MINI MOGUL : Northridge Man Deals in Minuscule-Budget Movies

Times Staff Writer

First-time movie director Rick Pamplin was in Glendale recently shooting a low-budget action film when the cops burst in. Pamplin, it seems, didn’t have a police permit to film at the warehouse where he was staging scenes for “Provoked,” a shoot-'em-up feature about a hostage taking.

But the police crackdown--complete with squad cars and a helicopter--wasn’t really a bust for Pamplin. “I, of course, filmed the police helicopter so I could put it in my movie,” Pamplin explained later. After all, with his $120,000 production budget, it was a spectacle Pamplin couldn’t have staged on his own.

That’s the kind of initiative Denis Donovan likes to see. Donovan, 39, president of Raedon Entertainment Group, a Northridge company that will soon release Pamplin’s movie, is a low-budget movie mogul. Really low budget. In the 1950s, low-budget movies played at drive-ins, but Donovan is one of those who has helped update that distribution route in the 1980s. His films never play on TV or in movie theaters; he sells them only to videocassette stores as eye candy for movie gluttons.

An early effort from Raedon was “L.A. Heat,” starring former football player Jim Brown and ex-"Welcome Back Kotter” actor Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs. Brown’s star seems to be on the decline and Jacobs has yet to make it big, but Donovan packaged videocassettes of “L.A. Heat” in some sexy artwork and has managed to sell more than 7,500 copies to video stores.

According to Donovan, that’s about $225,000 in sales for a movie that cost $175,000 to produce. Donovan wants to make that his formula: shoot and market movies for less than $250,000 each. “It’s not art, man,” said Donovan. “It’s commerce.”


Market, Then Produce

A former video company marketing executive, Donovan hopes to reduce the risk of producing flops by doing the marketing first. A case in point: along with Pamplin, Donovan and his wife, Ralie Rae Donovan, Raedon’s art director, thought up the title “Provoked,” bounced it off a few friendly video distributors, planned a few action scenes and hired some actors. Only then did they pay to have the script written. Finally, in eight days of what he terms “guerrilla film making,” Pamplin shot the movie.

“Provoked” is the first film Raedon has produced. Until now, the company has simply released movies after Donovan bought the video distribution rights. Donovan started his company 19 months ago with $8,000 and runs things out of his house. In that time he has released 10 films, Raedon is up to 10 employees and Donovan says revenues are $200,000 per month.

His films are a cut below what most people call B titles, which are intended for release to theaters and made by independent producers for perhaps $1 million. Despite their minuscule budgets, Donovan’s releases must go head-to-head in video stores with major studio films that have had millions spent on television and newspaper advertising.

So low-budget movie companies like Raedon have to count on the hard-core fans of genre films. Donovan is putting most of his money on pleasing the fans of action films.

One video chain company that stocks Raedon releases is Blockbuster Entertainment, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Ron Castell, Blockbuster’s senior vice president, calls films like Raedon’s “man-with-a-gun movies.” They have a solid following among young men, said Castell--particularly those who are “not much interested in the subtleties or nuances of plot.”

Ed Hulse, a critic for Video Review Magazine in New York who has seen some of Raedon’s films, described the made-for-video action film audience. “We’d have to call them droolers.”

Low-budget genre films must also appeal to less dedicated fans who come into a video store for a film such as “To Live and Die in L.A.,” but are willing to walk away with “L.A. Heat” as a second choice. In either case, potential viewers are only going to rent a made-for-video film that leaps off the rack. “Box art is incredibly important,” said Frank Moldstad, the editor of Video Store Magazine in Santa Ana.

Many of the videos Raedon has released have boxes displaying a scantily clad woman wrapped around a man holding a gun. “The bigger the gun, the better,” observed Warren Cohen, president of a Boca Raton, Fla. video distribution company that specializes in low-budget titles. Cohen said the Donovans are masters of box art. “They do a fantastic marketing job with their packaging,” said Cohen.

Still, the major studios make it tough for mini-moguls like Donovan. Most of the big studios have video distributing arms, some of which pressure video chains and other distributors to meet quotas for selling videocassettes of theatrically released films, according to industry analyst John McRae with Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York.

Despite the obstacles, Donovan said he thinks that made-for-video movies are a great way for him to make money and eventually break into producing films for television and theaters.

Donovan looks back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when producer Roger Corman, sometimes known as “the King of the B’s,” gave young directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese a chance to direct genre flicks such as “Dementia 13" and “Boxcar Bertha.” But Corman said it’s harder now for even genuine B movies--features such as the unusually successful “sex, lies, and videotape"--to get exposure because major studio releases such as “Batman” open simultaneously at more than 2,000 theaters across the country.

Corman, who hadn’t heard of Raedon Entertainment Group, said low-budget movies--including those made for videocassettes--can be a good way for directors to get experience. “If they do a good job, it will come to the attention of someone.”

That’s certainly what Joseph Merhi, the director of the Raedon release “L.A. Heat,” is hoping. Merhi and his partner, Richard Pepin, have together produced 26 films--virtually all of them for video release only--since they joined up in June, 1986. “There is no ego,” said Merhi. “We say if we make a great film in 15 years we’re grateful.”

You can’t call Merhi pretentious. He agrees that “L.A. Heat” has problems, from occasional contradictions in the script to a muddy sound track (which he says was caused by low-quality tape duplication). But Merhi said his films get better each time.

New Release

Donovan said he’s particularly happy with the new direction he’s taken with a drama he just released called “Livin’ the Blues,” about a rich white suburban boy who falls in love with a poor black girl.

“There’s no machine gun there,” Donovan said, pointing to the box. “There’s no half-naked girl standing behind a guy. There’s no guy with a grenade launcher in his hand. I think it’s the nicest cover that the company has.”

Donovan moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1977 to “write the great American screenplay,” but when that didn’t happen he got his start in the films-for-video field in 1984 as a telephone salesman for a local company, Video Gems. He then served as vice president of marketing for another local firm, City Lights Entertainment, which distributed action movies much like Raedon does now.

But Donovan didn’t get near the production side of the business until he started Raedon with his wife. They borrowed $3,000 from a competitor, which paid for their office equipment, but it took a $5,000 bank line of credit through his wife to give their company some operating cash.

Donovan said “Livin’ the Blues” puts Raedon closer to his goal of becoming a wide-ranging television and movie production company--eventually one with its own studios and back lots. But in the meantime, it’s mainly Donovan’s marketing-first approach to action films that he hopes will pay the bills.

Does that approach and the strict limit on his budget crimp a director’s style? “Not really,” said Pamplin, director of “Provoked.” “There’s such an invigoration, because when you’re working with Denis you know whatever you’re working on will get made.”

VIDEO SAMPLING Raedon Entertainment Group distributes low-budget films directly to videocassette stores. Most of their releases are urban action movies. But the company tries to cover its bases and has also released a drama and an underwater horror flick. A sampling of Raedon’s films include:

“L.A. Heat”

Released: November, 1988

Video copies sold: about 7,500

Plot: An L.A. police detective (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) gets caught in drug wars between rival dealers and an organized crime boss. One viewer found the film predictable and its soundtrack tough to hear, but Raedon President Denis Donovan said he likes the main character. “The kids need a Dirty Harry character of their own,” Donovan said.

“L.A. Vice”

Released: August, 1989

Copies Sold: about 5,000

Plot: In this sequel to “L.A. Heat,” Los Angeles Police Detective Jon Chance is assigned to solve a kidnaping arranged by the Mafia. One viewer said it was slicker and better made than “L.A. Heat,” but excessively violent. Donovan said his viewers enjoyed Chance’s greater use of deadly force: “I like the way Chance has evolved.”

“The Evil Below”

Released: July, 1989

Copies Sold: about 3,500

Plot: A man and a woman search for sunken treasure, but have to evade murderous zombies who are guarding the wrecked ship. One viewer said that the acting was better than in the some Raedon films, but that some of the horror effects were more comical than scary. Donovan thought the film deserved credit for its ambition: “They could have had some $20 monster, but they chose to make it hang on the acting.”