Film: The Revolution Is Here

Steven Soderbergh attempts an industry shift with his new film Bubble

Magnolia Pictures

A man of vision: Acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh embraces change.

PARKERSBURG, W.VA. — Onetime factory manager and current job hunter Dan Christian sits in the crowd of the Smoot Theater and beams with excitement. He's dressed in a tuxedo, something he hasn't worn since his wedding. He sits alongside his wife Joan, every bit as elegant in a formal dress and sparkling jewelry.

It's the evening of a lifetime, one he's sharing with friends and neighbors from the Parkersburg area. On this January night, one that local residents say is the warmest in recent memory, Christian is in the movies, and he'll soon watch himself on the big screen.

Sixteen months ago, famous filmmaker Steven Soderbergh came to Parkersburg and nearby Belpre, Ohio, to make the movie Bubble. His goal was a movie unlike anything he's done before, something different from his landmark independent drama sex, lies and videotape and the well -known Hollywood hits Ocean's 11 and Erin Brockovich.

The 43-year-old filmmaker cast the town's residents, all non-actors, to essentially play characters similar to themselves. He shot on various locations throughout the two neighboring towns.

Bubble would be a cinema experiment, a low-budget film shot on digital video.

Granted, its tale is a murder mystery involving a pretty female worker at the town doll factory. But Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough strip Bubble clean of the artificial emotion found in many conventional thrillers. It's intentionally experimental, a film meant to stand out from the crowd.

Bubble premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and Soderbergh has come back to Parkersburg to screen the film to the townspeople who helped make it possible. He and the film's producers and distributor, Magnolia Pictures, have given the small Ohio River town the type of red-carpet event normally reserved for New York City or Los Angeles. For one night, the local people are treated like stars.

Christian was human resources director at the Lee Middleton doll factory when Soderbergh shot the film before the factory relocated much of its work to China last year. That's the role he plays in Bubble. He's only in the film for one brief scene, but it's hard to watch yourself larger-than-life, warts and all, for any length of time.

"I haven't see the film yet, and I'm kind of nervous," Christian admits in the minutes leading up to the show.

Once the movie is underway, he's up to the task. He laughs with the surrounding co-stars and beams with pride once his scene has passed. Life will never get more exciting than this.

Last fall's Toronto Film Festival offered the type of press setting Soderbergh is used to experiencing. The Inter-Continental Hotel was big-city plush. Celebrities flitted about the nearby courtyard giving interviews and posing for photos as he chose a quiet corner in the hotel bar beneath a colorful abstract painting.

Soderbergh has made an experimental film before. Schizopolis was a small movie made at a time when he struggled to acquire financing for more mainstream projects. But Bubble is a small film by intention.

Soderbergh wants to help create a revolution in movie exhibition. He's confident it's going to happen and proud to be the filmmaker pushing the digital era an additional step forward.

Bubble opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. A customer can buy it on cable for a one-time viewing. On Jan. 31, $29.95 will buy them the DVD. It's part of a deal between Soderbergh and the production company 2929 set up by businessmen Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. The point is for anyone from anywhere, from cities like Toronto to small towns like Parkersburg, to be able to watch Bubble if they want to.

"The digital revolution is here if a filmmaker chooses," Soderbergh said in Toronto, leaning back on a sofa. "I still love film, and I will continue to shoot in film. But Bubble is the type of movie that needs hi-defintion video in order for it to be practical. I think it looks great. But what's important to me is that Bubble is a movie that ordinarily would only play art houses in large cities.

"The point is to get this movie out to as many people as possible. But listen — we don't know how this is going to work. There's a commitment for more films but we'll have to see."

A two-lane toll bridge takes you from Ohio to Parkersburg in West Virginia. Neighborhoods of restored homes surround a compact downtown. Several months after the Toronto Film Festival, Soderbergh has come here to take part in the town's celebration of the film and to say thanks for the residents' help and support.

If successful, Bubble will jump-start a revolution in the way movies are distributed to audiences. What's amazing is that the revolution is taking seed in rural communities like Parkersburg and Belpre.

Our conversation picks up from where we left off some months ago. The difference is that any questions about the success of Bubble and its new model release strategy will be answered very soon.

Soderbergh is dressed casually in a pullover shirt and jeans. The conversation is low-key and friendly, but he admits to being nervous about the evening premiere of the film.

Yes, Soderbergh, one of Hollywood's top filmmakers, is nervous. The people of Parkersburg have come out in celebration, but that doesn't mean they'll like the film.

"This is not the type of movie they're used to watching at the nearby multiplex," he says. "This is something different, and I have no idea how they will respond. I believe we treated them with respect, which is not often how rural communities are treated in Hollywood films. But it's hard to watch yourself on the big screen. It's a difficult thing to do. Of course I hope they like the movie."

Bubble arrives during a slump in cinema ticket sales, and Soderbergh admits to hearing plenty of criticism that releasing the film on both DVD and in theaters will just hasten the decline of movie theaters.

A question is put on the table: Think back to once-thriving entertainment businesses like vaudeville theaters and Nickelodeons. They no longer exist. Technology made them obsolete. Are movie theaters destined for the same fate?

"As long as people go on dates, there will be movie theaters," he says matter-of-factly. "People need to have a place to go. Things may change, but movie theaters will continue to exist."

Soderbergh, often practical in the way he discusses Bubble, now looks to romance as the hope for the future. Asked if love will save the movies, he laughs.

"Well, lust more than love."

There's a red carpet outside Parkersburg's Smoot Theater. There's a spotlight and some press. The historic downtown theater is used most often for musical acts and stage shows, but a movie screen and a video projector have been installed to make the Bubble premiere possible.

The mayors of Parkersburg and Belpre are in the audience. So are county leaders. The experimental nature of Bubble might surprise them. The story — a young woman's murder — while melodramatic is kept at a subtle tone equal to non-fiction filmmaking.

Christian sits with his wife and watches himself on screen for the first time, but Bubble is not like any movie he's ever watched at the multiplex cinemas outside town. That's another perk about the digital revolution and total film democracy — a movie does not have to be a crowd pleaser to get a shot in front of a crowd.

In fact, one joy of film festivals is watching movies that ordinarily wouldn't be seen in commercial theaters. Bubble, whether on DVD, hi-definition cable or on the screen at the Smoot Theater, has made Parkersburg a true mini-festival, if only for one night. ©

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