'Direct to video': low class, high profit

January 18, 1994|By Russell Smith | Russell Smith,Dallas Morning News

"Direct to video" used to be a joke: It meant the likes of Erik Estrada or Jan-Michael Vincent grunting through some low-budget, low-concept action caper not good enough for the big screen.

There's still plenty of that in the world of direct-to-video -- DTVs in the trade -- but the people who make and distribute them are getting the last laugh. Though the cover art may be lurid, the effects none too special and the stars a bit dim, the punch line is that DTVs make money.

Video mini-mogul Charles Band doesn't like the DTV label. "It sounds like a chemical, or a disease," says Mr. Band, who's fond of comparing the burgeoning industry to Hollywood during the Golden Years. His companies have brought such titles as "Virgin Hunters" (starring Morgan Fairchild), "Doctor Mordrid" and the lucrative "Puppetmaster" series to video-store shelves.

"These movies are really the lifeblood of the retailers," says Tom Arnold, editor of the trade magazine Video Store.

Video, after all, is a business of supply and demand, and there are only so many "Pretty Women" and "The Firms" to go around.

"Sure, the big box-office hits will be the biggest" renters, says Mr. Arnold. But DTVs -- often by virtue of their very obscurity -- tend to have longer legs on the video shelves.

"There are so few hits," he says. "Where do you go next? What do you do after this? A lot of it is just the impulse thing."

And so a subindustry has arisen to fill that breach for movie-hungry renters.

Actually, "subindustry" may be putting it mildly.

"U.S. video revenues dwarf U.S. theatrical releases," says Mr. Band.

The DTV studio boss -- he prefers "Charlie" -- isn't quite the Louis B. Mayer type, but he is one of home video's most successful pioneers. His thriving business -- he's shooting his "44th or 45th" movie -- has grown to three companies.

There's Full Moon, the sci-fi-fantasy company born in 1988 that specializes in well-produced B-flicks such as "Puppetmaster," "Trancers" and "Subspecies"; those videos have so many sequels that they've become series.

Next, Mr. Band created the family-oriented Moonbeam label, whose 1993 debut release, the dinosaur tale "Prehysteria," "broke all records," according to its founder. The initial shipment to retailers, he says, was 70,000 units -- a very respectable number in the video biz. The average DTV shipment, Mr. Band says, is about 9,000 units.

Now, there's Torchlight Entertainment, with its steamy assembly line of "erotic fantasy films," but with "no violence whatsoever," emphasizes Mr. Band. Recent titles: "Beach Babes From Beyond," "Blonde Heaven," "Girl Talk Confidential" and "Lurid Tales."

His movies "never, never" lose money, Mr. Band says. Low budgeting helps. The average budget for a Full Moon production, he says, is $1.5 million, up to $5 million for Moonbeam. The average big-screen budget is more than $20 million.

Because they're getting more attention, DTV movies are improving in quality, says Mr. Arnold.

Although Ms. Fairchild headlines the new Torchlight release "Virgin Hunters," Full Moon and its siblings don't spend time and money seeking out big, or even medium, names in need of work.

"I'm not at all interested in that, really," says Mr. Band. "For the most part, our stars are inanimate objects that we bring to life."

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