HOLLYWOOD - When the Walt Disney Co. released The Return of Jafar in 1994, the lowly direct-to-video category was associated with erotic thrillers, cheap comedies and material that had been targeted for theaters but wasn't good enough.
That movie, based on characters from the studio's animated hit Aladdin, sold 15 million units, taking in nearly $300 million worldwide. Along with Universal's The Land Before Time II, another straight-to-video success that year, it became a social climber, distancing the category from its lackluster past.
Propelled by the advent of the DVD, the straight-to-video market is now a $3-billion-a-year infusion into a maturing business, gaining creative legitimacy and making financial waves. Nearly every major studio has a division devoted to DVD "originals" or "premieres," as the studios prefer to call this cost-effective revenue stream.
With special effects more affordable and recognizable talent signing on, the line separating big-screen movies and original DVD fare is becoming increasingly blurred, says Kevin Kasha, senior vice president of acquisitions and programming for New Line Home Entertainment. Studios are not only producing titles, they're acquiring material at film festivals as well.
That can make all the difference for an off-center feature that previously would have been consigned to late-night cable.
"When I started out in the mid-1980s, a direct-to-video movie was an action-adventure-horror piece like 'Ice-Pick in the Eye, Part 12,' " said Kasha, who was hired last year to build the company's "exclusive to DVD" programming.
A-list producers such as Joel Silver (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon) and John Davis (I, Robot, The Firm) have climbed aboard and, although the stigma has not fully evaporated, some stars are following suit. Oscar winner Hilary Swank appears with Patrick Swayze in New Line's 11:14, a film on which the actress is also a producer. Phil Collins composed songs for Disney's Tarzan 2. Whoopi Goldberg and Matthew Broderick reprised their roles in Lion King 1 1/2. And Steven Seagal's Steamroller Productions turns out DVD originals such as Belly of the Beast with budgets of $15 million to $20 million.
"When that caliber of talent gets involved, the rest of the industry starts noticing," said Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of the trade publication DVD Exclusive.
Amid the scramble for perennial "tent-pole" movies such as Batman and Star Wars, studios are exploring low-budget product and ways of maximizing their properties. And at prices ranging from $2 million to $20 million, made-for-DVD movies are a bargain. They don't require costly film prints, $300,000 premieres and $50-million marketing budgets.
But like their big-screen counterparts, they have profitable ancillary after-lives. Sci-fi and horror titles are staples on domestic cable channels and international TV.
In May, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment sent out Sandlot 2, the first title from its division dedicated to DVD exclusives, and it became the year's top-selling live-action title in the straight-to-DVD category, with more than 1 million units sold. When things kick into gear, the studio hopes to release four or five DVD premieres annually. Upcoming titles include sequels to Behind Enemy Lines, Like Mike and Wrong Turn.
Although shoots are shorter and money tighter, these projects can be talent-friendly, said Tom Siegrist, vice president of production for the company.
"Filmmakers are viewing DVD originals as a place where they have more creative control," he said. "And they're finding that when we decide to make a movie, we do. Our development-to-production ratio is higher and faster than in the feature group because of known quantity in our library's brands."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing company.