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MOVIES : Bypassing the Big Picture : The films rarely make it to theaters, and you probably won't be dazzled by expensive visuals or high-paid stars. But direct-to-videos are high-concept entertainment--and, best of all, they're new

November 28, 1993|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. and

The DTVs do attract many, aside from actors, in the creative community looking to get the big directing break or to escape the more hands-on treatment of the networks on television movies. "Frankly, I'd rather do one of those than a regular movie of the week," says writer-director Richard Kletter. "They're less predictable, and you have quite a bit of creative freedom. You can afford to be a bit more daring."

To remain daring and different, with the glut of DTVs, is the current challenge. "There will be a market for these as long as we give them product that separates itself from the mainstream," says Mark Damon. "It has to have a good look, and be shot with some quality."

"Definitely the quality you need now is higher than we used to get away with," agrees Sundep Shah, executive vice president of Imperial ("Ulterior Motives," "Wild Cactus"). "The market for the low end of the direct-to-videos is dwindling, and the video stores and customers demand . . . better."

Blockbuster, the king of the video chains, says that it's hungry for the product but that there must be something inside the jazzy box. "We believe in that genre; in fact we are promoting bigger-budget direct-to-videos," says Ron Castell, senior vice president. "We don't buy everything: We ask is there any star power at all, is there any kind of marketing behind it? Generally, these movies have done well for us, and we especially like to see them come when theatrical releases are skinny. We ask our managers to talk them up and create word of mouth."

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For those making the DTVs, the challenge is how to separate yourself from the crowd. Epic Home Video has taken to introducing some of its tonier projects with a splashy "we're small and not great but hey, we're new" campaign. It did that last year with "Leather Jackets," which Bridget Fonda had starred in a few years ago, and are doing it again with "The Ambulance," which comes out in October and stars Eric Roberts, Janine Turner and James Earl Jones.

"We decided because of the expense of releasing a movie today, that these were not going to make it in that world and so we'd market them as World Premiere Videos," says Jeff Fink, Epic's vice president of sales and marketing. "Basically we said, 'This movie was not released theatrically, and we're proud of it. It can't be seen anywhere else.' We shipped 65,000 copies of 'Leather Jackets.' We hope to break that with 'Ambulance.' "

"Clearly video stores have become more selective, and they should," says Charles Band, who used to make "Star Wars"-type features for minuscule budgets until "Star Wars" came along.

"I realized then," he says, "that you can either do it for $80 million that way, or you find a totally different venue. I saw the video movie as potentially colossal and still do. Viewers understand they're seeing a different creature. They have less of a chance to be impressed with sound or picture. But we give them pretty good value for their money."

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