These are some of the titles you may come across at your neighborhood video store in the coming months: "Bloodlust," "Pet Shop," "Prehysteria 2," "Beyond Suspicion" and "Someone's Watching." Now, you probably don't recall these movies' playing in theaters and might assume they were so awful they were never released in theaters, going straight to video instead.
You'd be half right. They never did hit the big screen, but they weren't intended to. They are part of what has become the fastest-growing segment of the movie business today, direct-to-videos (DTVs): films made for relatively little money ($1.3 million to $2 million average), with high-concept titles and sales pitches ("Bounty Tracker" . . . "When someone has to pay, someone will collect") and in a popular genre (science fiction, action, erotic thriller). We're not talking "Howards End" here, but the do make for acceptably diverting entertainment.
The stars usually have minimal--although enough--name recognition: Gary Busey, Eric Roberts, Joanna Pacula, Andrew Stevens. They may be on the way up or down in their careers. They may be big stars now who weren't when the movie was made--catch Demi Moore in "Paradise" or Kevin Costner in "Gun Runner." (\o7 See accompanying story, Page 75.\f7 )
"Direct-to-videos is a thriving trend that doesn't appear to be abating," says Frank Moldstad, editor in chief of the weekly Video Store magazine. "The big hot A titles have an exaggerated value because they tend to go down fast. Just like when they played in theaters, the first weekend gross is the all-important one. These straight videos--which have no massive consumer buildup and are sold more on box art and word of mouth--tend to (appeal to video-watchers) for a longer period of time."
Hundreds of these direct-to-videos are made every year, mostly by independent companies that think global. These are financed and frequently run by companies based outside the United States, such as Vision International, Saban International, Republic, Imperial, Epic, Trimark, Prism. Although all make other kinds of films too--children's, television movies, low-budget features--the home video picture is something they've focused on over the past few years.
"We have been able to fill a niche that the studios weren't attending to," says Barbara Javitz, president of Prism Pictures, which makes anywhere from five to 10 DTVs a year, including the successful "Night Eyes" series. "As major features have become more costly, and as society has become more voyeuristic, we've been able to come up with more of these erotic thrillers, what used to be called B-movies."
Or as Lance Robbins, senior vice president of Motion Pictures and Television at Saban says, "We're doing 'Sliver' without the $10-million actress attached."
Even the big Establishment studios and network film divisions are getting into the act in some ways: Paramount distributes all the DTVs made by Full Moon Entertainment, probably the leader of the pack. Columbia-TriStar Video acquires and distributes a number, as does Sony. ABC Productions is about to try its hand at direct-to-video with three such projects.
And why not? The fact is, whereas the big studios produce maybe 30 or 40 features a year, the DTVs are coming out fast and loose--and that means there's money is to be made.
"These films make $17 billion annually," says Charles Band, chairman and chief executive officer of Full Moon, which this year moved into a 120,000-square-foot facility in downtown Los Angeles. "That's three times what the majors generally make."
The trick is to produce the film for under $2 million, sell as many units as possible to the video stores at roughly $80 to $90 per unit, and then sell it overseas, where it either goes onto the small or, often, the large screen. It would cost roughly the same amount of money to get 200 to 300 prints of a feature film into theaters--not to mention the advertising and marketing expenses.
Although new companies are still finding their way in the field, others have clearly arrived: Some 2,000 video stores around the country now feature special sections just for Full Moon videos, for example. The company puts out 20 DTVs a year and has launched another label called Moonbeam--"Full Moon Lite," as Band calls it. The label signifies that there are still the thrills and special effects the company is known for ("Puppetmaster" is one of its most popular series) but that the films are suitable for family viewing.
Moonbeam started off with a boom: Its debut, "Prehysteria," has become the top DTV all-time seller. ("Prehysteria 2" and "3" are coming soon.) Whereas the industry average for a DTV film is around 15,000 units, "Prehysteria" sold more than 70,000. Its timing, of course, turned out to be exquisite: The film is about a friendly family of newly hatched dinosaurs who move in with a Spielberg-like human clan. And it features Austin O'Brien, the young star of "The Last Action Hero."