to see it every year! YOU COULD TAKE YOUR GERMAN AUNT WHEN SHE COMES TO TOWN!
So, a scant four years after little "Bubble" was supposed to rock Hollywood, the film industry may have just found a solution that keeps them in business, and keeps people going to theaters, for a very, very long time.
(NOTE: Last week I speculated that "Avatar" could be one of history’s biggest flops. I regret the massive error. That movie is going to crush all in its path.)