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New Frontier: Direct-to-DVD and Video

Janet Hetherington looks at the hot direct-to-DVD and video market, which seeks to woo viewers with classic content and original programming.

For companies like Paramount, home of Star Trek and Enterprise (above), direct-to-DVD and video sales may be the new frontier for original content productions.  & © 2005 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

In Gene Roddenberrys classic science fiction series Star Trek, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was given the mission to explore a new frontier and to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The third season of that original TV series was saved by a legendary letter-writing campaign, and Trek fans have not lost their appetite for advocacy correspondence. However, rather than asking for new on-air programming, these enthusiasts are lobbying for new content on DVD or home video.

The Family Guy and American Pie, Firefly to Serenity. Highlander, the new direct-to-DVD movie. Rumors of Buffy, and now the possible return of Futurama. What do all of these movies and television series have in common? DVD sales have given each a new life, writes Thomas Frazier in a posting on

We would all like another run of Enterprise, he writes. The best place to start may lie within Paramounts new direct-to-DVD division. That division is called the DVD Premiere Group.

Paramount has seen great success with original productions. A recent release is Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (left) while Charlotte's Web 2 was an early release.  & © 2002 (right) and 2005 by Paramount Pictures. All rights re

For companies like Paramount, home of Star Trek and Enterprise, direct-to-DVD and video sales may be the new frontier for original content productions. Weve had incredible success over the past several years with original production, says Ellen Pittleman, svp, Paramount worldwide acquisitions and DVD premieres.

Starting with Charlottes Web 2 and Queens of Comedy to the more recent Bob Dylan: No Direction Home and Blue Collar Comedy Tour, we have found this aspect of our business to be substantial and believe that it is an area that we can grow, Pittleman says.

The Direct Route

Creating original content for direct distribution is not new. In 1994, the Walt Disney Co. created The Return of Jafar, a direct-to-video sequel to its hit animated feature, Aladdin. Disney has since produced numerous direct-to-video (and now DVD) animated sequels, including the recent 2005 follow-up to The Emperors New Groove called Kronks New Groove, and this years Bambi II.

Studios hungry for sales are now aiming to maximize the DVD market. Consumer spending on non-theatrical and non-television product grew about 10% from 2004 to 2005, reaching $1.9 billion. The business at this point is almost entirely DVD, says Paramount vp Pittleman.

In 1994, the Walt Disney Co. created The Return of Jafar (left), a direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin. A recent release is this years Bambi II. © Disney. All rights reserved.

In addition, the traditional window between a movies release in theaters and on DVD has narrowed to four months. According to figures from the Digital Entertainment Group, DVD sales increased in 2005 to $16.3 billion, while Exhibitor Relations Co. estimates that box office revenue for 2005 was $8.9 billion, down from 2004s figures of $9.4 billion.

Paramount plans to release six to eight original DVD productions per year, and the titles are both vintage and new. We look for films that offer a unique, repeatable entertainment experience for a specific consumer whom we can target cost effectively, says Paramount vp Pittleman. Our Classics division decided to theatrically release our Neil Young: Heart of Gold movie on our behalf, and its currently in release and has earned about $1.3MM at the box office to date.

The new content direct-to-DVD and video productions are taken seriously, and often employ original cast or name talent. Pittleman says, With Save the Last Dance 2, we not only have Jackie and Izabella, [Jacqueline Bisset and Izabella Miko], but we also feature Ne-Yo, who had the number one album in the country [the week of March 20, 2006]. He sings an original song in the movie as well as playing a small part. Our male lead, Columbus Short, will be seen this summer in Universals Accepted that Tom Shadyac and Michael Bostick produced, so the stellar cast delivered in every way. We have more dancing than the original and great music!

Paramount is producing direct-to-DVD, the first full-length animated feature of one of the most popular web characters  Queer Duck and his friends Openly Gator (both above) and Bi-polar Bear. © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox Inc.

Paramount is also producing, direct-to-DVD, the first full-length animated feature of one of the most popular web characters Queer Duck and his friends Openly Gator and Bi-polar Bear, directed by Emmy Award winner Mike Reiss (The Simpsons). Pittleman reveals, We also have a terrific comedy called Totally Awesome from writer/director Neil Brennan (Chapelles Show) starring Dominique Swain, Chris Kattan, Mikey Day and Joey Kern. Tracey Morgan is also in this parody of 80s movies and has never been funnier! Broken Bridges is a Toby Keith movie scheduled for this year that also stars Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds, Tess Harper, Anna Marie Horsford and Lindsay Haun.

In addition to excellent production values, direct-to-DVD and video products are receiving impressive marketing support. Universal Studios Home Entertainment (USHE) and Rogue Studios sold more than one million DVD and video units in the first week of release (December 26, 2005) of the direct-to-DVD American Pie Presents Band Camp, the fourth installment of the popular American Pie franchise.

American Pie Presents Band Camp implemented an aggressive marketing plan, including a high-profile three-week ad campaign and theatrical trailers to raise consumer awareness and interest in the DVD-only sequel. The Band Camp release followed the success of USHE and Rogues first DVD original release, Carlitos Way: Rise to Power.

This second consecutive DVD original hit reaffirms the viability of our innovative strategy for bringing exceptional content to the DVD marketplace, says Craig Kornblau, president, Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

David Linde, president, Rogue Pictures adds, By creating higher-budgeted, theatrical-quality fare that brought together a winning script, terrific young cast and seasoned film-making talent, we were able to produce a direct-to-DVD follow-up worthy of the blockbuster trio of American Pie theatrical releases.

Buyers are also drawn to DVD extras, like the deleted scenes, cast interviews, set tour, original featurette documenting the making of the film and music video found on the Band Camp DVD.

All six of the Barbie direct-to-home entertainment movies to date have hit No. 1, including its most recent release, Barbie and Magic of Pegasus. Courtesy of Mattel Inc.

Reaching the Audience

While entertaining feature film sequels like The Hulk 2 and Dr. Doolittle 3 are considering bypassing cinemas and to make their debuts direct-to-DVD, the delivery format is also attractive to those who wish to promote brands, and to those who wish to teach.

In February 2006, Mattel Inc. reported the success of its original direct-to-DVDs featuring Barbie, stating that all six of the Barbie direct-to-home entertainment movies to date have hit No. 1, including its most recent introduction, Barbie and Magic of Pegasus.

To succeed in 2006 and beyond, we will concentrate our efforts on enhancing innovation and focusing on improving the Barbie play experience an experience that creates an emotional connection between girls and Barbie, comments Chuck Scothon, svp/gm of the girls division for Mattel. We are excited about the 2006 Barbie line-up with three new direct-to-DVD movies and a full line of supporting products across multiple categories, plus all new fashions and accessories.

Also this past February, DIC Ent. (DIC) and investor Warren Buffett announced that they have joined forces to create an all-new, direct-to-DVD animated series, The Secret Millionaires Club, to promote financial literacy to kids. The Secret Millionaires Club, now in production, will consist of 13 titles with the first two titles scheduled for release in fall 2006.

The series, featuring the words, voice and likeness of Buffett, will focus on financial lessons utilizing child-relatable characters and real-world situations, as well as entertaining adventures. The Secret Millionaires Club will be released by a major home entertainment distributor and will be available for worldwide distribution.

Ellen Pittleman of Paramount looks for films that offer a unique, repeatable entertainment experience for a specific consumer whom can be targeted effectively.

Dynamics of Distribution

However, todays direct-to-DVD economic model for distribution is quite different than the direct-to-video market of days gone by. In the 80s, producers were creating content that they were able to sell for relatively high price points, so volume was less of an issue and the financial returns were quite profitable, explains Paramount vp Pittleman. Additionally, in-store real estate was not competitive with other product categories, so original films had an opportunity to find an audience as they sat on rental store shelves.

Pittleman says that as the business has changed to a retail based industry from a rental one, the dynamics of the industry have become quite different. If the video section in a big box store is not driving enough traffic because often video is used as a loss leader that real estate will get reallocated to a different department that may be generating bigger returns. Consequently as a distributor, unless you have a product on which you are able to demonstrate a consumer intent to buy, retailers would prefer to place a different product where they know that there is some intent to buy.

Moreover, Pittleman continues, much like the theatrical business, unless the sell-through to consumers during the first week of sales meets expectations, the retailer may also determine that the margins are beneath what they were expecting and decide to send the product back so that it can be reallocated to a more profitable title.

Rumors have been circulating about a return of Fox favorite Futurama via direct-to-DVD. © and  1999 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

So, the business is as tough as it ever was, especially with price points dropping in an effort to attract more customers to these big-box stores, Pittleman says.

Fan Demand

TV and movie fans are not shy about expressing their desires for new content based on old favorites. Rumors have been circulating about a return of Fox favorite Futurama via direct-to-DVD, and a posting by voice actor Billy West on his website offers new hope but its not the news that was expected. He writes, The other good news is that theyre doing 26 new episodes of Futurama for TV and were hammering out the deal now. The original plan was to have the DVDs first but thats no longer the case.

And what of the return of Star Trek: Enterprise? Paramount vp Ellen Pittleman says only this, The studio is currently contemplating a new feature.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist living in Ottawa, Canada. She shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.