DVDs that put it on (and take it all off)
Two DVD versions of “Team America: World Police” hit the shelves May 17. One was R-rated. The other was unrated -- and for good reason. It contains, among other things, 50 seconds of new footage of a sex scene best described as Larry Flynt meets the Kama Sutra. Performed by two acrobatically inclined puppet protagonists with scatological fetishes, it’s setting the town abuzz.
Often racier or more violent than their big-screen counterparts, unrated DVDs usually outperform the less-explicit version. Pouring new life into a movie franchise, they’re a valuable marketing tool -- particularly effective with the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, the heaviest home video users.
While studios belonging to the Motion Picture Assn. of America are prohibited from releasing unrated movies to theaters, home video lets the consumers choose. Film aficionados generally opt to see the director’s vision, and a curious public often wants to see what was snipped.
“With the exception of the word ‘free,’ ‘unrated’ is one of the most enticing words in retail,” said Thomas Lesinski, president of Paramount Pictures Worldwide Home Entertainment, which released the unrated “Team America,” an anti-terrorism satire from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “It suggests something clandestine or taboo.”
According to data compiled by Santa Ana-based Home Media Research, unrated versions of DVDs account for 80% to 90% of a title’s sales when both versions come out simultaneously. Others say the figure is closer to 65% -- still a windfall.
Not every movie is a contender, however. Teen comedies and thrillers such as “Blade: Trinity” are made to order, while animation, family fare and most PG-13 movies are not. A loyal following is crucial: fans who want more of what they liked the first time around.
Unrated merchandise dates to the late 1990s. But only in the last 18 months has the concept taken off. Part of the problem was limited distribution. Though Best Buy, Tower Video and Amazon.com came aboard fast, Wal-Mart, a family-oriented video behemoth, wouldn’t carry DreamWorks’ unrated “Old School” when it came out in 2003.
“Retailers at first were skeptical and that kept the numbers down,” said Matt Lasorsa, executive vice president of marketing for New Line Home Entertainment. Now, after reviewing the material in advance, “most of them will stock it. Having an unrated DVD in the mix leads titles to ‘over-perform’ ... total sales go up 20% to 80%, depending on the title.”
The unrated version of “American Pie” (1999) is considered one of the genre’s earliest successes. It was a breakthrough for Universal Studios Home Entertainment, said Ken Graffeo, executive vice president of the company, helping to boost sales to over 1 million units -- rare in an age when rentals were still dominant.
Releasing an unrated “American Pie” was an afterthought, he recalled. But now it’s part of the game plan.
“We sit down with the filmmaker in the script phase, figuring out if we can shoot additional scenes that won’t make the cut. One of those shot for the unrated version of “American Wedding” -- the third in the “American Pie” franchise -- “was so great they actually put it in the movie.”
The trick, studio executives said, is to differentiate unrated DVDs enough from the original to boost sales but not so much that it alienates the fan base.
New Line’s unrated “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” contains more gratuitous breast shots and suggestive party scenes, Lasorsa said -- a direction clearly communicated on the package. The movie’s stars are superimposed on a naked female torso whose breasts are shielded by an “extreme unrated” sign. The unrated-version box of New Line’s “Blade: Trinity” shows the trio of vampire fighters with weapons drawn -- to suggest more vivid violence.
Sony’s “In the Cut,” an erotic thriller, serves up footage of oral sex and revealing shots of the male lead, Mark Ruffalo. All this is done in collaboration with the director and the approval of the actors, according to Tracey Garvin, Sony’s Home Entertainment’s vice president of marketing, studio and acquisitions.
“The consumer gets more, an experience they didn’t have in the theaters,” she said. “And from our perspective and the retailers, it’s another product to serve up.”
Even the squeaky-clean Walt Disney Co. has thrown its hat in the ring. While its Touchstone division has never released an unrated DVD, Buena Vista Home Entertainment released “Badder Santa” last year. Containing new footage -- a hot tub scene and a striptease -- it’s an unrated version of “Bad Santa,” a comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton that was distributed by Disney’s Miramax subsidiary.
Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA and interim supervisor of the group that awards ratings to big-screen releases, said he has no problem with unrated material -- as long as the packaging is honest. “All we want to do is be transparent with the public, letting them know what’s in the film,” he said.
Studios, as a result, rely on self-regulation -- and take that mandate seriously.
Paramount’s Lesinski said the decision to include a raunchier sex scene in “Team America” triggered internal discussion. In the end, they decided to go for it. “The characters are puppets,” the executive observed, “and it’s only make-believe.”
DreamWorks SKG, for its part, released unrated DVDs of movies such as “Road Trip” (with an extended shower scene), “Old School” (with additional footage of Will Ferrell streaking down Main Street and a class in fellatio), and “Anchorman” (with beefed-up fraternity humor and slang) only after submitting the material to in-house lawyers and a staff ratings-board liaison. The company said it tries to adhere to the original parameters that elicited the big-screen rating.
“If the unrated version of ‘Anchorman’ had been submitted, it would have again met the PG-13 guidelines,” said Kelly Sooter, head of domestic home entertainment for the company.
Unrated merchandise, analysts say, will remain a powerful -- if intermittent -- part of the Hollywood landscape.
“People -- young males, especially -- want to choose what they see, they don’t want censors in their lives,” said Judith McCourt, head of research for Home Media Research. “It’s a great way to extend the life of a movie because brand recognition stimulates awareness and differentiation encourages sales.”
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Rated vs. unrated
Unrated DVD movies, often sexier or more violent, outsell the original ‘rated’ versions when both are released at the same time. A look at selected DVD releases and the percentage of units sold:
*--* Title Release date Studio Unrated Rated ‘Old School’ 6/10/03 DreamWorks 70.% 30.% ‘American Wedding’ 1/2/04 Universal 90% 10% ‘American Pie 2' 1/15/02 Universal 80% 20% ‘American Pie’ 12/21/99 Universal 83% 17% ‘Bad Santa'/ 6/22/04 Buena Vista 89% 11% ‘Badder Santa’ ‘Anchorman’ 12/28/04 DreamWorks 91% 9% ‘Eurotrip’ 6/2/04 DreamWorks 86% 14% ‘Blade: Trinity’ 4/26/05 New Line 84% 16% ‘Harold & Kumar 1/4/05 New Line 88% 12% Go to White Castle’
Source: Home Media Research
Los Angeles Times