Pic's triple bow inconclusive

The future of moviegoing (if you’re Mark Cuban) or its end (if you’re John Fithian) arrived Friday with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on cable TV.

The debate over whether studios should close their distribution windows had been under way for a long time before “Bubble,” a micro-budgeted film that even its director calls “experimental,” and the controversy no doubt will continue long after “Bubble” is forgotten. But as the pic has become the totem for those advocating a distribution model that would put films everywhere all at the same time, it’s clear the touchy issues “Bubble” is pointing up are more dramatic than the commercial impact this little film is making.

With grosses of some $72,000 from 32 theaters, most owned by Cuban and Todd Wagner’s Landmark Theaters, the results of the much-watched experiment showed that simultaneous release may be better at selling DVDs than movie tickets.

Eamonn Bowles, prexy of Magnolia Pictures (also owned by Wagner and Cuban), projected first-week revenues from the film of $5 million. A bit more than half that estimate is from DVD — Magnolia has shipped 100,000 copies, which retailers start selling Tuesday — and most of the rest is TV rights sales, including $250,000 paid by high-def cabler HDNet (also owned by Wagner and Cuban) to broadcast the pic on Friday night.

“Our trial seems to have worked out very well for us,” Bowles said. “Although we would have liked more theatrical performance, the overall revenue numbers were outstanding for this film.”

Although no DVDs have sold yet (so that $5 million estimate is perhaps a bit premature), he said the 100,000 units shipped was about four or five times larger than for other similar films.

At West L.A.’s Nuart Theater, “Bubble” started its one-week run on Friday. (There’s no chance of extension; Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay” is skedded to open Feb. 3.) Crowds were on the light side — Daily Variety counted about 30 people leaving the first show of opening night, then about 75 attending the 7:30 unspooling.

In Gotham, where pic played only at the Landmark Sunshine theater on the Lower East Side, Friday’s opening had less the feel of an event than a Tuesday-night screening of an obscure film. An average of about 30 people turned out for the 9:20 and 11:15 showings. In Santa Monica, out of 10 people who were willing to chat with a reporter on their way inside, all but two worked in the entertainment industry, and nearly half said they first heard about the film from media coverage of collapsing windows.

Auds in Gotham were similarly industrycentric, with staffers of ESPN and the Food Network, as well as a supporting actress from “Capote,” turning out for the show.

It seems the coverage asking whether people would pay to see a movie they could get on DVD was the main reason people ended up paying to see “Bubble” theatrically.

“Everyone’s talking about it,” said Bill Totolo, a cameraman for E!, when asked why he was paying $9.50 for a ticket. “I wanted to have an opinion on it.”

Others simply wanted to use their ticket to cast a vote in favor of theatrical experience. “I still like going out to the movies,” said Ted Deiker, a feature film production supervisor. “I’m holding on as long as I can.”

Of the small minority of people unaware of the experimental strategy, they said they would have preferred to wait for the DVD.

“Had I known before I got to the theater that I could have gotten it on DVD for less than the price of three tickets, I wouldn’t have come,” said Kara Moskowitz, who had joined two friends at the Sunshine’s 11:15 show.

At the Nuart, a man who said he attended the 5:20 show because he was thinking of moving to L.A. and wanted to see who showed up for arthouse movies was nonetheless disappointed with the film. “I should have Netflixed it,” he said.

Of course, part of the hope is that those who go to the theaters also buy the DVD. At the Sunshine, a DVD of “Bubble” sat prominently for sale in the box office window. A promotion proclaimed $5 off the film with presentation of a “Bubble” ticket stub, but no one seemed to be asking about it. An employee at the Nuart said they’d sold about nine copies after the first show of the night.

Still, of those heading into the theater, there was plenty of support for the notion of change.

“I think there needs to be a new business model,” said Dominick Cecere, an f/x animator. His wife, Lucinda Chee, who does film painting, added, “I just want to support indie filmmaking.”

In Gotham, Cuban may have found his ideal customer in Andrew Miller, a self-described “Steven Soderbergh devotee” who was paying to see the pic after first seeing it at the New York Film Festival and also was considering a DVD purchase.

But for the most part, auds were basically what one would expect at a low-budget arthouse film: people in the industry and connected to the film. Back in Santa Monica, one of the rare non-pros, Arash Bina, a Ph.D. student, was waiting in front of the Nuart for his friend: “She knows one of the people involved with the film.”

Another non-pro, a young woman who said she was just visiting from New York, said she was seeing the movie because she was friends with the casting director and then melted into a crowd of six other people.

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