Across his nearly thirty-year career as a screen-industry professional, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has proven himself one of the most dynamic figures in the U.S. film industry, a prolific director and producer of blockbuster entertainments, idiosyncratic art films, low-budget video experiments, and television series. We can see the characteristic diversity of his work by bracketing an interval of his career. For the sake of illustration, I begin by briefly surveying his work between late 2004 and early 2006, one of many densely productive periods in his creative life. In September 2004, the omnibus international art film Eros debuted at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, with Soderbergh as director, cinematographer, and editor of one of its three segments. The Toronto festival, and the Telluride festival earlier in the month, also screened the low-budget independent Keane, executive-produced by Soderbergh as a product of the Section Eight production company he co-managed with actor George Clooney. Early December saw the opening of star-ensemble studio film and sequel Ocean's Twelve, with Soderbergh as director and cinematographer. The film quickly became a commercial hit, ultimately grossing over $350 million worldwide. Next, in January 2005, the television series Unscripted, another Section Eight effort executive-produced by Soderbergh, began its run on HBO. The same month, the experimental film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2F1/2—directed by William Greaves, a leading figure in black independent cinema since the 1960s—premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with Soderbergh again credited as executive producer. Soderbergh earned additional executive-producer credits on five Section Eight films released in 2005, including Academy Award contenders Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. Meanwhile, in the realm of home video, Soderbergh contributed co-commentary tracks to the DVD releases of Point Blank (1967) and The Yards (2000), interviewing directors John Boorman and James Gray, respectively. Also in 2005, he wrote the foreword to a book about the indie-rock band Guided by Voices, fellow travelers in hugely prolific output (and whose frontman, Robert Pollard, would contribute the score to Soderbergh's next film, Bubble ).
At the end of our surveyed timeframe, in January 2006 Soderbergh earned notice again for the national release of Bubble, though not for his multi-hyphenate work as director, cinematographer, and editor. Instead, the digital-video effort attracted industry interest for its simultaneous release in theaters, on pay-per-view television, and on DVD. While not naming Soderbergh directly, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian labeled this arrangement a "death threat" to exhibitors. Following Bubble's release, Soderbergh would not receive another screen credit for a full six months, until the release of A Scanner Darkly (2006), another Section Eight project he executive-produced. And probably more to the comfort of Fithian and other exhibitors, Soderbergh's follow-up feature as director was The Good German, a part-homage to Casablanca (1942) that premiered at the end of 2006. Though that film earned only a limited release and consequently was not a box-office success, Soderbergh returned temporarily to the list of high-grossing directors with Ocean's Thirteen (2007), and he has continued to alternate between star-driven features and more esoteric projects.
Soderbergh's work illuminates many trends in industry practice, media authorship, technologies of film and television production and distribution, and motion-picture aesthetics. His features have been shot on 35mm film as well as digital video. His filmography includes popular blockbusters, prestige studio pictures, standard-setting independent films, and extensive experimental work. He has directed numerous adaptations, remakes, and sequels. He has worked in television as series creator, producer, and director. In some of the films he directed in the 1990s, and in all since 2000's Traffic, he has served pseudonymously as cinematographer, and usually as uncredited camera operator, too. On many he has served as editor as well, also under a pseudonym. Also, alongside other scripting efforts, he wrote the screenplays for sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and for Schizopolis (1996), in which he played the lead role as well. His many roles in film and television production evidence nearly all categories of screen authorship.
Another Steven Soderbergh Experience argues for the opportunities afforded to the creative individual within contemporary screen industries. Soderbergh is in many respects a unique figure—no other industry professionals work so prominently in so many genres, modes, media, and areas of technical expertise. At the same time, his myriad efforts typify contemporary media-industry practice, in which production entities, distribution platforms, and creative labor increasingly cross-pollinate. Dispensing with the romantic model of the film author as visionary artist struggling against the crass commercial system, this book considers anew the possibilities for collaboration, entrepreneurship, and artistry in entertainment industries. Equally significantly, it emphasizes continuity across historical periods and industrial modes, challenging long-accepted distinctions between independent and studio films, between film and television authorship, between theatrical and home-video releases, and more. While such categories retain some utility in marking critical and industrial boundaries, they fail to account for the diverse production and reception practices of contemporary Hollywood and the surrounding media environment.
Soderbergh's expansive industrial activity allows us to reframe longstanding approaches to screen authorship. Many authorship studies proceed from questions about the origins of textual meaning, asking what signs of authorship films reveal. Inferred auteur sensibilities cement particular critical-reading strategies, and authorship as a concept or practice gains utility only insofar as it helps unpack textual meanings. While Soderbergh's films and other output are rich in signification, this book asks instead what comprises the work of a screen author in contemporary Hollywood. Thus, my focus is less "what do texts mean?" than "what do authors do?" While I devote substantial attention to specific films and television programs made with Soderbergh's input, I concentrate on his position as industrial agent, collaborative creative practitioner, and energetic participant in contemporary film culture.
The highly collaborative nature of Soderbergh's filmmaking practice attunes us as well to circuits of boutique practitioners. The 1990s saw the rise of a corporate-subsidized boutique cinema, made up of production companies and small- to medium-budget films supported by major studios, which can provide production financing, studio facilities and equipment, and established distribution networks. Hollywood (and New York City) boutiques include such companies as Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, HBO Films, and the now defunct Picturehouse, Fine Line Pictures, and USA Films. Soderbergh's films have long been associated with this category. His debut fiction feature, the independently produced sex, lies, and videotape, was distributed successfully by Miramax, spurring that company's 1993 acquisition by Disney. Two of Soderbergh's directorial efforts of the mid-1990s, King of the Hill (1993) and The Underneath (1995), were produced or distributed by Universal's Gramercy Pictures unit, prior to Universal's creation of the Focus Features division. Similarly, while Warner Bros. produced Ocean's Eleven (2001) and its sequels, that studio's now-defunct boutique division, Warner Independent Pictures, distributed four films from Soderbergh's Section Eight production company. Soderbergh's films exemplify the increasingly similar production and distribution strategies of films regarded as wholly "independent" and those produced with financing or supervision from entities linked to multinational media conglomerates. Aesthetic distinctions once taken for granted—between high-concept and character-driven cinema; between the image and sound designs of studio releases and those of indie or art cinema—similarly blur in Soderbergh's films. Soderbergh-directed efforts include stylized, modestly budgeted studio releases such as The Underneath and expensive independent productions such as Che (2008). These and other works demonstrate the fluidity of filmmaking styles and production personnel across familiar categories of "studio" and "independent." Soderbergh's recurrent team of collaborators—including assistant director Gregory Jacobs, production designer Philip Messina, sound editor Larry Blake, and others—might be understood as a close-knit group of boutique practitioners adaptive to disparate filmmaking challenges and not defined wholly by overarching production categories.
Reflecting what I characterize later as a boutique sensibility catering to boutique tastes, Soderbergh's ongoing career provides an illuminating model of so-called independent cinema's dissemination into the mainstream in the 1990s. In their modes of production and distribution, their aesthetics and narratives, and their reception among U.S. and global audiences, Soderbergh's films and television productions reveal entertainment industries' openness to innovation and experimentation. Rather than pursuing a chronological, project-by-project appraisal of his work, this book considers Soderbergh's work in three distinct but related ways: (1) as specific texts exemplifying creative authorship across disparate modes and media; (2) as works in dialogue with film history and with production modes and aesthetics long associated with low-budget, commercially marginal cinema; and (3) as boundary-pushing examples of screen-media convergence, new production technologies, and exhibition and distribution strategies. Through a focus on a dynamic creative individual, I seek to highlight the variegated practices and output of contemporary U.S. screen industries, colloquially known as Hollywood. Soderbergh and his many projects construct a particular boutique brand, that of a figure who performs multiple creative roles in collaboration but who is viewed as exercising sufficient creative control to merit the attribution of primary authorship. I interrogate as well the myriad discourses that contribute to the production of Soderbergh's screen-author profile. Another Steven Soderbergh Experience attends to the overall process of author construction and to its consequences for screen producers, consumers, and the industries connecting them.
The book pursues historical, political, and economic analysis of contemporary U.S. screen industries while retaining a precise focus on Soderbergh's many projects and collaborations. Its overall focus is on authorship, namely on Soderbergh's role as creative individual active at all levels of production and distribution. Part One, "Soderbergh and American Cinema," positions the contemporary filmmaker in relation to the modes and output of mainstream and marginal cinema that precede him. Chapter 1 takes up Soderbergh's symbolic reputation as standard-bearer of independent cinema. This chapter examines the distribution and reception of sex, lies, and videotape, and Soderbergh's relationships with major studios following its critical and commercial success. It also narrates his initial 1990s efforts as independent producer of projects both within and outside major studios. Chapter 2 investigates the explicit dialogues that Soderbergh and his works conduct with film history, with canonical and offbeat texts, and with the creative personnel of U.S. and international cinema. This chapter links Soderbergh's work to the vibrant U.S. and European cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s, repeated points of reference for him as for countless other filmmakers and the historians and critics who unite them in film-cultural discourse.
Part Two, "Authoring and Authorization," investigates the work that screen authorship entails, and the ways film reception recognizes Soderbergh's creative contributions. It looks at the work of authorship and the corollary efforts of cultural intermediaries such as reviewers to label that work as authorial—or auteurist—practice. Chapter 3 examines the processes of creative authorship through production analysis of numerous films directed by Soderbergh. This core chapter documents the creative practices of Soderbergh and his recurring collaborators, highlighting in the process the consistency of practice for both studio-funded and independently produced films. The discernible presence of similar creative practices in films made for different, and differently capitalized, production companies indicates the need for challenges to the established studio/independent binary. To probe further the discursive power and limits of the "independent" appellation, Chapter 3 also addresses Soderbergh's location-filming efforts and his global profile. It considers his production work outside the U.S., his collaborations with international creative workers and industries, and his status—or lack thereof—as a consecrated global auteur. Returning to domestic contexts, it analyzes critics' and location-shoot witnesses' recognition of Soderbergh and his collaborators' creative activity. Chapter 4 continues the investigation of critical reception, assessing the ways critical discourses have granted Soderbergh the status of individual most directly responsible for the textual features and meanings of the films on which he is credited as director. This chapter surveys efforts to define Soderbergh in auteurist terms, and the benefits that critics and other film-cultural intermediaries gain from constructing Soderbergh as an auteur director even in the face of strong evidence of industrial collaboration.
Most viewers encounter Soderbergh's work at the level of the text, and so Part Three, "Soderbergh and Textuality," identifies the textual characteristics of Soderbergh's films as director, and their generic and intertextual dialogues with previous films and other media texts. Critics and scholars have argued that Soderbergh has shown strong commitments to overtly progressive filmmaking—among other efforts, granting leading roles to African-American and Latino performers, casting nonprofessionals in Bubble, directing the pop-leftist Erin Brockovich (2000), and executive-producing Far From Heaven (2002), the high-profile film about race and sexuality from New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes. Partly in contrast, Soderbergh films such as Traffic have provoked debate for their contradictory or problematic representations of politics, race, gender, and class. Chapter 5 takes up issues of textuality and representation, considering how textual elements acquire significance based on discursive positionings, regimes of style, and a range of viewing protocols. Relatedly, this chapter reassesses the utility of textual criticism, asking how textual critiques of representation bear on viewing practices. Chapter 6—focused on film genres, adaptations, and remakes—considers particular Soderbergh films' intertextual, intermedial dialogues with their many preexisting sources. The chapter addresses the ways intertextual discourses position the films for critical and popular reception, as well as the ways Soderbergh's consistent reconfiguration of existing texts contributes to his authorial persona.
Soderbergh's creative signature is not only intertextual but also transmedia. Part Four, "Soderbergh and Screen Industries," argues for Soderbergh's unique role in contemporary media industries, emphasizing his efforts across media platforms and distribution networks. Virtually no U.S. filmmakers have worked simultaneously in mainstream genre cinema, low-budget independent cinema, and television. His mainstream Hollywood features since the late 1990s have been marked by an original combination of filmmaking sensibilities, demonstrably indebted to numerous eras in American popular film as well as to filmmakers and movements in international art cinema. His casts include marquee names, indie-film stalwarts, and nonprofessionals. In addition, the Section Eight production company he ran with Clooney through 2006 produced other critically or financially successful films such as Insomnia (2002), Far From Heaven, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Michael Clayton (2007).
To account for this extensive activity, Part Four examines Soderbergh's creative work beyond feature-film directing. Chapter 7 looks to his small-screen projects, projects that foreground narrative and formal experimentation consistent with his film work, but that also exploit television's serial nature. Like many contemporary filmmakers—including Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Jerry Bruckheimer, James Cameron, and Michael Mann—Soderbergh moved to the small screen amid a period of critical acclaim and box-office success. In 2003, he served as co-creator, producer, and director of the HBO political series K Street; and in 2005, he was a co-producer of Unscripted, alongside Clooney and Grant Heslov. Chapter 8 concentrates on Soderbergh's own efforts as producer for Section Eight's projects and others. His films have been co-produced by his own production company, by boutique divisions of major studios, and by the major studios themselves. As his work demonstrates, contemporary U.S. film and television industries offer opportunities for creative industrial practice, boutique productions, and collaboration among corporate, major-studio interests and those of autonomous artist-filmmakers. Soderbergh's ability to work both within and outside the boundaries of major-studio filmmaking—at levels of production, distribution, and exhibition—attests to the fluidity of contemporary, transnational media systems. His collaborative efforts as filmmaker and producer unsettle existing paradigms of media authorship and indicate the need for new, flexible models that account for the complexity of contemporary screen industries. To develop such a model, this chapter considers Soderbergh's extensive activity on DVD commentaries alongside his producing work. Both forms of labor—material production work and discursive performance—constitute a practice of associative authorship that connects Soderbergh to a range of other films and filmmakers.
Chapter 8, like the book overall, seeks not only to establish Soderbergh's position in contemporary screen culture but also to distill and analyze the myriad aspects of media production that make possible his enormous breadth of undertakings. Soderbergh has established himself as a virtual media brand, with high-profile involvement in nearly all forms of contemporary production and spare time to provide DVD commentaries for films he did not direct (such as the 1970 war satire Catch-22 and the low-budget 1993 drama Clean, Shaven), to create new edits of still others (Keane's DVD release includes a separate cut of the film edited by Soderbergh), and to write the occasional book or book introduction. The book's conclusion uses the particular example of Soderbergh to consider how industries and ancillary institutions circulate authorial brands across film-cultural discourse. As a final case study, the conclusion surveys new-media discourses' constructions of Soderbergh surrounding Che's international release in 2008 and 2009. With Che, as we will see, official and unofficial agents reference Soderbergh's creative signature to amass different kinds of cultural capital. For a first-person understanding of that signature, I turn also to Soderbergh himself, who generously consented in summer 2011 to a lengthy interview that appears in full as this book's Appendix, and which I hope sheds further light on the relations among artistic temperament, practice, and output. But first, to illustrate Soderbergh's artistic and industrial position in more depth, I turn to a different use of his creative signature, accompanying the modest yet highly experimental feature Bubble.
Bubble and Multiplatform Film Distribution
Over the course of Soderbergh's career, screen industries have expanded and contracted at sometimes dizzying rates. Writing in the New York Times in 2009, Michael Cieply claims that,
The glory days of independent film, when hot young directors like Steven Soderbergh and [Quentin] Tarantino had studio executives tangled in fierce bidding wars at Sundance and other celebrity-studded festivals, are now barely a speck in the rearview mirror. And something new, something much odder, has taken their place.
This "something much odder" refers to emerging models of film circulation, including individual filmmakers' self-distribution of their works, their social-networking efforts, and other unconventional means of four-walled as well as online presentation. Cieply name-checks Soderbergh but does not mention him further in the ensuing discussion, and yet, Soderbergh has shown deep investments in many of these new circulation models. To tease out some of the key dynamics of Soderbergh's work, I begin with a case study of Bubble, focusing on its novel exhibition and distribution strategy and Soderbergh's role in promoting the simultaneous multiple-platform release. This case study also permits attention to two other aspects of filmmaking practice that characterize Soderbergh's work: use of high-definition digital-video cameras rather than film cameras, and work with nonprofessional actors. These features of Bubble exemplify the innovative, experimental dimension of Soderbergh's work but also bleed into the production method and aesthetics of his mainstream studio features. Bubble underlines too the role of the branded author in circulating discrete texts across multiple exhibition platforms.
As surveyed above, Bubble represents one of Soderbergh's many projects between work on Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen. Working as director, camera operator, and editor, Soderbergh shot Bubble with a small cast of nonprofessional actors and a minimal crew. It played on thirty-two U.S. screens at its widest release, while the Ocean's films each played on between 3,500 and 4,000 screens in the U.S. alone. Beyond Soderbergh's A-list pedigree and creative method, Bubble deserves attention for its simultaneous theatrical, pay-television, and DVD release. In this it exemplifies the ongoing efforts of U.S. media industries to expand distribution pathways to reach diffuse audiences worldwide. The growth of multiplatforming as an exhibition practice promises to transform critical understandings of textuality and consumption. Bubble—DVD artifact, made-for-TV movie, arthouse theatrical release, and experimental film promoting the brand of its well-known director—further erodes organizing binaries such as film vs. television texts, theatrical vs. domestic consumption, and conceptions of discrete film, television, and DVD industries altogether.
Academic and industrial definitions of media texts have in recent years emphasized platform specificity, or the ways textual properties accommodate the requirements of distinct media such as theatrical film, television, DVD, and portable devices. As feature films circulate among these media in narrower timeframes—for example, as the interval between theatrical and home-video releases shrinks—textual features and promotional discourses increasingly address multiple reception groups simultaneously. As a low-budget digital-video feature with a prominent Hollywood director but no stars, and without major-studio support but with a well-financed and well-publicized distributor, Bubble earns a curious industrial position mixing innovation and convention. Bubble merges existing techniques of realist filmmaking (including location shooting and improvisation) with newer modes of production and distribution (including digital-video shooting and its cross-platform release), suggesting one model for the circulation of entertainment texts in post-theatrical and post-studio eras. Released with the slogan "Another Steven Soderbergh Experience ," Bubble also suggests ways the author function can facilitate cross-platform circulation in a crowded marketplace. Bubble relies on its brand author as a promotional device, rather than foregrounding such elements as stars, genres, visual spectacle, or sequels and series (all of which studios or smaller producers have used to market other Soderbergh-directed efforts).
Bubble was shot quickly in small-town West Virginia and Ohio, and exhibits a low-tech HD-video aesthetic. For the sake of convenience, we may persist in labeling Bubble a "film," even as this designation is arguably inaccurate given its limited circulation as a 35mm print. Bubble's narrative concerns the friendships and rivalries of three workers at a small plastic-doll factory: a middle-aged woman and a young couple, all lower-middle class. The film is altogether minimal, with a storyline that features just one notable incident, an unobtrusive solo-guitar soundtrack, and a 73-minute running time, barely feature length. Its aesthetic could be characterized as stylized realism: many scenes play out in long takes with no camera movement, while others employ amplified, ambient location sound or anti-realist color. The film includes two particularly subjective interludes in which the older protagonist, Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), appears surrounded by darkness, with only her face and torso illuminated by blue-tinted lighting, and with a series of direct-address shots and extreme close-ups showing her fixed stare. In its production context and textual features, Bubble exemplifies regional filmmaking. The production is highly local, shot entirely in one semi-rural area and using existing actors, locations and costumes. The film could also be categorized as vérité or personal cinema, with cast members playing versions of themselves (as screen tests included on the DVD indicate), albeit with narrative additions such as criminal behavior. The film fits too under the all-purpose "independent film" banner, given its no-frills aesthetic and its theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures, distributor of small independent releases, documentaries with crossover appeal and foreign genre films.
Bubble inaugurated a planned six-film series contracted by Soderbergh with HDNet Films, the production arm of the mini-conglomerate 2929 Entertainment, owned by entertainment moguls Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. Soderbergh's name thus contributes to HDNet's emerging brand of "day-and-date" multiplatform releases. Trade commentary on Bubble accentuates not director Soderbergh or any aspect of the film's content, but instead its novel U.S. release pattern. Production and distribution occur across 2929 Entertainment's multiple divisions: producer HDNet Films, the Landmark Theatres chain, pay-per-view channel HDNet Movies, and DVD distributor Magnolia Home Entertainment. The Wagner/Cuban company's diverse profile (which includes another specialty cable channel, HDNet) exemplifies Patricia Zimmermann's claim that "independent narrative film needs to . . . be rethought as a form of cinema that moves across different platforms and through different audiences and economies." Zimmermann's carefully argued work retains terms such as "film" and "cinema" even as the parameters of her study go well beyond celluloid production and theatrical exhibition. The case of 2929 Entertainment further complicates the term "independent" as well. While as a production entity it hardly challenges any of the established media conglomerates, it benefits from its principals' substantial capital and existing media and entertainment holdings, which include also part-stakes in Canadian-based producer/distributor Lions Gate Entertainment, the post-Miramax Weinstein Company, and a U.S. professional sports franchise. Wagner and Cuban became billionaires through technology-sector entrepreneurship, and Cuban has earned further media celebrity through reality-television appearances and his visible courtside presence as majority owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. With eBay founder Jeff Skoll and Moviefone founder Andrew Jarecki also working in independent film, this sector of the global entertainment industry is thoroughly embedded in existing networks of multinational capitalism.
Entertainment conglomerates and smaller media producers share too a strategic interest in promotional branding of creative workers. Soderbergh, whose work ranges from mass-release theatrical blockbusters to experimental shorts on limited-distribution compilation DVDs, perfectly embodies this industrial strategy. Soderbergh's most successful efforts, the Ocean's trilogy and Erin Brockovich, have been star-driven genre films that mass audiences may not associate with a particular director. (Instead, stars such as George Clooney and Julia Roberts dominate those films' promotional campaigns.) And in a 2008 interview, Universal's former worldwide chief of marketing, David Weitzner, offers a commonsensical critique of the notion of film directors as marketable assets: "It's pomposity on the part of studios to think that the public is going to respond to an advertising message that says to see the film because it's from the director of another film." Yet in smaller productions targeted at niche and cinephile viewerships, particular creative workers do carry brand-name appeal. In Soderbergh's case, this appeal is fashioned not only from discrete texts bearing his name but also from a range of discursive practices, many demonstrating what John Caldwell terms "industrial reflexivity," or reflexive industrial practice. Soderbergh's reflexive practices occur in DVD commentaries, production diaries and book introductions, interviews in niche periodicals such as Film Threat, and shepherding of multiple reissues of American underground films through executive-producer roles.
Journalists and other industry analysts invoked Bubble's multiplatform release to speculate about the future of film distribution and exhibition. While the Hollywood trade press was both curious and sanguine about the experiment, the community of exhibitors reacted negatively. Many U.S. theatres and chains refused to exhibit Bubble because of its home-video availability, and many press outlets circulated Fithian's description of multiplatform releases as a "death threat" to cinemas, a declaration he had made nearly six months before Bubble's release, in regards to a remark from Disney chairman Robert Iger. Recalling a still-earlier event of perceived industry crisis, the hand-wringing over circulation of DVD screeners during the 2003 Academy Awards season, Barbara Klinger observes that "cinema's ability to be so easily reproduced for nontheatrical exhibition still manages to introduce the specter of chaos, a looming circumvention of tradition and regulation that can arouse Hollywood's protective reaction." In the case of Bubble, executive producer Cuban served as the vocal advocate of multiplatform distribution, leaving Soderbergh to give more low-key interviews about the film's distribution and content.
Trade-press coverage of Bubble's release is notable for its assumption that Bubble is primarily a feature film that enjoys a simultaneous release on pay television and DVD (the latter of course principally viewed on television screens). No commentator suggests that Bubble might be a television text that enjoys separate theatrical screenings. Even in the evolving convergence landscape, theatrically released cinema provides the locus for recognition of industrial, economic, and aesthetic transformations. As Zimmermann argues further, "films are the nodal points of circulating commodities," and theatrical releases facilitate the proliferation of commodities across a range of media and timeframes (i.e., industry-dictated release windows). Myriad taste cultures and institutional preferences continue to bolster film's status as the pinnacle of screen artistry and creative labor. In trade- and especially popular-press coverage, creative professionals' film-industry work overshadows their efforts in television and other media. Despite Soderbergh's involvement in two HBO series, he is rarely identified as a television practitioner, or as anything but a "filmmaker" or "director," in trade- or popular-press coverage.
Even as convergence threatens to upset the hierarchy in which film stands above television, DVD, and web-based and portable media, discursive formations continue to privilege old media. Industry and academics do increasingly regard authorship as a cross-platform phenomenon, with many creative workers hailed as "auteurs" in both film and television, or television and new media. However, involvement in theatrically released feature films continues to carry greater cachet than achievement in other media. All these points echo Caldwell's argument that "Hollywood's production communities perpetuate the largely symbolic, hierarchical model of film as artistry versus electronic media as commerce. Practitioners achieve very real benefits when this discourse of distinction circulates." A different approach to the text Bubble and the phenomena of its production and distribution, then, would be to view it as a television or digital production that is also distributed outside conventional broadcast or narrowcast windows. In fact, the architecture of Bubble's online promotional forums partly achieves this inversion or leveling. The websites of the various companies under the 2929 Entertainment umbrella make no particular distinctions regarding their primary industry or the exhibition site for their produced content. Bubble's own official website simply includes links to the various pathways through which audiences might experience the text, with information about DVD purchase, subscriber-television schedules, theatrical screenings, and ancillary streaming-video content ranked in effect equally on the webpage. Nonetheless, it is telling that its production company, whose output consists exclusively of productions shot on digital video, and that are consumed primarily in DVD form, should be named HDNet Films.
In whatever medium we choose to categorize it, Bubble's production and distribution link it to opposing terms in multiple binaries that surround screen media: analog/digital, realism/stylization, amateur/professional, location/dispersion, experience/artifact, and more. While evidencing what Soderbergh calls "site-specific" filmmaking, it also circulates more freely than conventional studio releases or independently distributed features. In this respect, it can be positioned within either of two distinct phases in Hollywood's development. Aida Hozic proposes a chronology of Hollywood history that begins "in the studio," largely moves "on location," and now exists "in cyberspace." At the level of production, Bubble remains emphatically on location (small-town West Virginia and Ohio). Its distribution and exhibition cross media platforms and thus geographic space as consumers experience it in different locations. However, Bubble does not circulate freely in the global arena. Its DVD release was limited to the North American Region 1/NTSC format, and outside the U.S., it received theatrical screenings only at select film festivals. Clearly, multiplatform releases and the convergent-media environment hardly guarantee access to global audiences. Bubble faced tangible obstacles in the form of a lack of ready buyers for worldwide theatrical distribution rights and rights issues as well as hardware and software restrictions for the DVD release.
While its theatrical returns and DVD sales were modest, in many respects Bubble carries a near-ideal pedigree for a multiplatform release to arthouse cinemas, niche cable channels, and cinephilic DVD consumers. Soderbergh, still identified with the U.S. independent-cinema boom thanks to the canonization of sex, lies, and videotape, is arguably Bubble's principal exploitable element. The film showcases no other A-list talent such as screenwriters or producers, and its superficial description—"site-specific" digital-video production with a partly improvising amateur cast—makes it comparable to innumerable backyard family videos and student films. On the other hand, in the realm of DVD content, Soderbergh is a prolific figure. His multiple creative efforts as filmmaker, producer, and commentator make him a veritable cottage industry of ancillary material, supplying interviews or commentaries for DVD releases of films as diverse as The Third Man (1949), Catch-22, mid-budget Miramax release The Yards, the Chinese war drama Devils on the Doorstep (2000), and many others. Active too in such areas as niche-market DVD shorts, intra-industry promotion of digital filmmaking, and anti-piracy advocacy, Soderbergh is the reflexive industrial practitioner par excellence. Caldwell argues that vocal, visible industry self-scrutiny circulates an impression of transparent practice, and Bubble further exemplifies this phenomenon. The Bubble website features Soderbergh in a streaming-video interview about the film and its multiplatform release, and the DVD extras include a co-commentary with fellow director Mark Romanek (not involved in Bubble's production), the lead performers' screen tests, and a segment in which they spend time in their homes and hometown accompanied by Bubble's screenwriter, Coleman Hough. Together these features promise to open up the production process to diverse audiences. Consequently, the feature Bubble becomes in effect an add-on to the recreated immersion in the production process. Ancillary content creates sufficient added value that the centrality of the feature itself diminishes. In lieu of any generic or narrative descriptors, the name-checking of Soderbergh and the "Another Steven Soderbergh Experience " tagline on the promotional poster and DVD sleeve foreground the branded author exclusively.
While multiplatform releases have subsequently increased through such efforts as the Independent Film Channel's "IFC on Demand" and "Festival Direct" services (carried by the major cable provider Comcast since 2008), the example of Bubble indicates the substantial institutional and attitudinal hurdles to their success. Soderbergh's second work in the multiple-film contract with HDNet Films, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), earned some notoriety through the casting of video-porn star Sasha Grey but otherwise remains in the category of small independent releases. It was unveiled in rough-cut form at Sundance in 2009 (tied to the twentieth anniversary of sex, lies, and videotape's premiere at Sundance's precursor, the U.S. Film Festival), then received limited U.S. theatrical and DVD distribution from Magnolia. Meanwhile, other HDNet Films output remains in categories long associated with U.S. independent cinema: offbeat documentaries and erotically charged dramas that play in festival screenings at Sundance and elsewhere and earn limited releases in boutique cinemas. (In fact, this profile more or less describes a number of Soderbergh's 1990s efforts as director as well.) Nonetheless, the evolving HDNet/Magnolia/2929 enterprise and other companies' "day-and-date" or digital-distribution initiatives underscore the significance of industrial negotiations as films and filmmakers seek to establish relationships with North American and international audiences.
Investigation of these new exhibition initiatives may further our awareness of the possibilities and limits of screen-media circulation, and our recognition of authoring figures' positions within global circulation networks. This brief case study demonstrates, I hope, some of the ways the transmedia author Soderbergh has pursued innovative screen practice. We may now circle back to the start of his career, probing his associations with commercial independent cinema since the 1980s, his evolving authorial persona, his thoroughgoing collaborative practice, and his carefully cultivated position as intermediary in global screen cultures.