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Warner Video Takes Horror Straight to DVD

The studio, a longtime holdout from the disc-only market, enters with three small films on the grisly side.

April 09, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. That's the signpost up ahead. Your next stop: The living room couch.

If Warner Home Video and a trio of established TV and film creators have their way, that's where sci-fi and horror fans will soon be watching three gruesome new movies -- the fruits of Warner's first deal to bypass movie theaters and go straight to DVD.

Very loosely inspired by the 1960s TV series "The Twilight Zone," the scary movie slate -- released under the banner Raw Feed -- will be put together by men with proven track records for inducing fright.

Daniel Myrick, the director of the 1999 indie thriller "The Blair Witch Project," Tony Krantz, a producer on the Fox TV show "24," and John Shiban, a TV writer who has penned episodes of the WB series "Supernatural" and "The X-Files," will direct a film apiece, each shot in L.A. for less than $5 million.

Krantz said he and his partners would work on each others' films and would share crews and a common goal: creating a modernized homage to Rod Serling's famous show "but with a different energy: raw, edgy, realistic."

Although other studios have made direct-to-DVD movies for years, this is a first for Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc. whose library of 6,600 films -- the largest of any studio -- has made it less hungry to produce DVD-only titles.

But now, with the fast-growing popularity of DVDs, it's becoming worth Warner's while.

Last year, consumers spent $22.8 billion buying and renting DVDs, up about 8% from the prior year, according to Digital Entertainment Group, a trade association. Of that, purchased DVDs accounted for 71% of the money spent -- or $16.3 billion. By comparison, domestic ticket sales in movie theaters in 2005 totaled $8.99 billion.

"You can really launch a new product on DVD without having the benefit of a theatrical release," said Jeff Baker, a Warner Home Video vice president.

Raw Feed's combination of a big studio and proven talent is unusual in the direct-to-DVD market. To date, such fare has mostly been animated family films and sequels or remakes made with B-list actors and unknown writers and directors. A recent example is last year's prequel "Carlito's Way: Rise to Power," a Universal Home Entertainment release that featured little-known Jay Hernandez as the young Carlito Brigante, the role Al Pacino made famous in the original 1993 film.

To hear the Raw Feed guys talk, however, direct-to-DVD distribution may be the next frontier for filmmakers eager to get their cinematic visions in front of an audience. They, too, will be casting new faces, but they say the stories they'll be telling will be as fresh as those of big-budget movies.

"I just want people to watch it and I just want it to get out there," Shiban said during an interview on the set of what will be the first Raw Feed release: "Rest Stop," about a young couple terrorized during a cross-country road trip.

Unlike some directors, Shiban said he and his comrades were not bothered by the thought of never seeing their films on the big screen.

"We can tell different kinds of stories and not appeal to some big marketing plan," he said, referring to how expensive studio releases face increased pressure to have plot lines that are easy to sell.

For their part, theater owners say promoting a love of movies in whatever format is good for business.

"The market is big enough to hold this kind of thing," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "As long as there are enough movies made of quality and quantity for theaters, we understand the studios' expanding. Our biggest concern is with the misguided notion that movies should be released in theaters and on DVDs at the same time."

Fithian is referring to proposals to close what's known as the "theater-only window" -- that months-long stretch in which movies have traditionally played only on the big screen. This year, writer-director Steven Soderbergh released his film, "Bubble," in theaters, on DVD and via video-on-demand over a four-day period.

The Raw Feed deal came about after Endeavor Agency, which represents Myrick, Krantz and Shiban, pitched Warner on its clients' vision of DVDs for DVDs' sake. The horror genre in particular lends itself to the "extras" that DVDs provide.

"The DVD market has evolved into its own art form," said Graham Taylor, the agent who put together the deal. "Filmmakers are interested in getting their stories made. If they can do it in that marketplace, they'll do it. They may not have five years ago."

After "Rest Stop" is in the can, Raw Feed has more gore on deck. "Sublime" will be about an outpatient who goes to the hospital for minor surgery only to discover his legs have been severed. In "Cult," a man visits the religious community his brother joined and learns he has arrived on the day everyone plans to commit suicide.

"We're trying," Shiban said, "to portray reality" -- or at least one version of it. "We don't try to hide anything."

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