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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

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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.” ( See accompanying story, Page 75. )

“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.”

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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.

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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.”

“It was just great good luck, since when we started it, we knew little about “Jurassic Park,’ ” Band says. “But we eventually did make the decision to wait until just before or after that opened to tie into some of its success.”

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Those in the DTV business say never has high concept meant so much. Band, in fact, admits he starts with the title and idea (“Trancers,” “Doll Man”) and then hires a writer to build a story around it. “We sort of back into the movie,” he says. “There’s no development going on here.”

“Very few companies really know how to produce movies at this level,” says Robbins, who produces about a dozen a year for Saban (such as “ ‘Dangerous Desire'--where animal attraction can be a killer”). “The key is finding a script that’s limited in its locations. And they tend to focus on one or two characters. Think a blonde, a detective, a gun and a car.”

Robbins and the others say nudity is essential in the erotic thrillers--for which there seems to be an insatiable appetite--and companies such as his usually make two versions, a softer one for those who like their sex a little less sleazy and a harder or unrated one.

“It’s primarily a marketing tool,” acknowledges Mark Damon, chairman of Vision International, which puts out about 10 DTVs a year (its titles include “Wild Orchid 2" and “Inner Sanctum”). The unrated versions usually outsell R-rated ones 10 to 1. A softer version is also necessary if, as is sometimes the case, the movie is going to be shown on a cable network here.

Occasionally a movie may be considered DTV by its makers and they will still try to force it into a theater even for a very limited run--mostly because they still don’t feel the direct ones get enough respect. “It enhances some of the ancillary areas,” says Damon, who did that with “Wild Orchid 2" and “Gate 2.” “We don’t really consider it will have any theatrical success, but it gives the film a bit more clout in the stores, overseas or in the cable markets.”

Band picked up on that lack of respect early on in the game and acknowledges that he is always in the business of “re-educating video retailers and the press, who have heretofore believed you had to come out theatrically or be reviewed to be a movie people would want to see.”

“Now I feel they’ve come around,” he says.

Of course, there is always the secret hope that the film will turn out to be something that transcends the direct-to-video label and really has a shot as a feature. (A number of home video companies are picking up and helping to finance independent films like “sex, lies and videotape,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Passion Fish,” realizing that the major studios don’t know what to do with such small films anymore and allowing the filmmakers the independence they want. They are “video protected” in a sense but still intended to come out as small features--one cut above most DTVs.)

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A DTV’s best chance of slipping into real moviedom rests on dream casting: one of its stars becomes a feature or television star after he or she has made your little flick. Such has been the case at Saban with “Blindfold,” originally intended to be a DTV and starring Shannen Doherty of “Beverly Hills 90210.”

“Shannen wanted to be the next Sharon Stone and do something that was a big change,” Robbins says. “She was willing to do lots of nudity. Now we’re entertaining bids from the studios on releasing it first as a feature.” Robbins expects the matter will be resolved by the end of the year.

But even lucky casting rarely raises these films that extra notch, though they do sell better to the stores. Vision International cast Forest Whitaker in “Diary of a Hit Man,” just before “The Crying Game” was released. That DTV has sold some 40,000 units. Gary Busey, suddenly made hot by his appearance in “The Firm,” has a DTV, hotly anticipated by the stores, called “Breaking Point” coming out next year. Helen Hunt, star of “Mad About You” and several big-time movies, was in the first two “Trancers” videos for Full Moon and has agreed to do another--still strictly DTV.

Video retailers like to see some kind of star name that might mean something to browsing customers. The trick is to find actors who have some kind of appeal, don’t mind working for the low salaries, and are looking for that big switch role--catching Michael J. Fox the moment he wants to play the serial killer.

“It’s very hard to cast these movies,” says Barbara Javitz of Prism. “You hope to get people who are looking to make some kind of transition, as we did with Shannon Tweed. She got to stop being a Playmate and be an actress (in the “Night Eyes” films). TV stars are good too, but then many have to worry about how they will be perceived and what this might do for their image.”

“The best name is one who crosses over all media,” says Robbins, who has put Robert Conrad and Harry Hamlin in his films. “You’d be surprised how well received Bruce Boxleitner may be on a video shelf or overseas, where they still watch ‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King.’ ”

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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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